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Guinea-Bissau’s failed coup attempt may have been linked to drug trafficking

A crowd of people carrying a flag demonstrate against drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau
Reuters/David Lewis
Bissau-Guineans have long protested the menace of drug trafficking in their country
  • Alexander Onukwue
By Alexander Onukwue

West Africa correspondent

Published

In a Facebook post on Feb. 1, Umaro El Mokhtar Sissoco Embalo, president of Guinea-Bissau, reassured citizens that their country was calm and that his government had not been overthrown by an armed group. He later appeared in a video post describing the foiled coup as “an attempt to kill the president, the prime minister and all the cabinet.”

With the brief skirmish, which reportedly led to the death of some officers, Guinea-Bissau became the latest country in Africa where democracy has been threatened by a coup in recent years. Three have happened in the last 18 months in west Africa alone mainly due to popular resentment against an inability to fight jihadist terrorism, with other coups in Sudan, and Chad. The difference in Guinea-Bissau, as far as is known at the moment, is that the coup was not carried out by officials of the armed forces.

“I can assure you that no camp joined this attempted coup. It was isolated. It is linked to people we have fought against,” president Embalo, a former army general, said. In his view, the perpetrators were possibly linked to drug trafficking, the one activity that has made Bissau-Guineans vulnerable to multiple coup attempts since the country’s independence from Portugal in 1974.

Drug trafficking melds with politics in Guinea-Bissau

About 1.9 million people live in Guinea-Bissau, with nearly 70% living in poverty. The World Bank rates the country’s GDP per capita at $727, which is less than half of the sub-Saharan African average.

Coups have played a role in the country’s long-running political and economic instability. The most recent episode was in 2012 when Antonio Indjai, a former army chief of staff, seized power to allegedly “achieve control of the rapidly growing lucrative cocaine trade,” according to a report (pdf) by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. (Indjai denied being involved in drug trade.)

Indeed Guinea-Bissau has had trouble with cocaine trade for the last two decades, developing a reputation as the west African conduit for Colombian traffickers seeking alternative routes to their customers in the US and Europe. The United Nations once designated it as the first so-called ‘narco state’ in Africa. In a notable Sept. 2019 operation code named ‘Navara’, the government seized 1,947 kg of cocaine, including more than 20 vehicles and $3 million stashed in bank accounts, according to the BBC.

These issues have not been solved, which means president Embalo’s assessment of the immediate cause of this week’s coup attempt may well be right.

But then there could be questions as to how close to the government the alleged plotters have been all this time, if and when they are found and made public. Some opinions in and out of Guinea-Bissau have been that the drug trade has thrived with tacit support of members of the military who exploit it for political relevance. Embalo himself became president in 2020 with the support of the military, after a somewhat disputed election.

Until then, this failed coup attempt serves as a reminder of the destabilizing impact of illicit drug trades on a small poor country that has barely recovered from years of pre-independence wars, one that struggles to attract sufficient international interest beyond its appeal as a tropical country with sightly parks and wildlife.

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