Military Coup Brings Guinea-Bissau to Narco-State Status

Andrew McGregor

May 4, 2012

The leaders of the April 12 military coup in the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau have claimed they were forced to act in the perpetually unstable and impoverished nation by the alleged threat posed to the Guinea-Bissau military by an Angolan military mission. However, a closer examination of events reveals darker motives related to Guinea-Bissau’s emergence as a prime transit point for the shipment of South American narcotics to European markets.

Soldiers of the Guinea-Bissau Military

The coup came at an inopportune time, just as the nation’s harvest of cashew nuts, its leading cash crop, was about to go to market. Infrastructure was slowly improving and there were a number of other positive indicators that have now been reversed by political instability. Guinea-Bissau is a religiously and ethnically diverse country of Sunni Muslims, traditional animists and Roman Catholics belonging to five major tribal groups and a handful of minor groups.

Events were set in motion by the death earlier this year of President Malam Bacai Sanha following a long illness. According to the Guinea-Bissau constitution, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Raimundo Pereira, was sworn in as acting president until elections could be held. However, when Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior took 49% of the vote in the first round of the elections on March 18, his potential opponent in the second round,Kumba Yala (with close ties to the military), joined the other four candidates of the first round in seeking an annulment of the vote. Gomes was unable to establish cooperation with Balanta tribesmen in the military leadership, who see their kinsman Kumba Yala as their leader (All Africa, April 23). When Kumba Yala was elected president in 2000, he quickly elevated many members of his Balanta tribe to top positions in the government and military. However, when the powerful General Anusmane Mané refused to accept a senior post in Yala’s government he was assassinated by the president’s men.

Gomes was the candidate of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), established in 1956 by revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, who overthrew the Portuguese colonial administration with the help of Cuba and the Eastern Bloc in 1973. The nation was founded in bloodshed as the PAIGC massacred all those who had fought in the Portuguese colonial forces and Cabral himself was assassinated shortly after the Portuguese withdrawal. Since 1998 alone, Guinea-Bissau’s military has mounted four coups, engaged in a civil war and assassinated a host of national leaders, including President João Bernardo Vieira in2009,effectively stymying any efforts at national development.

Raimundo and Gomes were both arrested by the self-titled “Military Command,” though the junta maintained it was acting only in reaction to the presence of foreign [i.e. Angolan] troops in Guinea-Bissau. The Military Command is led by Army chief-of-staff General Antonio Indjai. After roughly two weeks of detention, Raimundo and Gomes were released on April 27 and allowed to leave for Côte d’Ivoire (AFP, April 27). In an April 13 communiqué the coup leaders declared they had taken action to prevent the planned “annihilation” of the armed forces and the murder of General Indjai(IRIN, April 23). By happy coincidence the coup also brought an abrupt end to inquiries into the military-linked political assassinations of 2009 and further military indiscipline in December, 2011. [1] 

To aid in sweeping reforms of Guinea-Bissau’s security forces (including the retirement of many leading officers) the PAIGC sought assistance from Angola, another former Portuguese colony. Angola has invested oil revenues in a number of important economic projects in Guinea-Bissau, including bauxite mining, banking, oil production and the construction of a new deep-water port (Executive Analysis Ltd. via All Africa, April 17).

The result was the deployment in March, 2011 of the Angolan Technical Military and Security Mission in Guinea Bissau (MISSANG-GB), which began a three-phase operation in Guinea-Bissau with the training of 400 men in police and military procedures (O Pais Online [Luanda], April 20). The Angolan mission was deployed with the approval of the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (CPLP- Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries), a Lusophone version of the British Commonwealth or the French Francophonie.

Luanda had already announced two days before the coup that MISSANG would be withdrawn, but this did not appear to satisfy the putschists, who may have used the mission’s presence to justify their coup. Accusations that MISSANG was being supplied with heavy weaponry from Angola was not denied by Angolan deputy defense minister General Salviano Sequira “Kianda,” who noted that “Personnel training could not be done with sticks and toys. We have to bring arms, fighting techniques and artillery” (O Pais Online [Luanda], April 28). Though the Angolans have demanded security guarantees during the withdrawal, Colonel Correia de Barros of the Angolan Center for Strategic Studies has noted that “Any attack on the forces of MISSANG [will] have consequences mainly for the armed forces of Guinea-Bissau” (O Pais Online [Luanda], April 20). 

Trafficking of narcotics from South America through Guinea-Bissau to Europe began in earnest in 2005 and has been elevated to a point where the nation risks becoming a failed “narco-state.” Control of the nation’s narcotics trade is behind much of the struggle for control of the security services in Guinea-Bissau. Army chief-of-staff General Batista Tagme Na Waie (a Balanta tribesman) was reported to have been killed by a bomb in March, 2009 a week after discovering 200 kg of cocaine stashed in a hanger belonging to the general staff. The next day a group of soldiers beat and killed President João Bernardo Vieira in his home in what appeared to be a revenge attack (AFP, March 6, 2009). Vieira had himself initially taken power in a 1980 coup.

The Economic Community of West African States(ECOWAS) has decided to deploy an intervention force of 500 to 600 men under the command of Colonel-Major Barro Gnibanga of Burkina Faso. The mission will be tasked with facilitating the departure of MISSANG, maintaining security during the transition process and preparing conditions for the reform of Guinea-Bissau’s security forces (Diário de Notícias Globo [Lisbon], April 28).

There are suspicions in Angola that ECOWAS is determined to undermine the CPLP nations’ traditional ties with Guinea-Bissau by using the military intervention to support the installation of pro-ECOWAS individuals in senior positions of the government and security services (O Pais [Luanda], April 20).  The military junta in Bissau has issued a statement that the arrival of foreign troops in Guinea-Bissau would be regarded as an invasion and resisted by the military (VOA, April 20).

However, not all the Angolan troops may be on their way back to Luanda. The CPLP has suggested that some of the Angolans might be incorporated into the ECOWAS mission after taking into account “the experience of MISSANG on the ground” in Guinea-Bissau (O Pais Online [Luanda], April 20). French foreign minister Alain Juppé has indicated that France could provide the ECOWAS mission with “logistical, material or intelligence support” (AFP, April 27).

Although the latest coup has been bloodless so far, there are reports that PAIGC MPs and party officials have been arrested in significant numbers. There are fears that a military intervention could produce violent resistance and possibly launch the beleaguered nation into a new civil war.

Politics in Guinea-Bissau resembles a gangland struggle for supremacy, a view that has been given added credence by the emergence of the nation as a major transshipment point for narcotics. The coup appears to have been designed to prevent any meaningful reform of the security services that would inhibit the existing military leadership from continuing to enrich themselves through the facilitation and protection of narcotics traffickers.


1. Report of the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Jean Ping, on the Situations in Guinea Bissau, Mali and between the Sudan and South Sudan, delivered to the AU Peace and Security Council, April 24, 2012.

This article first appeared in the May 4, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor