Guinea-Bissau: coups, cocaine and cashews

Guinea Bissau has lived through four successful military coups as well as 16 attempted, plotted or alleged coups
Guinea Bissau’s president Jose Mario Vaz, waits at the presidential palace in Abidjan, on May 2, 2017, prior to a meeting with Ivory Coast’s President. (Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP)

The West African state of Guinea-Bissau stages legislative elections on Sunday aimed at ending a three-year-long political difficulty.

Four coups

A former Portuguese colony and onetime important source of slaves for the Americas, Guinea Bissau achieved independence in 1974 after an 11-year armed struggle.

Since then it has lived through four successful military coups – the last one in 2012 – as well as 16 attempted, plotted or alleged coups, according to a World Bank profile. Instability has posed a challenge to infrastructure and development.

The current president, Jose Mario Vaz, was elected in 2014.

Vaz vowed to bring stability but the country has been in the grip of a power struggle since August 2015, when he sacked his then prime minister Domingos Simoes Pereira. He has been followed by a string of prime ministers who were unable to muster a majority in parliament.

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The body did not sit for nearly two years until an accord in April 2018 that saw Aristide Gomes appointed as “consensus prime minister”.

Legislative elections were set for November 2018 but were postponed, and will now be held on Sunday. 

Cocaine route

At 36,100 square kilometres (14,440 square miles), the country is slightly larger than Belgium and includes a scattering of 88 islands in the Atlantic Ocean called the Bijagos.

These islands as well as a porous coastline and chaotic administration have provided fertile ground for Latin American drug lords trafficking cocaine to Europe.

Senior government and military officials have been implicated in the traffic. 

A US diplomatic cable in 2009, revealed by WikiLeaks, said Guinea-Bissau was in danger of becoming Africa’s first narco-state.

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In April 2013 US agents captured the former navy chief and alleged drugs trade kingpin in a sting operation at sea.

Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in jail, returning to Guinea-Bissau in October 2016.

The United Nations has praised Guinea-Bissau’s progress since the election of Vaz in fighting drugs trafficking, but expressed disappointment in a recent report that it has not bolstered the fight over the past year.

Cashew cash-in

More than two-thirds of Guinea-Bissau’s population of 1.86 million people (World Bank, 2017) live on under two dollars a day. More than a third live on less than one dollar, according to UN figures.

It is placed as 13th lowest on the UN’s 2018 Human Development Index that assesses development on the basis of health, poverty and other measures. Largely as a result of poor healthcare services, average life expectancy is 57.8 years.

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Guinea-Bissau’s main export is cashew nuts, which financed nearly half of the 2017 national budget.

It is Africa’s third-largest cashew producer after Ivory Coast and Tanzania. Economic growth reached 5.9 percent in 2017, but slowed to around 3.8 percent in 2018 after a drop in cashew production because of bad weather and a fall in prices, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

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