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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bored With Mali? There's Always Guinea-Bissau... Unless You Worry About Safety

Guinea Bissau is bigger than The Gambia

That the Tuaregs of Mali (as well as Niger and Mauritania) hold hundreds of thousands of Bella and other black Africans in slavery is certainly not enough to motivate any kind of intervention from France, Britain, NATO or anyone else. Even when the Tuaregs have captured, in quick succession, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu-- and two-thirds of Mali-- it wasn't until Islamist groups with a jihadi agenda and murky ties to al-Qaeda, that the West intervened. Mali has no oil but it isn't that far from oil-rich, Muslim-roiled Nigeria. Oil and Islamic jihadis... that gets the West's attention-- and fast. Slavers taking over a country-- who cares? Same with international drug barons... it might be inconvenient and yucky-- but if there's no oil or jihad involved, you're on your own.

I know people are just starting to figure out what Mali is; so I feel bad having to introduce a whole new country and it's problems onto the blog. AroundTheWorldBlog, meet Guinea-Bissau. This small (slightly bigger than Maryland) West African state tucked between Senegal and Guinea, was once part of the Empire of Mali. Portugal began colonizing it in the 1500s and kidnapping it's people to sell as slaves. Coincidentally, it used to be identified on maps as the Slave Coast. A rebellion began against fascist-led Portugal in the 1950s and they finally drove the Portuguese out in 1973. The first elections, though, weren't held until 1994 and since then every government has been violently overthrown. Not one president has finished his term. It's one of the poorest countries in the world-- on a level with Nepal, Burundi, Niger, Congo, Mali, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, Liberia and Malawi.

The country has no embassies in the U.S. or Britain and little tourism. If you want to visit, you have to stop in Lisbon and get a tourist visa there-- just like in the old colonial days! (It only takes a couple hours though... not counting the flight to Portugal.) Virtually no one will accept credit cards anywhere in the country but everyone love Euros and dollars. International phone service is, at best, sporadic. The country is considered one of the most violent in Africa and much too dangerous for tourists and the U.S. State Department warns American citizens to not travel there. From the State Department website:
The United States established diplomatic relations with Guinea-Bissau in 1975, following its independence from Portugal. Post-independence, the country has seen a mix of coups, attempted coups, civil war, assassinations, and democratic elections. The United States strongly condemned the April 2012 attempt by elements of the military to forcibly seize power, called for maximum restraint on all sides and the restoration of legitimate civilian leadership, and continues to work with its partners in the region and beyond as it monitors developments on the ground. Now that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has returned Bissau-Guinean military factions to their barracks and a civilian government is in power, the United States is working with its partners and the Transitional Government of Guinea-Bissau to facilitate free and fair elections by Spring 2013, and to promote basic reforms on governance, justice, and economic development.

There is no U.S. Embassy in Guinea-Bissau. All official U.S. contact with Guinea-Bissau is handled by the U.S. Embassy in Senegal. Local employees staff the U.S. Office in Bissau, and U.S. diplomats from the Embassy in Dakar travel frequently to Bissau.

Given the April 12, 2012 coup, the United States was obliged to terminate foreign assistance to the Government of Guinea-Bissau consistent with the requirements of section 7008 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act for 2012. Previous limited non-humanitarian assistance focused primarily on the justice sector as well as demining and proper weapons storage programs.
It gets worse. If you happened to read a report by Adam Nossiter in the NY Times last November, you're probably aware that Guinea-Bissau has been taken over by an international drug syndicate and is the major hub for cocaine traffic-- 30 tons a year-- between Latin America and Europe. The country is addicted to coke and crack and it defines the term "narco-state."
When the army ousted the president here just months before his term was to expire, a thirst for power by the officer corps did not fully explain the offensive. But a sizable increase in drug trafficking in this troubled country since the military took over has raised suspicions that the president’s sudden removal was what amounted to a cocaine coup.

The military brass here has long been associated with drug trafficking, but the coup last spring means soldiers now control the drug racket and the country itself, turning Guinea-Bissau in the eyes of some international counternarcotics experts into a nation where illegal drugs are sanctioned at the top.

“They are probably the worst narco-state that’s out there on the continent,” said a senior Drug Enforcement Administration official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his work in the region. “They are a major problem.”

Since the April 12 coup, more small twin-engine planes than ever are making the 1,600-mile Atlantic crossing from Latin America to the edge of Africa’s western bulge, landing in Guinea-Bissau’s fields, uninhabited islands and remote estuaries. There they unload their cargos of cocaine for transshipment north, experts say.

The fact that the army has put in place a figurehead government and that military officers continue to call the shots behind the scenes only intensifies the problem.

...Was the military coup itself a diversion for drug trafficking? Some experts point to signs that as the armed forces were seizing the presidency, taking over radio stations and arresting government officials, there was a flurry of drug activity on one of the islands of the Bijagós Archipelago, what amounted to a three-day offloading of suspicious sacks.

That surreptitious activity appears to have been simply a prelude.

“There has clearly been an increase in Guinea-Bissau in the last several months,” said Pierre Lapaque, head of the regional United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for West and Central Africa. “We are seeing more and more drugs regularly arriving in this country.”

Mr. Lapaque called the trafficking in Guinea-Bissau “a major worry” and an “open sore,” and, like others, suggested that it was no coincidence that trafficking had spiked since the coup.

Joaquin Gonzalez-Ducay, the European Union ambassador in Bissau, said: “As a country it is controlled by those who formed the coup d’état. They can do what they want to do. Now they have free rein.”

The senior D.E.A. official said, “People at the highest levels of the military are involved in the facilitation” of trafficking, and added: “In other African countries government officials are part of the problem. In Guinea-Bissau, it is the government itself that is the problem.”

United Nations officials agree. “The coup was perpetrated by people totally embedded in the drugs business,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the political environment here.

The country’s former prosecutor general, Octávio Inocêncio Alves, said, “A lot of the traffickers have direct relationships with the military.”

...Officials point to several indicators, besides the increase in plane flights, to show that Guinea-Bissau has become a major drug transit hub.

They cite photographs of a recently well-cleared stretch of road in a remote rural area near the Senegal border, complete with turning space for small planes. The clearing was created under the supervision of military authorities, officials say. They also note mysterious absences of fuel at the tiny international airport in the capital, presumed stolen by traffickers.

Four months before the coup, a plane, with the aid of uniformed soldiers, landed in a rural area in the center of the country, which is the size of Belgium, said João Biague, head of the judicial police. The landing took place not far from General Injai’s farm.

Mr. Biague heads what is nominally the country’s antidrug agency, though he made it clear that he and his staff are largely powerless to practice any form of drug interdiction despite receiving frequent tips about small planes landing from abroad. “The traffickers know we can’t do much,” he said.

The agency is so starved of funds that he does not have money to put gas in its few vehicles, Mr. Biague said. Paint is peeling on the outside of the judicial police’s two-story colonial building downtown, and mold blackens the ground-floor pilasters. It is allocated $85 a week from the country’s Justice Ministry.

“The agents we have in the field want to give up because they have nothing to eat,” Mr. Biague said.

In the last three years, there have been more than a half-dozen unsolved political assassinations here, including of the longtime president and the former army chief of staff, as well as at least two coup attempts, besides the successful coup. Nobody has been successfully prosecuted, though drugs were linked to many of them.

Last month, the justice minister of the transitional government warned opposition politicians not to speak publicly of “cases that don’t concern them,” under threat of criminal penalty.

This week, the repression appeared to tighten. General Injai threatened journalists with death if they asked questions about the assassination of the former president, and he warned that there would be many arrests as a result of the countercoup attempt.

There is remarkably little public talk of the unsolved political killings or of the country’s relations with the drug business. There have been no demonstrations; no discussion in the Parliament, shut down since July; no news conferences.

“A country that’s not capable of discussing its own problems-- it’s not a country, it’s not a state,” said Mr. Alves, the former prosecutor general.
The Obama administration, while encouraged France and then Britain, to intervene in Mali and is offering material support for the endeavor, has a very different attitude towards Guinea-Bissau. After explicitly linking the country’s military to the drug trade in 2010 and freezing the U.S. assets of drug kingpins ex-chief of the navy, Rear Adm. Bubo Na Tchuto, and the air force chief of staff, Ibraima Papa Camara, the Obama administration has backed off considerably. The top U.S. diplomat at the Guinea-Bissau desk in Dakar, Russel Hanks: "You will only have an impact on this transition by engagement, not by isolation. These are the people who came in to pick up the pieces after the coup.”

And, no, neither Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham nor Kelly Ayotte brought up Guinea-Bissau in the Senate confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel today. Awesome tunes though:

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