In the late 1990s I visited Guinea Bissau for the first time. A civil war had just ended and it showed. Bissau had been battered. The presidential palace, proudly sitting in the middle of Nation Heroes Square, had a big hole in its roof. The hospital was barely functioning. And a special unit had been set up to deal with a problem that made moving around in the capital city a very hazardous business: landmines.
The country only re-appeared on the international news map when it was discovered that Latin American cocaine barons had started to use Guinea Bissau’s unguarded coastline as a transit point for cocaine, headed for Europe. In a way, this was an improvement: for centuries the same coastline hadn’t been much more than a transit point for human slaves, headed for the Americas. European colonizers were in charge at the time.
So you can forgive the Guineans for remaining sublimely uninterested in foreign handwringing about the drugs trade. Sure, it is a bit of a problem, they say, but we’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Constructing a state, for instance. The Portuguese left in 1974, leaving a shell of a country decimated by a liberation war and headed by a deeply divided political class. These divisions have bedevilled Guinea Bissau’s politics ever since, leaving the crucial work of building strong institutions for another day. A failed state? There was hardly a state to begin with, making life so much easier for criminals, racketeers and profiteers.
The army is very much part of the problem: it’s too large, it’s politicized and prone to coups. But it does one thing very well: logistical support. That’s exactly what the cocaine traders need – and drugs money is good money. The drug lords pay well, unlike the series of inept governments that were propped up by foreign money and therefore not accountable to their own citizens, but to donor countries.
Some are now asking for the violent failure known as the War On Drugs to be moved to these shores. That is the very last thing Bissau needs. It raises the question whether Guinea Bissau, a small country living off fishing and agriculture, has ever properly benefited from any outside interference. The answer sounds very much like a resounding ‘no’.
With drugs, as Guineans point out, the problem is not them – the problem is Europe’s massively increased desire to snort white crystals. Solve that, and this country will stop being a narco–state. And perhaps the people living here can then be left alone to fight the one battle that really matters: for a life in dignity.