Shady Business in Bissau – Looks like a case for AFRICOM

March 4, 2009

The small west African nation of Guinea Bissau lost both its Army chief and its President this week in a day of extraordinary violence. Thankfully there have not been any civilian casualties, as yet, and the murders are thought to have been tit-for-tat killings. The balance of power may have been restored by the death of the president, Joao Bernardo Viera, who was attacked in the presidential villa soon after the army chief of staff, General Batista Tagme na Waie, died in an explosion, preventing wider violence.

Tagme was reportedly “blown up by a bomb concealed in the staircase to his office. The president, on the other hand, “was hit by several bullets in the thorax and face” while “his body shows the marks of violent blows” according to the doctor who examined him soon after his death.

Coincidentally (or not), the thriller writer Frederick Forsyth was in Guinea Bissau to research a new book. He then dined with the same doctor the night after he had carried out an autopsy on Viera. Relishing the details of the president’s demise, he told the BBC that “the roof came down, that hurt him but didn’t kill him either. He struggled out of the rubble and was promptly shot. This, however, still didn’t kill him” before finally “they then took him to his mother-in-law’s house and chopped him to bits with machetes.”

“They” appear to have been members of the country’s military. An army spokesman, Zamora Induta, told the press soon after the double killing that Viera had been “one of the main people responsible for the death” of Tagme and that he was therefore “killed by the army as he tried to flee his house, which was being attacked by a group of soldiers.”

This vaguely tallies with Forsyth’s account, and suggests a brutal death. In turn, that death represents the strikingly efficient decapitation of an impoverished West African state. Yet it’s more than that too. According to Mohamed Ibn Chambas, who currently heads ECOWAS – the regional economic community – “It’s not only the assassination of a President or a chief of staff, it’s the assassination of democracy.”

Guinea Bissau may have a dubious reputation for laxity towards drug shipments (and a history of authoritarian government) but in 2005, Joao Viera was indeed elected as president of the country, which borders Senegal and Guinea on the northern shore of the Gulf of Guinea. Since his election, human rights reports had cited improvements, and the elections were basically “free and fair.”

Yet such stability is always fragile in impoverished states. In Guinea Bissau, tensions have never relented between the army and the government. One legacy of dictatorship is the question of how to deal with bloated armies and over-bearing generals, and Guinea Bissau has not been an exception. In 2004, the military revolted, claiming that they were owed months of back pay earned during peacekeeping operations in Liberia. Yet it was also the military who set Guinea Bissau back on the road towards democracy, by toppling the dictator Kumba Yala in 2003, with a great deal of help from civil servants, who mounted months of protests, again demanding unpaid wages.

The 2004 mutiny was put down, and its leaders killed, with the help of regional partners and other Portugese speaking nations (Guinea Bissau had been a Portugese colony until the 1970s). Yet this was not a recipe for eternal stability, despite the army’s agreement to support elections.

In August 2008, reports suggested that the country’s Navy Chief, Rear Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchute, had been planning a coup against Viera before escaping to Gambia. Tchute had been under house arrest but escaped with the assistance of members of the army. A couple of days later, he had “telephoned several top officers to request their assistance in his plan to depose the president” according to army spokesmen.

This was during the run up to parliamentary elections, called by Viera as his domestic support crumbled. Those elections were held as planned, but before the results could be announced, yet another coup attempt was mounted, as “renegade soldiers” attacked the president’s home using machine guns and RPGs. Despite a three hour gun battle, Viera was unhurt, but it was clear that his army was impossible to rely upon.

The leaders of the army may not have supported the November coup as fully as they could have done. As with the 2004 mutiny, this may have been due to regional support for Viera. Responding to a phone call from the president, Senegal’s president Abdoulaye Wade deployed troops to the border, and the AU issued a pre-emptive disavowal of any coup.

Still, the signs were not good for Viera coming into 2009. He had not been helped by his domestic record, which was poor. His political opponents (including the ex-dictator Kumba Yala) had accused him of trafficking in drugs, which is a massive problem in Guinea-Bissau. Meanwhile, a cholera epidemic was raging, having claimed hundreds of lives, and a small minority of the country’s people could access running water.

As with too many African states, Guinea Bissau was a casualty of the neo-liberal era. Too little investment in essential services such as sewage, education, healthcare or agriculture. Too much advice from the IMF, and the creeping colonization of transnational criminal networks that have flourished with the liberalization of international markets. Massive debts eat up any available government funds, while the country has just one bank. In the months before the double killing, newspapers and magazines had even been forced to cease publication owing to the high price of paper. It’s an extremely dysfunctional country.

Yet it’s not a “failed state.” Its people aren’t at each other necks (even if the elites are). It has no jails, a fact which foreign commentators are constantly amazed at, and often appalled at owing to the penetration of narcotics interests. Yet it isn’t crime ridden, or dangerous. As the State Department’s travel guidance notes, “there is a fairly low incidence of normal daytime street crime” despite the lack of detention facilities, and the poverty of the people.

The people of Guinea Bissau don’t seem to need more jails. They are just poor and marginalized, particularly so at a time of economic crisis.

Unfortunately, this has also made the country prey to vulturous external interests.

Drug Story
When the media has mentioned West Africa recently, it has been mostly to announce its status as a “new frontier” in the War on Drugs. The Independent’s Daniel Howden, for example, chose to write about the double killings under the heading “the new cocaine capital of Africa.” In racy sentences, he related how “[cocaine] lands at remote airstrips, flown in by light aircraft from Colombia’s illegal network of labs that turn highland coca leaf into one of Europe’s most sought after consumer goods” and “drug barons have almost entirely eaten away any form of a legitimate state.”

Just a week ago, the Times of London chose to carry a feature on “the West Africa Connection,” and quoted Human Rights Watch’s Corinne Dufka, who suggested that “What we’re seeing is the criminalisation of the state as a result of drug trafficking,” while “The unlimited cash at the [gangs’] disposal risks toppling these desperately weak states.”

According to the Times, which consulted the UN Office for Drugs and Crime, “Five years ago the amount of cocaine shipped to Europe via West Africa was negligible. Today 50 tonnes a year worth £1.4 billion pass through the region.” Spurred on by effective interdiction in the Caribbean and a rising Euro, “Drug cartels from South America have moved into West Africa, establishing themselves all over the region and opening up a new route for transporting cocaine from the plantations of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to the consumers of Europe.”

On 19 February, the same International Narcotics Board released a report which “called on the U.N. and other donors to provide money and expertise to help fight smuggling, particularly in West African countries like Guinea-Bissau” in the fight against drugs. A week earlier, al Jazeera had broadcast a film documenting “Africa’s cocaine coast” which painted a damning portrait of Guinea Bissau

Gimme Guinea!
This flurry of media attention has followed a campaign by the UN and the U.S. to highlight criminality in the Gulf of Guinea. Just as president Viera was being killed, Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates, a civilian deputy of Washington’s new African Command (AFRICOM – still based in Germany for lack of African hosts) was travelling through the region.

Yates cancelled her planned visit to Guinea Bissau, yet she managed to visit Ghana and Cape Verde as part of the Africa Partnership Station initiative, a scheme which runs parallel to AFRICOM’s military operations. As one Ghanaian paper put it, “Ambassador Yates directs the command’s plans and programs associated with health, humanitarian assistance and de-mining action, disaster response, security sector reform, and Peace Support Operations.” She’s the “good cop” – an absolutely essential role in a region that doubts U.S. sincerity, and fears its growing military presence.

That presence has been constant since 2007 in the form of two U.S. warships, which are the centrepiece of the Africa Partnership Station. From November 2007, U.S.S. McHenry functioned as a “floating platform in the strategically important Gulf of Guinea” and “a base “to bring together many nations” to achieve a shared vision through joint engagement” according to USINFO. A priority of the partnership, according to its Chief of Security Cooperation, David Zimmermann, was “Expertise in small boat tactics.” This builds upon the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2006, which explicitly recommended the enhancement of “riverine” capabilities for the U.S. military.

It seems that rivers are to be an important site of conflict for the 21st century military. By mid-2008, the Christian Science Monitor reported that 1,200 troops had learned “partnership” skills on the McHenry so far. The only skills the Monitor’s reporter could see being inculcated were martial arts, on the ship’s deck, where he watched “Staff Sgt. William Sudbrock restart the timer and a group of Liberian soldiers watch[ed] as their comrades la[id] into each other.”

The ship’s captain, speaking candidly, admitted that “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t in US interests,” interests which don’t stretch far beyond the 15 percent of U.S. oil supplies currently sourced from Africa, and the 25 percent projected to come from there by 2015. The vast majority of that oil will come from Nigeria, at the centre of the Gulf of Guinea, where the McHenry has been anchored.

But many nations in the region are potential oil suppliers, not least Sao Tome, where Yates was headed after Ghana. Equatorial Guinea too is already a major supplier (but possibly declining), while a pipeline from the interior of the continent sends (Exxon) oil from Chad via Cameroon to the coast.

So when U.S. officials like Yates talk about partnerships and dealing with poverty, or crime, or disease – which they do – they are functioning as foils for a far broader and less benign foreign policy. And to pursue that policy, the United States has had to conjour up a startling mythic narrative to sell the world.

This narrative was enunciated during the confirmation of the first Assistant Secretary of State for Global Affairs, in 2008. According to Joseph Benkert, Bush’s nominee, “Currently the threat of the expanding illicit drug trade threatens Africa’s fragile future” while the continent has experienced “a dramatic increase in drug smuggling and associated corruption and intimidation that turns weakly governed areas into nearly ungoverned spaces.”

Meanwhile, Benkert maintained, the “Global illegal drug trade has connections to terrorism, financial crimes, corruption of governmental systems, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, major gang networks, insurgency and instability in many places worldwide” in a dismal account of the need for his “expertise.”

It’s an arresting, terrifying vision of the world, and counts as its lineage the “Coming Anarchy” thesis of Robert Kaplan, which the Clinton administration ordered deposited on the desks of diplomats worldwide. U.S. power would need to be used to rescue failing states and to beef up their domestic capabilities. Terrorists, presumably being too few, or too regionally specific for the task, narco-villains would have to be conjoined to set the scene for AFRICOM’s emergence as a force for good.

Guinea Bissau was specifically mentioned by the U.S. president as a state in need of such a rescue. As Walter Pincus of the Washington Post related, while “Government studies have identified Ghana as a shipment point for cocaine from South America and heroin produced in southeast and southwest Asia. President Bush, in a speech, identified Guinea-Bissau as a “warehouse refuge and transit hub for cocaine traffickers from Latin America transporting cocaine to Western Europe.”

Since the deployment of the McHenry, therefore, the U.S. has been training (and indoctrinating) members of West African security services in the War on Drugs, anticipating its extension into the Gulf of Guinea. The LA Times reported from Colombia on this programme, where its correspondent Chris Kraul found that Guinea Bissau had let potential terrorists from FARC through its net, owing to a missing criminal database (soon to be supplied by U.S. contractors, no doubt). Kraul was also told by Colombian handlers (we aren’t told about the straightness of their faces) that “Drugs are delivered to West Africa from such countries as Venezuela.”

All of this is preparation to a number of things. Firstly, the U.S. wants to expand AFRICOM into the Gulf of Guinea, working through “partners.” Secondly, these partners will be encouraged to modernize their security infrastructure, making what are already quite repressive governments somewhat more capable of keeping their restive populations down. Thirdly, of course, the U.S. wants to secure the region’s energy reserves and shut out competitors, prime among them the Chinese state.

Regional governments might not be willing partners though. After all, none of them chose to host AFRICOM, despite being asked. Yet pressure may be being applied to them through more subtle means, in order to bring them into line. Spectacular killings of state leaders might work, yet there is no evidence of such complicity in the Guinea Bissau killings, yet.

Coups are U.S.?
What is suspicious, however, is that about a year after the U.S. launched its “partnership operations” in the Gulf of Guinea, the region has seen a mysterious wave of coups, attempted coups and destabilizing attacks.

First there were the coup attempts in Guinea Bissau in August and November 2008. The leader of the first remains in Gambia, a U.S. ally (and dictatorship). Reports suggest that Admiral Tchuto has “very rich very quickly, without any plausible explanation” since his exile in Gambia, which maintains good relations with Washington, and has not suffered any destabilizing attacks in recent months.

Then there are events in Sao Tome, where the authorities arrested 32 people in February, accusing them of planning a coup. According to the government, opposition leader Arlecio Costa had gathered an arsenal of AK-47s and enlisted a mercenary team calling itself the “Buffalo Battalion” to topple the government of President Fradique de Menezes. As AFP reported, Sao Tome is “the Gulf of Guinea’s latest potential oil nation” and “has reserves awaiting exploitation under deals with regional giant Nigeria and foreign firms.”

There is also the strange case of Equatorial Guinea, whose government under the dictator Teodoro Obiang is no stranger to coups. But this latest one was a strange one. On 18 February, a group of men in small boats “[attacked] the facilities of government of Equatorial Guinea.” According to a government spokesman, the attackers “had arrived in motorised open wooden boats and had been repelled by Presidential Guards.”

Their identity remains a mystery. The attack was supposedly mounted from Nigerian waters, yet the Nigerian government virulently denies involvement. A spokesman claimed that “authorities in Equatorial Guinea themselves are not certain about the identities of those people” and suggested either “militants from the Niger Delta or they are mercenaries from outside Africa” as possible culprits.

Yet the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta shot back immediately, with its spokesman Jomo Gbomo, telling the press that “We are also suspecting the USA of trying to create fear in the gulf of Guinea to justify AFRICOM” and that “there is indeed a sinister plot to discredit MEND to derail the Niger Delta emancipation.”

We also must not forget the case of Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau’s far larger (and Bauxite rich) neighbour to the south. That country’s resident despot, Lansana Conte, died in December 2008 (as far as we know) and was replaced by a military junta. The military has since moved against the son of Conte, accusing him of drug trafficking an assorted corruption, but remains in power.

The elder Conte had provoked massive opposition through his kleptocratic rule. The vast majority of Guineans remained impoverished, with mass unemployment, while foreign investors in the country’s bauxite mines and diamond fields made off with billions. This led to huge protests and strikes in 2007, which brought intense repression, yet the unrest was only abated after the president agreed to a dose of constitutional reform and a new Prime Minister.  Still, it simmered and sometimes burst into popular protests. It’s very much an aroused citizenry.

The shadow of popular power therefore hangs over the “coup” which was all but welcomed by the United States. Instead of condemning both Conte and military rule, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that the U.S. stood “with the people of Guinea who certainly strive for peace and a democratic transition and an opportunity to get to a next government in the best way” while leaving the door opened for extended military rule by adding that “it’s obviously a troubled region and with a history that hasn’t always seen those kinds of smooth transitions of power.”

Fratto’s comments were all the more troubling as they came before the Prime Minister of Guinea, Ahmed Tidiane Souare, had backed down and resigned under military pressure. As Souare said, “I do not know these people who have spoken [while] we are trying to settle this question of national importance.”

The whole West African region has been plunged into political crisis over a period of three months, whether by design or by accident. Certainly, falling prices for key commodities has not helped, nor has the drug trade, but neither are sufficient in themselves to have provoked elites into action to topple and kill serving heads of state.

What may be happening is that we are witnessing the application of pressure to governments in the region. Not just millions of dollars in military, surveillance, law enforcement and detention contracts are at stake, although they certainly are. There are billions of dollars worth of oil at stake, not to mention cacao, bauxite, gold and diamonds.

The Chinese government announced the construction of a “Friendship Bridge” in Mali’s capital, Bamako, this month. Its trade with Africa has leapt tenfold in nine years, from $10 billion per year in 2000, to $106 billion last year. Perhaps more importantly for the matter in hand, China has committed to providing $10 billion in economic aid to West African states in the next year, and $5 billion for large investment projects.

U.S. strategic planners aren’t oblivious to all this. Joao Viera almost certainly wasn’t either. The Chinese-trained former leftist was angling for a share of the riches on offer. But it may well be that U.S. policy in the region is to torpedo any such deals, as the “great game for the Gulf of Guinea” kicks into action.

It’s certainly a job for AFRICOM, but what are we going to do?


One Response to “Shady Business in Bissau – Looks like a case for AFRICOM”

  1. Watson Says:

    I know this can’t be so as the British Prime Minister wouldn’t be making bestest friends with this Obama person if he knew he was deliberately spreading death and destruction in West Africa just to keep a few American industrialists happy.

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