Guinea Bissau elections: a new dawn for Africa’s first narco-state?

On May 18th, over 600,000 citizens in Guinea-Bissau, or just over 78 percent of all registered voters, patiently queued up and peacefully submitted their ballots to elect a new president.  This election marks the end of an unelected transitional administration that took power after a military coup d’état in April 2012, which set the country into a tailspin.  With a decisive 61.9 percent of the vote, Jose Mario Vaz, “Jomav,” the candidate of the PAIGC party, emerged as president-elect over his opponent Nuno Nambian, an independent candidate favored by the military officers who launched the 2012 putsch.

The vote, which was largely deemed free and fair, is no guarantee that the country will shake off a tendency for instability. There have been 9 presidents, 14 prime ministers, and at least 6 military coups and coup attempts over the last 15 years in Guinea-Bissau.  Staggering levels of trafficking in illegal timber, narcotics, arms, and other forms of organized crime have fueled this turbulent history, giving Guinea-Bissau the label of Africa’s first “narco-state”.

Could recent elections draw a line under Guinea-Bissau’s past, reversing the corrosive effects of transnational organized crime? Will a new political dynamic emerge, one that can contribute to a more stable state? Or will the elections be merely a blip in a worsening problem?  Globally, elections have been seen as a critical juncture in which organized crime groups can insert themselves more deeply into state architecture, but also as an opportunity build bulwarks against criminality.

Certainly, the run-up to the elections in Guinea Bissau did little to inspire confidence.  There was little overt talk in campaigns of addressing drug trafficking and its high-level associations with the state.  In fact, revenues from the sale of illegal logs reportedly fed directly into the campaigns of political candidates.  According to one unverified rumor circulating in Bissau, Nuno Nambian, the favored presidential candidate of the military leadership, needed to lease 60 containers from a supplier in neighboring Cape Verde to export logs due to a shortage of available containers in Guinea-Bissau.  Judging by his extensive advertising and the numerous cars and trucks loaded with his voluble supporters circling Bissau in the final days of the campaign, Nuno appeared to have substantial resources, more than might be expected for an independent candidate.

In the months leading up to the elections, hundreds of containers could be seen arriving in Bissau from the interior on a daily basis.


Queue of containers at Bissau Port, June 2014

As we noted in an earlier blog, “Criminal Accumulation into the Governance Vacuum in Guinea Bissau “, following the indicted by the U.S. government of former Chief of the Navy, Bubo Na Tchuto, and currently serving Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces General Antonio Indjai (who also led the 2012 coup d’état) the cocaine trade drop significantly.  But into its place grew trafficking networks in other commodities.

Illegally logged wood is not as value dense as cocaine, and thus it can be logistically more challenging to produce equivalent profits. However, the trade in wood offers other advantages. If facilitators of the trade can control the official process meant to regulate and manage the licit trade in wood, then traffickers can operate with a veneer of legitimacy and much more openly.  For instance, according to Guinea-Bissau’s national forestry law, only 20,000 m3 of wood can be logged each year. During the first 3 months of 2013, however, more than 40,000 m3 was exported according to studies by the Ministry of Natural Resources. In 2014, the rate was even swifter. In the weeks leading up to the April 2014 election, local activists were counting roughly 200 individual containers, each carrying 17 m3, passing through Bissau each day for a combined delivery of over 30,000 m3 every 10 days. In the past, legitimate traders in wood typically earn the equivalent of just over $8,000 profit for the local exporter of a full container of timber. Thus, 30,000 m3 of exported timber might yield over $1 million in profits to a logging license holder in Guinea-Bissau.

Though foreigners, particularly Chinese businessmen and companies, are the main buyers of logs from Guinea-Bissau, logging licenses can only be issued to domestic companies that have sufficient equipment to conduct logging and wood processing. These businesses can in turn transact with foreigners. Moreover, concessions can only be issued by the Directorate General of Forests and Fauna in Guinea-Bissau, but since the coup d’état other agencies and ministries have been producing licenses.  Prior to 2012, few new concessions or licenses were awarded, but 15 were granted in 2012-2013 and 61 in 2014. Logging reached such a fever pitch ahead of the April 2014 elections that stories circulated in Bissau that operators were forgoing any pretense and logging without licenses.

This rush to log as much as possible prior to the installation of the new government may have been prompted by fears that a new regime may attempt to reform licensing and logging procedures.  In fact, the new President has now frozen the log trade, leaving the port in Bissau is piled with pending shipments.  This is a positive sign that the new government intends to usher in a new era for Guinea-Bissau, and while there is no shortage of pitfalls and spoilers ahead, there is also reason for cautious optimism that these elections may herald a new era of stability and democracy.

The peaceful conduct and strong voter engagement are a positive sign.  Turnout during the first round of the election was nearly 90 percent and over 78 percent in the presidential runoff.  No previous election in the country has ever seen higher than 40 percent participation. A new voter registration process recorded 96 percent participation among the eligible population and over 100,000 first-time voters were added to the election rolls.

This outcome may increase the incentives for influential elites and individuals to pursue their agendas through the political process rather than around it.  Furthermore, notable, no dominant individuals or parties emerged, which will stymie any overly ambitious elites and alleviate fears of marginalization among weaker political stakeholders, and the resounding results are broadly analyzed as demonstrating the unpopularity of the military.

Perhaps the most novel and promising indicator was the influential oversight role performed by the Group of Civil Society Organizations for the Elections (GOSCE).  This network of Bissau-Guinean civil society groups monitored media coverage during the campaigns to determine which outlets were sufficiently neutral (78 percent of radio stations were deemed neutral) and attended rallies to review whether candidates were using inflammatory rhetoric (few incidents were reported).  On election day, GOSCE monitors were dispatched to every polling station around the country to monitor potential voter intimidation, to watch the counting process, and to report their findings in real time to GOSCE headquarters by SMS.  Their work was so successful following the first round that bright yellow t-shirts and credentials were created so that voters could easily see GOSCE activists at polling stations during the second round. Though GOSCE’s agenda concluded with the elections, many participants were eager to build from their success to continue to monitor and report on the political process in the country.

There is some hope, therefore, that Guinea-Bissau’s growing civil society sector may serve as a more potent force in the policymaking process, reducing the influence of spoilers or the abuses of power and corruption that have fueled past crises.  In late 2013 groups came together to issue open letters and voice their opposition on radio programs to an amnesty law for the perpetrators of the 2012 coup.  They also quietly lobbied deputies in the National Assembly, reminding them that past amnesty laws did not prevent future coups.  Twice an amnesty was introduced in the Assembly in 2013, and both times it failed to pass, likely in part, to such pressure from civil society groups.

While it is possible that with these indicators, the country may finally turn the page on its reputation as a failing state and hub of organized crime.  This positive trajectory can easily be derailed, however. Difficult decisions will have to be made that may sideline key individuals, including future leadership positions in the military, controversial corruption investigations, including allegations of embezzlement against President-elect Vaz.  Minimal financial resources leave the government unable to pay salaries, will undermine its credibility to pursue more challenging institutional reforms, and will leave it susceptible to criminal financing. Transnational organized crime and profits from illicit activities remain high, which empowers and inspires spoilers.  As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeatedly warned, African states are “not taking seriously” the “stranglehold” that drug trafficking networks are gaining on the continent, impacting everything from criminality and security to good governance and development.

But a significant opportunity has emerged with these elections. With the right mixture of support and engagement, the new government and international partners will be in a position to demonstrate the benefits of a legitimate, constitutionally-based political process. Given how accustomed the country is to setbacks and disorder it will be critical to demonstrate some of these dividends soon lest old habits reemerge.


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