EDITORIAL: The second coming of West Africa’s cocaine trade?

Jan 15, 2021, 9:42 AM

A large seizure of cocaine in Guinea-Bissau, the first in over a decade in that country, opens up speculation as to the West African country’s role in the regional drug trade.

On 9 March 2019, after a tip-off from the UK’s National Crime Agency, police in Guinea-Bissau seized 789 kilograms of cocaine near Safim, 15 kilometres from the capital, Bissau. The drugs, which had been transported by sea, were placed in 30-kilogram bags and hidden in the false bottom of a truck loaded with fish. It was the largest cocaine bust in the country’s history.

But this seizure is extraordinary and notable for a number of other reasons. Firstly, it is Guinea-Bissau’s first seizure of cocaine in more than a decade. The last was in April 2007, when the police seized 635 kilograms of cocaine.

The long absence of seizures, combined with the high-profile arrests
of several drug kingpins involved in the narco-trade, had led observers to
conclude that Guinea-Bissau was no longer being used as a coastal entry point
for the onward trafficking of drugs.  In interviews conducted by the Global Initiative in Bissau in 2017, the consensus among international law-enforcement bodies seemed to have been that cocaine was still being transited through West Africa – but through neighbouring Guinea or other regional ports.

Alternatively, the lack of seizures may have been an inaccurate indicator that masked the extent to which Guinea-Bissau’s archipelago continued to be a thoroughfare for high-value narcotics. As reported by the Global Initiative in March 2018, one UN official interviewed in Bissau had warned that ‘no less than 30 tonnes’ of cocaine had been consistently entering the country every year.  Instead, the absence of seizures may well have instead suggested that the drug trade enjoyed high-level protection in the country. As recently as February 2018, ruling-party leader Domingos Simões Pereira accused the Guinean government of turning a blind eye to drugs entering the country, claiming that President José Mário Vaz was ‘connected to the business of drug trafficking’.

What is curious, and what raises a number of questions, therefore,
is why this recent large shipment of cocaine was stopped.

Could it be the sign of changing winds in the always volatile domestic political landscape of Guinea-Bissau?  Or pe haps fruits of more than a decade of internationally sponsored law-enforcement capacity building and cooperation? Or is it that drug trafficking is being (once again) instrumentalized for political gain?

The country’s largest ever seizure of cocaine was seemingly conveniently timed just a day before legislative elections in Guinea-Bissau.  Within hours, President Vaz announced that the government’s priority would be to combat drug trafficking.

Unlike previous cocaine seizures, which in the past have often gone missing – presumed for onward sale – this time the government made the unusual
and highly symbolic gesture of burning the cocaine and destroying the cache.
This was almost certainly a political message deliberately orchestrated to
assure the international community and internal detractors of the state’s
renewed efforts.


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