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The Narco-state of Guinea-Bissau: Cocaine, Coups and Censorship

Source: image from

Ezekiel Dobelsky

The devastation that Guinea-Bissau has suffered since its colonisation by the Portuguese, through the longest independence war on the African continent, and because of a current political system rife with corruption and coup d’états, has enabled the conditions for a ‘narco-state’ to flourish.

Guinea-Bissau had the dubious distinction of being labelled the first African ‘narco-state’ in 2008 by the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime and the United States. A narco-state is defined as a state which has an economy heavily reliant on the illicit drug trade. However, given the number of states that have been labelled as narco-states, there is ambiguity in the term’s usage and application.

With almost 70% of the population living below the poverty line, and a highly food insecure population, the financial benefits and perceived prestige from participating in drug trafficking make it extremely appealing for the high population of unemployed youth.

In Guinea-Bissau, there is a strong relationship between the drug traffickers, the military, and the current ruling party led by President Embalo. Therefore, an attempted coup d’état in February 2022 is somewhat surprising given it was undertaken, according to President Embalo, by drug traffickers. How are we to interpret this coup?

Cocaine Trafficking and Statecraft

To understand Guinea-Bissau, it is important to understand the growth of the illicit drug trade throughout West Africa, and its wide-ranging impacts.

With its location on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and bordering porous states such as Mali and Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau is an attractive landing destination for illicit drugs destined for Europe. Europe is a large consumer of drugs such as cocaine. The production, transport and sale of these drugs onto the European continent are controlled by Central and South American organised crime groups, who use their shared colonial history with the nations of West Africa to maintain a regional drug trafficking network.

Figure: Map illustrating popular trafficking routes of illicit drugs through Guinea-Bissau and West Africa. Taken from Deutsche World, ‘Guinea-Bissau: Are Drug Cartels behind the attempted coup’, 2022.

Although there was a temporary dip in the volume of trafficked drugs in Guinea-Bissau following the 2014 arrest of Bubo Na Tchuto, a very senior naval commander, drug trafficking has returned and risen above previous levels. Since 2019, West Africa has yet again become a ‘major corridor’ to drug trafficking. Given the poverty and lack of development in Guinea-Bissau, the money earned through the drug trade serves an important source of revenue for the state and the military.

The drug trade plays a major role in the financing of violent non-state actors, such as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and the FARC. As such, the hindering and cessation of these drug trafficking networks is perceived as vital in fighting terrorism, and is described as a key security justification for a European presence in West Africa. Yet, much like the war on drugs in other regions around the world, there has been very limited success in the eradication of drug trafficking through West Africa.

The reliance on drug money to buff up state revenue has plagued Guinea-Bissau with corruption, unaccountability and political instability. As we will see, the need to maintain the drug trafficking route has consistently damaged democracy and human rights.

Cocaine Coups and Disputed Elections

The recent political history of Guinea-Bissau is one wracked by instability. Since the Guinea-Bissau Civil War ended in 1999, there has been a sequence of coups and assassinations. It took until June 2019 for the first president to complete a full term. Political uncertainty then returned to Guinea-Bissau in the following election, as the 2019 election results were contested between the Madem G15 and the PAIGC parties.

The dispute was resolved by the military, who backed Umaru Embalo of the Madem G15 party. Embalo took power in 2020 following a standoff between the military and the Supreme Court. In essence, the military pressured the Supreme Court into abandoning any idea of a recount of votes, reinforcing the supremacy of the military over the democratic institutions of the state.

The strong ties between the military and drug traffickers are evident from a coup almost a decade earlier. In 2012, a ‘cocaine coup’ led by Chief of Staff Antonio Indjai succeeded in taking power, with the aim of attaining a slice of the drug trade. While the military ostensibly left power in 2014, the generals have always had a significant influence in the politics of the nation and ensuring that the flow of drugs (and therefore money) is maintained.

President Embalo maintains strong ties with the military, and has signalled an alliance with Indjai, declaring he would never allow Indjai’s extradition to the United States.

Failed Coups and Censorship

On February 1, 2022, gunshots were heard outside the Presidential Palace. 12 deaths were recorded, in what was later described as an attempted coup. The ruling party has since declared Bubo Na Tchuto, the former senior military figure arrested in 2014 and who had served prison time in the United States for drug trafficking, as responsible for the attempted coup. The current heads of the military have been absolved of any participation.

There are still many mysteries surrounding the coup attempt, which have not been fully explained or understood. However, there has been an undeniable attack on journalistic and political freedom.

Since the coup attempt, the government has attacked the press and civil society. Journalists who are critical of the ruling government have been physically attacked and shot at, leading to further self-censorship. Additionally, 79 radio stations were closed in April for ostensibly being unable to pay licence fees.

Embalo has linked the coup attempt with the main opposition political party. The leader of the opposition, who is still raising questions over the 2019 election results, has been banned from leaving Guinea-Bissau and is being investigated for his alleged role in the coup.

Where to from here?

While it is difficult to ascertain the legitimacy of the supposed coup attempt, the resulting attacks on human rights, amidst current regional and global turmoil, indicate that the ruling party is taking advantage of the chaos to further strengthen its grip onto power.

Regionally, West Africa is in the midst of a surge in coup d’états. Over the past two years, there have been undemocratic seizures of power in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan and Chad. With the possible prospect of another coup, the regional body ECOWAS sent in troops to Guinea-Bissau to help stabilise the nation. Furthermore, Guinea-Bissau is bordered by active military battlegrounds, as the long-running Casamance separatist conflict restarted in mid-March.

With the effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine expected to cause higher food prices, this is likely to cause further poverty and food insecurity globally, and in turn produce more willing participants in the drug trade. Given the lack of international response or pressure to the recent events in Guinea-Bissau, it appears likely that the country will continue to slide further into the grips of becoming an authoritarian ‘narco-state’.


Ezekiel completed his Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne in 2020, to go with his undergraduate double degree of Arts & Economics from Monash University. He previously interned at EcoPeace Middle East, a regional NGO focused on environmental peace-building in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. He is currently an editorial assistant at E-IR, and teaches chess on the side.



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