EU pull-out hits Guinea-Bissau reforms

By Farouk Chothia
BBC News

Image caption,
Guinea-Bissau has been plagued by unrest for decades

Turmoil in poverty-stricken Guinea-Bissau has forced the EU to end its mission to reform the country's security forces - a move that may further embolden powerful generals and drug traffickers.

The EU's decision was prompted by an army mutiny in April, which saw the overthrow of army chief Gen Jose Zamora Induta and the arrest of Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior.

Years of instability in the former Portuguese colony in West Africa have allowed Latin American drug cartels to move in and create a hub for cocaine heading for Europe.

The mutiny dashed EU hopes that had been raised by President Malam Bacai Sanha's election last year. Now it appears that he has little control over the army.

The EU says the "lack of respect for the rule of law" makes its work with the security forces in Guinea-Bissau impossible. The small EU team will leave in October.

Violent history

Guinea-Bissau has been racked by civil wars, coups and assassinations since it achieved independence from Portugal in 1974 in a violent uprising.

Most of the population lacks basic services and the country's main exports - cashew nuts and fish - give them only a meagre income.

The EU launched a mission in June 2008 to help Guinea-Bissau introduce laws to govern the armed forces, police and judiciary, so that they steered clear of politics and crime.

"Like in many African countries, the military sees itself as the guarantor of safety, and does not believe politicians have the ability to control the country," says Edward George, a Guinea-Bissau analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.

According to Kwesi Aning, a West African security expert, the EU pull-out is disastrous for Guinea-Bissau.

Image caption,
Gen Indjai's mutiny makes it uncertain whether EU-inspired reforms will be carried out

"The signal it sends to criminals is: lie low, relax, bide your time. Our [Africa's] partners are not in it for the long haul," said Mr Aning, head of research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana.

He says the EU, which pledged to professionalise the military, has even put lives in danger.

"Those who came out to back the EU are now exposed. In the coming weeks, you will hear of assassinations," he warned.

The EU mission's spokesman in Guinea-Bissau, Miguel Souza, says the EU had to suspend its programme when the mastermind of the mutiny, Gen Antonio Indjai, became army chief of staff.

"The EU mission thinks this is a breach in the constitutional order. We can't work with him," Mr Souza says.

He denies the EU has abandoned Guinea-Bissau.

"We will still work with them if certain conditions are met. There must be legal proceedings against the people responsible for the mutiny," Mr Souza told the BBC.

US names 'drug kingpins'

The EU's decision came soon after the US had also announced that it would suspend its reform mission until alleged drug kingpins in the upper echelons of the military were purged.

According to the US, they include the air force chief, Ibraima Papa Camara, and the former navy chief, Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, who returned from neighbouring Gambia before the mutiny disguised as a fisherman.

"Guinea-Bissau has a weak government and alleged drug barons have infiltrated every level of government. It is now back to square one," Mr George says.

"The army has a bloated officer corps: one officer for about four men. Normally, it's one officer for 10-20 men. So the army leadership needed to be reduced by about 50%. The military was not happy, and was blocking change," he explained.

Traffickers' archipelago

At the same time Guinea-Bissau's anti-drugs force was poorly resourced.

"Until a few years ago, it was a unit of 10 men, with one power boat, one car and very often no petrol," Mr George says.

Policing the coast is a monumental challenge, as Guinea-Bissau has lots of islands - convenient havens for drug traffickers.

Aircraft owned by Latin American cartels drop bundles of cocaine into the sea. Boats then pick up the hauls and take them to Spain and Amsterdam, Mr George says.

Mr Aning believes the EU was naive to focus only on Guinea-Bissau.

"There is nothing exceptional about Guinea-Bissau. Senegal, Ghana, Gambia, Nigeria, Togo, Benin and Mali are all under threat by narcotic gangs and [their efforts to] capture the state," he says. "We are no longer just a transit [route]. We are now repackaging and there are also some cases of manufacturing."

Mr Aning says the EU needs to develop a broader strategy with the West African regional body, Ecowas, to fight the illegal drugs trade.

"The threat to Europe is going to grow if collaborative efforts are not put in place. This problem is not going to go away," he told the BBC.

Mr Souza says other international bodies, such as the United Nations, are involved in fighting drug trafficking in the region and it was never the focus of the EU mission in Guinea-Bissau.

"Guinea-Bissau didn't invite us to work in that field. We've been working on security sector reform," he says.

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