Guinea-Bissau: The Failed State you’ve Probably Never Heard Of

If popular online quiz website, Sporcle, is anything to go by, there is a chance you have never heard of Guinea-Bissau.  Yet the West African state, situated between Senegal and Guinea, has been declared the continent’s first “narco-state” by UN officials.  Since the mid-2000s, Guinea Bissau has become an entrepôt for various drug traffickers shipping their goods around the world; most notably, for Latin Americans moving cocaine across the Atlantic and into the vast European market.  The huge increase in the quantity of drugs smuggled through West Africa in the last decade is a response to the increase in policing and rival cartels in Mexico and the Caribbean in recent years.  As such, the Colombian and Venezuelan producers of cocaine have found new routes to market, namely through West Africa.  A relatively short trans-Atlantic transit period coupled with state incapacity to patrol their own waters meant West Africa was an obvious choice for producers as a new means of shipping their goods to the consumer.  Nowhere has this been truer than Guinea-Bissau, where high levels of government cooperation have made it easy for smugglers to set up shop virtually overnight.

Image courtesy of Colleen Taugher, © 2007, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Colleen Taugher, © 2007, some rights reserved.

What has this meant for Guinea-Bissau?  Domestically, conditions are poor to say the least.  Having only won independence from the Portuguese in 1974, the country has since experienced three coup d’états, a civil war, and widespread poverty and underdevelopment.  However, since various smugglers and cartels have moved in, this backdrop of political upheaval and suffering has been cruelly offset by the luxury four-by-fours that cruise along Bissau’s potholed streets, with the accompanying blacked out windows and harems of beautiful women one might expect.[1]  Yet the arrival of Latino cartels, and rise of Guinea-Bissau to the level of ‘narco-state’ has not been met by the international community with the reaction one might expect.  Despite the West’s commitment to its war on drugs, efforts at shutting down the cartels in Guinea-Bissau have been weak at best.  The state’s justice system is crying out for help and has been for years.  It was only in 2010 that, thanks to UN support and funding, Guinea-Bissau established its first purpose-built prisons.[2]  Meanwhile police go without handcuffs or petrol for their vehicles, and their efforts at tackling the drugs trade is constantly obstructed by the military.[3]  The coastguard remains non-existent.

Even so, other than a few arbitrary drugs seizures and indictment of Bissau-Guinean leaders, the US has done little to help reform Guinea-Bissau’s justice system.  Along with the EU, the US has now pulled out of security reform assistance programmes in Guinea-Bissau following the latest coup and failure to return to a democratically elected government.[4]  A noble, if not also hypocritical US stance considering the country’s willingness to turn a blind eye to some of the continent’s worst regimes as and when it suits them.  The reality is that Guinea-Bissau’s close relationship with the narcotics trade is not yet a sufficient threat to their interests for the US to risk getting tied up with another volatile and corrupt regime.  China on the other hand, has proven more than willing to operate where the US will not.  Lacking the same concerns about democracy and corruption, China has assisted in funding vital infrastructure projects in Guinea-Bissau in return for rights of access to deep-water fisheries and oil reserves, should they be discovered.  While Chinese investment in Guinea-Bissau does represent something of a large risk, it is unlikely China would suffer from the same embarrassment as the US from its association with such a corrupt regime.

The question of what lies ahead for Guinea-Bissau does not have a particularly optimistic outcome.  Since the coup in April 2012, the military have assumed control of the interim government headed by Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo.  Hopes of a democratically elected leader taking office any time soon are slim for a country that has yet to see a President complete a term with a democratic mandate.  Instead, it is likely some form of power sharing agreement between the military and the political parties will determine who leads this small narco-state.  While this remains the case, meaningful development will continue to be a distant prospect.  Unlike many other states on Africa’s west coast, Guinea-Bissau has yet to discover reserves of valuable commodities such as oil or diamonds.  Should China’s gamble pay off and surveys discover wells of black gold underneath Guinea-Bissau’s soil and water, then this might provide the regime with much needed income.  However, given Guinea-Bissau’s history of government ineptitude and corruption, it is unlikely oil revenues would direct the country toward anything near development.  Instead we would likely see the state fall into the same resource trap that has afflicted several other resource rich African states: becoming completely dependent on the unreliable export of oil.

Despite the dark clouds gathering over Guinea-Bissau’s horizons, the Western world and majority of the international community remains willing to turn a blind eye to the nation’s woes.  For a country facing both an economic and political abyss, it is not surprising then that drugs policy is fairly low down the list of priorities.  The reality is that for many Africans, involvement in the trade of illegal narcotics has proven itself to be a profitable enterprise in economies often devoid of reliable sources of income.[5]  Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that as cartels become increasingly powerful, they will act to maintain government stability so as to allow for more entrenched relationships with Bissau-Guinean elites. [6]  No one would as yet go as far as to say that the drug trade could be beneficial for Guinea-Bissau, but for now, the state has far bigger fish to fry.



[3] Carrier, N. & Klantschnig. 2012. “Africa and the War on Drugs”. Zed Books, London


[5] Carrier, N. & Klantschnig. 2012. “Africa and the War on Drugs”. Zed Books, London

[6] Ibid.

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