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 Published  July 11th, 2009

In early march this year, President joao Bernardo Viera of Guinea Bissau was assassinated. It was reported that he was assassinated in retaliation for the assassination of the army chief, General Tagme Na Wai. Both have been at loggerheads for years. However, informed observers and diplomatic sources state that it might not be unconnected with control of the drug business now ravaging the country. Not one single head of state attended the President's funeral. The country's Prime Minister, Carlos Correia, went as far as calling the late President “the biggest drug dealer in the country”. Afraid for his life,he promptly went into hiding after making this statement. The United Nations has designated Guinea Bissau as the first narco state. In neighboring Guinea(Conakry) as soon as the long time President Lansana Conte died,(he ran the country for 24 years) the army seized power and immediately instituted an inquiry into the activities of the former president and his acolytes. The result was dramatic and revealed what most Guineans have suspected for long-the family of the President and key government officials were directly involved in the receipt and shipments of cocaine President's son, Ousmane Conte confessed on television that he was directly involved in the drug business. Not only was the Presidential guard used to secure the cargo,but the first lady's private residence and the President's VIP salon at the airport was also used to store and secure the drugs. The President's son further admitted that he was paid $300,000 for the first shipment he secured. Subsequently, the intelligence chief, the President's brother in law, the head of the anti-drug unit and the police chief have all confessed to be involved. The police chief who earned less than $500.00 a month, was building a university before the army takeover. It is not surprising that in 2006, Guinea was rated the most corrupt state in the world by Transparency International. Previously, Nigeria and Bangladesh held the title.

The confessions paint a picture of an illicit trade conducted with total impunity, and the large role Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and other West African countries are playing as drug hubs, and how vulnerable they are to the corrupting influence of drug dollars. What these countries have in common are extreme poverty,where society has been ravaged by war and the institutions of state can easily be bought off-so that instead of enforcement, there is collusion by the government. And no more so than Guinea Bissau, whose institutional weaknesses makes it a trafficker's dream prey. In Guinea Bissau, the value of the drug trade is greater than the national budget and the country has been mired in civil conflicts since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974. According to the United Nations, unemployment stands at 80%, and running water and electricity are luxuries few can afford. It is stated that there is so much cocaine floating off the coast of Guinea Bissau, that ignorant fishermen assume that it is powder and rub it on their faces. In Guinea(Conakry), unemployment stands at 60%, despite having the largest bauxite deposits in the world, as well as gold and other minerals. Guinean trade union leader, Rabiatou Serah states that in the neighborhood where he lives in the capital,there has been no running water in five years despite the abundance of rivers. In Sierra Leone after years of civil war, unemployment stands at about 70%. In Equatorial Guinea run by a rapacious and greedy family clique, unemployment stands at about 60%, despite an abundance of oil. The Annobon island away from the Equatorial Guinean mainland and close to Nigeria, is reputed to be a cocaine paradise. Nigerian drug gangs have always been an energetic presence on the global trafficking scene, but the target of the South American traffickers have been the failed states along the Gold Coast, with Nigerians acting as facilitators.. One may then be permitted to ask-why have the drug cartels shifted their attention to West Africa?. The answer lies in several factors. There is more demand now for cocaine in Europe than in the United States, hence the transatlantic crossing.The old cocaine channels through the Caribbean, markedly Jamaica and Panama, had become more intensively policed, forcing the Colombians to develop new routes to traffic cocaine. The increasing might of Mexico's powerful drug cartels has forced the South Americans to search for trafficking routes to Europe across the Atlantic rather than through Central America. Moreover, the West African coast with thousands of small islands are porous and thinly policed. But most importantly, the corrupt governments that act as willing accomplices to the detriment of their own peoples. According to the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime(UNODC), 99% of all the drugs seized in Africa since 2003 have been found in West Africa. Between 1998 and 2003, the total quantity of cocaine seized each year in Africa was around 600kg. Since 2005, at least 46 tons of cocaine have been seized en route to Europe via West Africa, bringing profits that sometimes exceed the national budgets of the countries it passes through. In February this year, a Liberian ship, the Blue Atlantic, was intercepted by the French navy with 2.4 tonnes of pure cocaine.

Once ravaged by the transatlantic slave trade, the West African coast is again under attack. It is ironic that in the 19th century, Europe's hunger for slaves devastated West Africa, and two hundred years later, it could be said that its growing appetite for cocaine could do the same. Just like the corrupt African chiefs played a vital role in selling their own people to Europeans, corrupt African leaders are doing the same today through drugs. When the leadership, rather than the criminal elements in a society plays a leading role in such crimes, social and legal order breaks down, and the moral fiber of the society is destroyed.


Dr. Leonard Madu is a diplomatic troubleshooter and President of the African Chamber of Commerce.

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