Bissau, Guinea-Bissau – In an interview with Al Jazeera ahead of key legislative elections, the president of Guinea Bissau appealed to the international community to help stop drug traffickers using his country’s shores to land cocaine.
President Jose Mario Vaz’s comments came after a meeting with UN Security Council ambassadors who were visiting ahead of the twice-delayed legislative elections, now scheduled for Sunday, March 10.
“I would like to ask for help to fight these people because they are strong,” said Vaz, adding he was “afraid”.
Once labelled “Africa’s first narco-state”, Guinea-Bissau lacks the resources to tackle traffickers, according to Vaz.
“We don’t have aeroplanes, we don’t have boats, we lack the radars that would give us control over our … economic zone,” he said.
His plea in the interview, which took place mid-February, came as fighting among political rivals intensified in the run-up to the bitterly-contested poll.
Since independence in 1974, the country of nearly two million has been blighted by successive coups and attempted coups, with Latin American drug lords exploiting the instability to use its complex coastline as a staging post for their illicit cargo.
It's important to respect and give strength to the head of the army. When other people come to me, I send them back. Today we can say the armed forces of Guinea Bissau are calm.
Weak institutions and corrupt officials made the country easy prey.
Vaz’s election in 2014 was supposed to herald a new dawn. But while he may become the country’s first elected president to complete a full mandate this June, his time in office has been marred by internecine fighting within the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), to which he belongs.
The feud pitted Vaz against party president Domingos Simoes Pereira, whom he sacked as prime minister on corruption charges in 2015. Since then, there have been six prime ministers.
The situation is complicated further by Vaz’s fraught relationship with former party allies, who were kicked out of the PAIGC in 2016.
Last year, the so-called “Grupo dos quinze” (group of fifteen) were hit with sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, by regional bloc ECOWAS for blocking attempts to find a consensus prime minister.
Exasperated by Vaz’s inability to win back influence in the PAIGC, they have formed a new political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MADEM G15).
Amadu Djamanca, executive secretary of think-tank the Observatory of Democracy and Governance, believes the squabbling ultimately comes down to a battle for control of the PAIGC, the country’s dominant party, which enjoys quasi-mythical status as the movement that overthrew the Portuguese in one of Africa’s most fiercely fought independence wars.
“This fight is not about an election. It is a fight between these men,” he said.
Egos aside, there are also other, more material concerns.
“It’s an existential fight,” said one diplomatic source, who requested anonymity. “It’s people with kids, houses and expensive lovers in Europe who don’t know how to do anything else but thieve from the state, that are fighting for their survival.”
The political battle of wills has paralysed the impoverished country, whose main official export is cashew nuts, for over three years.
But, as the source noted, politicians have at least refrained from violence.
Vaz himself holds up the relative peace as his main legacy.
“Nobody has been beaten, nobody has been killed, there have been no coups, there is peace, there is stability, there are no arbitrary imprisonments, freedom is total,” he said. “It has been very difficult to achieve this peace and stability. And I don’t play with this.”
It is a moot point; the past three years have seen successive waves of teacher strikes over pay and conditions, with teacher’s union SINDEPROF claiming that over CFA500 million is now owed to staff. Last month, Bissau descended into chaos after a student protest in support of teachers ended in confrontations with security forces.
Since then, the country has swirled with rumours of agents provocateurs infiltrating the protests.
Can the election end deadlock?
Diplomats in the capital who spoke to Al Jazeera suspected that top officials may have engineered conflict in a bid to delay elections and preserve the economic benefits of being in power.
Questioned on the allegations, which have placed him under scrutiny, Vaz agreed that the protests had been instrumentalised.
“There are some citizens who are not ready to go to the elections, so the protests might help them,” he said. “Their goal was to ruin the image of the country.”
For the first time since independence, the military has remained in barracks throughout the turmoil.
Vaz, who has a strong relationship with the current army chief, said military reform had been his highest priority.
“There were problems of tribalism and religion in the armed forces. The main way to fight this problem is to respect the chain of command. It’s important to respect and give strength to the head of the army. When other people come to me, I send them back,” he said. “Today we can say the armed forces of Guinea Bissau are calm.”
Djamanca agreed that the president deserved credit for reining the military in. But, with the army out of the picture, people were becoming increasingly aware that the country’s main problem was its politicians, he said.
“This political class we have right now doesn’t know what it means to rule in the public [interest],” he said. “They just care about themselves and their families. They don’t have money to pay teachers, but they have money to buy expensive cars.”
While there are hopes Sunday’s legislative election could settle current disputes once and for all, it could just as well end in another stalemate. Observers think it unlikely that the poll will hand a majority to a single party, meaning that rivalries could deepen.
“The political issues will get more intensive because now the parties know that they can arrange friendships, bring down a government and raise another one,” said Djamanca.
In truth, all eyes are on the presidential election, which is slated for November or December. For now, Vaz says he is focused on being the first elected president to reach the hitherto-elusive finishing line.
Nobody can say for sure to what extent drug lords still wield influence here.
But everyone knows how much havoc they can wreak. Ten years ago, almost to the day, sitting president João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira and army commander General Batista Tagme Na Waie were assassinated in what was thought to be a tit-for-tat double murder, the former attacked with a machete hours after the latter was bombed at military HQ.
The pair were thought to be competing for stakes in the drugs trade.
“It is prohibited to beat [prisoners],” said Vaz. “But If I catch these people, I will order them beaten.”