Pubdate: Tue, 03 Mar 2009
Source: Times & Transcript (Moncton, CN NK)
Copyright: 2009 New Brunswick Publishing Company
Author: Gwynne Dyer
Not: Gwynne Dyer is an independent London-based journalist. His new book,
"Climate Wars", is published by Random House.


One should not speak ill of the dead, but it's hard to resist the
suspicion that the murder of the army chief of staff on March 1 and of
the president on March 2 in the small West African country of
Guinea-Bissau were linked to the drug trade in Africa's first

On Sunday, a powerful bomb blew up the military headquarters in
Bissau, the capital, killing Gen. Batista Tagme Na Waie, chief of
Guinea-Bissau's military, and severely wounding five other senior officers.

Less than 24 hours later, gunfire and rocket explosions were heard
near the presidential palace, and shortly afterwards it was reported
that President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira had also been killed.

The army didn't even deny responsibility. "President Vieira was killed
by the army as he tried to flee his house which was being attacked by
a group of soldiers close to the chief of staff Tagme Na Waie, early
this morning," said spokesman Zamora Induta. "The country will start
up now. This man had blocked any momentum in this small country." But
it is unlikely that the quarrel was really about how best to run the

The shoot-out had been coming for some time. Last November President
Vieira narrowly survived a machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade
attack on his residence by "renegade" soldiers. The 400-strong militia
he then created to protect himself from the army was accused of
shooting at General Tagme Na Waie in January, and the army forced
Vieira to disband it.

After that, Vieira knew that he was a dead man walking, and the bomb
that killed Tagme Na Waie was probably an attempt to get his
retaliation in first. But this was not simply another in the long line
of coups and counter-coups that has characterized Guinea-Bissau's
history since it got its independence from Portugal in 1974.

Guinea-Bissau's politics were rough even when the stakes were very
small: control of a poverty-stricken country of one and a half million
people whose principal export was cashew nuts. Vieira himself first
came to power in a coup in 1980, lost it in a military mutiny in 1999,
and subsequently went into exile as the country was ravaged by civil
war. Then he regained power in an election in 2005 after the previous
president was overthrown by the army.

The stakes have got a lot bigger now, because the country has become
the main transit point for Colombian cartels smuggling cocaine into
Europe. More than half of Guinea-Bissau's territory is a maze of
offshore islands, and the tiny navy lacks the strength to patrol them.
There is not even a prison in the country, nor do the police own a

The money that the Colombians can splash around is irresistible to
many in the government and the army, and an internal struggle to
monopolize that money was the inevitable result. Mostly the struggle
has been invisible, but occasionally it came out into plain sight, as
when an aircraft suspected of carrying cocaine was prevented from
taking off last July by the judicial police, which are under the
president's control.

For five days army troops prevented the police from boarding the
plane. When they finally let them on, there was no cocaine there
anymore, but sniffer dogs went crazy when they were brought aboard.
Justice Minister Carmelita Pires subsequently received a number of
death threats. In another incident, in April, two soldiers were
arrested in a vehicle carrying 635 kilograms of cocaine -- but they
were soon released from detention, and have yet to stand trial.

Maybe the late President Vieira died because he was waging a gallant
campaign against the drug-lords who are taking over the country, but
it is at least as likely that he was just involved in a struggle with
the army over the proceeds. In any case, the army has won, and the
country's status as Africa's premier narco-state is assured.

Six months ago, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on
the Security Council to impose sanctions against those involved in
Guinea-Bissau's drug trade, but nothing has been done -- nor would
sanctions deter officials in a desperately poor country who have been
dazzled by the prospect of great wealth. If even the Mexican state, a
hundred times as big and a thousand times as rich, faces defeat at the
hands of the drug gangs, what hope is there for Guinea-Bissau?

So what is to be done? What should have been done decades ago: end the
stupid "war on drugs," which destroys not only thousands of lives but
the integrity of entire countries. Legalize the drugs, sell them under
government licence to those who want to buy them, and deprive the
illegal drug industry of the cash-flow that makes it so powerful.

The war is lost anyway: nobody who wants the drugs in any Western
country has any difficulty in getting them, and the supply is so large
and reliable that the prices have actually dropped over the years.
Moreover, the whole war against narcotics (and other "recreational"
drugs like marijuana, amphetamines and psychotropic drugs) is utterly

Other drugs that cause far more devastation, like alcohol and tobacco,
remain legal simply because they are used by far more people in the

Alternatively, we could make them illegal too, and lose some even
bigger wars.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent London-based journalist. His new book,
"Climate Wars", is published by Random House.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin