GUINEA-BISSAU: Assistance not sanctions needed to fight drug trade

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

International experts say the UN’s consideration of creating a sanctions panel so close to next month’s scheduled legislative elections could destabilise the country, which has been wracked by repeated coup attempts and increased drug trafficking in recent years.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s report stated Guinea Bissau “has graduated from a drugs transit hub to become a major market-place in the drugs trade,” and suffers from “deepening political malaise and the specters of military tension and pressure.”

The UN report wrote organised crime could roll back governance and peace-building progress, and “wreak havoc throughout the country and along its borders.” It also wrote the UN Security Council should discuss setting up a panel to discuss the possibility of “targeted sanctions that would help reverse the current disturbing growth in the drug trafficking crisis in the country".
Bad timing

But an international expert familiar with the situation in Guinea-Bissau, who asked not to be named, told IRIN: “This is not the moment for a sanctions panel. The main objective of the international community in Guinea-Bissau is to promote political stability and ensure elections are held in November. Setting up a panel right now could derail that process.”

Elections are scheduled to take place 16 November, said Zubaida Rasul, senior political affairs officer and Officer-in-Charge at the UN Peacebuilding Office in Guinea Bissau.

According to her, election plans are on track: the Supreme Court has approved a list of 21 political parties expected to take part in the legislative elections; ballots are expected by 27 October, after which 2,700 voter stations will be set up nationwide. The European Union has confirmed it will send election observers.


According to Antonio Mazzitelli, West Africa’s representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the government is making progress against drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau.

“At the highest level, the political leadership has proved to be on the right track by retaining key ministers who are running the anti-narcotics and security fight,” Mazzitelli said. He continued, “The past three prime ministers have put a crackdown on drugs, [making] rule of law and security their priorities…the few advances that have been made in this country have been in these areas.”

He cited the fact that international monitors were allowed to search a plane alleged to have been transporting drugs that was seized at the airport in July, “Nothing as such would have been possible 15 months ago,” he said.

Numerous reports including a July International Crisis Group briefing have implicated members of the Guinea-Bissau military in the drug trafficking trade.

Instability is still rife in the country. Since the beginning of the year, in addition to the ongoing drugs trade, there has been an alleged coup attempt in August, and an increase in petty crime in Bissau, according to Zubaida Rasul.

Public sector workers are currently on strike in the capital, demanding back-pay.

But Rasul said some of these incidents can be interpreted positively. “The terrorists were arrested; the plane was investigated. This shows a willingness and determination on the part of the government to pursue a course of correction.”

According to Mazzitelli, increased international scrutiny on the drugs trade in Guinea-Bissau is having an impact. “The high attention the international community and the press is giving to the drug issue in Guinea Bissau is forcing some international traffickers to gradually relocate their trade to other countries in the region.”

And it is still individuals, he said, rather than whole institutions that are involved in the drugs trade.

“I do not believe there are many criminals in Guinea-Bissau – rather, there are many people who have taken advantage of the situation there.”

Different approach

Rather than brandishing sticks, Mazzitelli thinks the international community should continue to support Guinea Bissau’s government  efforts to reform its security sector and tackle drugs crime.

He cited as an example of such support, assistance by the South African government to the Ministry of Justice’s police force, which has been on the front lines in Guinea Bissau’s drug war.

Mazzitelli pointed to the work that the UN Peacebuilding Support Office in Guinea Bissau (UNOGBIS) is doing to support elections as well as its forthcoming “quick impact projects” such as rehabilitating detention centres and military barracks, to promote stability in the country.

Rasul said major donors, the UN and international financial institutions need to increase these efforts. “I think the first action should be to support government structures to deal with the menace in a positive manner and this can be followed up by punitive measures. The lack of government capacity to protect the country and its borders from the proliferation of crime is the problem and it is the UN and donors job to help it overcome them.”

But Mazzitelli stressed it will take time for the government to overcome these problems. “We must not fall into the trap of expecting an immediate change – we are winning individual battles but the war will be long,” he concluded.