BRUSSELS, Belgium — The death Monday of President Malam Bacai Sanhá passed largely unnoticed in Europe.
His country, Guinea-Bissau, is small, desperately poor and remote, a land of swamp and mangrove clinging to the far west coast of Africa.
Sanha’s demise in a Paris hospital could, however, have grave implications for Europe because Guinea-Bissau is major transit point for South American cocaine. The prospect of more instability in country that’s been plagued by political violence for years could give the traffickers even greater leeway to operate there.
The UN drugs agency estimates that over a quarter or all the cocaine sold in Europe transits through West Africa. Bissau’s geography, economics and politics make it a prime choice for the traffickers.
The Indiana-sized country’s countless offshore islands and narrow waterways make perfect hideaways. One of the world’s poorest nations, its security services are notoriously vulnerable to narcotics-fueled corruption. Since the 1990s, the country has been plagued by civil wars and coups d’etat by powerful military leaders, many of whom have been linked to the drugs trade.
“The drug question runs deep in Guinea-Bissau. It’s structural,” said Vincent Foucher, senior West Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Diplomats and local journalists will tell you that it’s deeply engrained among senior military officers.”
Sanha’s predecessor João Bernardo Vieira was assassinated during a coup attempt in 2009. On Dec. 26, with Sanhà already hospitalized, unrest led to arrest of the navy chief Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, who the US has branded as a drug kingpin. The authorities denounced a coup attempt, but some observers saw the arrest as the result of rivalries between tainted military officers.
Despite Guinea-Bissau’s drugs hub role, the country does not feature high on Europe’s priorities. The European Union shut down a two-year mission to train the country’s security forces in 2010 saying an army munity earlier that year had made it impossible to extend the mandate. The EU also suspended much of its development aid program in reponse to that mutiny.
The UN human development index ranks Guinea-Bissau 176th out of 187 countries, with a life expectancy of 48 and annual income per head of $994. UN officials have estimated the value of cocaine transiting through the country at over $1billion a year.