Murder, Drugs, and Genital Mutilation: Struggles in Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s smallest and poorest non-island countries, and it’s recently appeared in the news (well, some news, my impression of news is mainly google world) but will no doubt shortly disappear again. I’m not really qualified to comment on it, but it bugs the hell out of me how the western media arbitrarily selects some countries/conflicts/situations and reports them in great detail, while leaving others, more significant in many ways, unmentioned. The most extreme example is probably Palestine vs. Congo, but there are endless others.

Anyway, so I have decided to counter this arbitrariness by arbitrarily selecting some little-attended issues and reporting them with the seriousness they deserve.

For those who need a brief recap of what has happened in Guinea-Bissau, about a week ago soldiers loyal to the president assassinated the head of the army, and then shortly afterwards, soldiers loyal to the head of the army assassinated the president.

One of the interesting aspects of this is that there doesn’t seem to be any particular political transfer of power: the speaker of parliament has been sworn in as new president, the government remains – the army, having killed the president, doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to seize power. Perhaps they wanted to, but swiftly found it impractical. Or perhaps they feel they hold sufficient power now, because the threat of assassination will hang over future rulers. Or maybe the real transfer of power is hidden.


I say that because Guinea-Bissau is often described as Africa’s first narco-state. A huge amount of cocaine from Colombia moves there as a shipping point before going on towards Europe. The income from this lucrative trade is likely to be very significant in such a poor country – possibly greater than its entire legal GDP. And the evidence seems to suggest that both the government and the military are involved.

This latest round of assassinations reflects, to some extent, similar historical events. Starting in the late 90s, there have been repeated military coups and a brief civil war in the country – and broadly speaking the lines of battle have been between the now-dead president, Vieira, and his various cronies and supporters, and various factions in the army. Typically the army have put someone in power, got dissatisfied with them, deposed them, held power for a brief while, held elections and let the elected leader into power, before eventually growing dissatisfied with him again.

So there’s a lot of instability, a lot of fighting over power, but it’s hard to see (at least, for me and the little information I have access to) what people are fighting for – the party allegiances change, the alliances change, so it’s not clear what policy differences exist to motivate the struggles. Which suggests that to a large extent they are simply struggles for power and personal wealth. Like I say, that may just be my relative ignorance, but since that’s usually what many such struggles amount to, it doesn’t seem unlikely.

Which is why it makes sense to see a link with cocaine. If the struggle is over control of the drugs trade then it would be for a prize so lucrative that most matters of actual Guinean politics would pale by comparison. And conversely, we can’t really see the structure of the drugs industry there, so we can’t tell if there’s been a big shift from one gangster to another.

General Principle

I’ve argued in the past that the global economy is prone to producing political instability in its poorest countries, and I think this can be seen as an instance of that. The Colombian drugs trade is a purely finite resource – no wise governance and co-operation in Guinea-Bissau can increase the productivity of Colombian farms. Unlike with Guinea-Bissau’s own domestic economy, there’s no incentive or pressure towards things that will build up society and organisation – just things that will increase conflict and struggle.

In a poor country, this kind of resource – that rewards destructive struggles rather than constructive cooperation – will be more important than the opposite kind, in proportion as the wealth of the rest of the world outstrips its own domestic wealth (why care about the lives of a Guinean, when a Canadian can pay you a hundred times more?). So in poorer countries (and poorer areas in rich countries?) the pressure will be stronger and, averaged over all the different actors, increase the likeliehood of pointless fighting and murderous instability.

Which of course entrenches that society’s poverty, and reproduces the same situation into the future. In such a way does the global economy keep the poor poor while the rich get rich.

Regional Context

The Guinean civil war of 1998, which was, roughly speaking, between the now-dead president, Vieira, and a rebellion from the army, also saw intervention from neighbouring countries. Guinea-Bissau has two neighbours, Senegal to the north and Guinea (also called Guinea-Conakry) to the south (just to explain: Guinea-Bissau was formerly Portuguese Guinea, and added the name of its capital, Bissau, to avoid confusion with former French Guinea, now ‘Guinea’). Both supported Vieira, and the Senegalese president, Wade, now seems very keen to ensure that the army doesn’t take over in the wake of the assassinations.

Partly this is about a border issue. The southern-most part of Senegal, called Casamance, is home to a separatist movement, and from what I can see, Vieira was very much against them (and hence friends with Senegal), while many figures in the army either were or were perceived as being more supportive of them – which prompted antipathy on the part of Senegal. Senegalese troops were key in propping up the Guinea-Bissau-ian government in the war.


As I’ve blogged about before, Guinea-Conakry is also seeing interesting events. Long-standing dictator LansanaConté died, and his government was swiftly swept away by a military junta, who, being not strictly legal, provoked a lot more condemnation than Conté himself, who made the laws and thus bent them however he liked, ever seemed to.

Anyway, the G-C junta is promising elections in the last few months of 2009, while the G-B government is saying they will be in the next two months. But recently, it seems, the drugs issue in G-B has spread into G-C: the junta has arrested several police chiefs and Conté’s son, on charges of drug trafficking. Now this may be entirely fabricated as a way to get rid of political enemies. But it may be true that those arrested were cashing in on the drugs business. It might be both.

Either way, the issue of cocaine seems set to continue to play a role in both Guineas. Which may well be a good argument for legalising cocaine all by itself: if bringing the trade into the open and making it less lucrative and less gangster-run makes it harder for West African politicians to get rich off their subjects dashed aspirations, then the ‘war on drugs’ is really fucking over a hell of a lot of people.

The War on Women

Another prominent issue in west Africa is the plague of vaginas. In contrast to the 95%+ circumcised inhabitants of G-C, about half of G-B women suffer from the unsightly affliction of having intact genitals – something that, it is widely known, will make them dirty, disease-carrying, promiscuous, lonely, and unholy.

As in G-C, efforts to simply eliminate female genital mutilation by an imperious ‘NO’ are often not as successful as attempts to change it from within. In G-C, this is seen in the way that more educated and urban women are increasingly subjecting their daughters to more minor sorts of procedures, sometimes only a slight prick, rather than a full excision and infibulation.

In G-B, there are efforts to promote an initiation ritual that is identical to genital mutilation but doesn’t involve mutilating anyone’s genitals. That is, the same dances, chants, cermonies, and so forth are used, but no knives or blades appear. One of the important advantages of this is that it helps to secure the acceptance of the (female) specialists who perform the ceremonies, who would otherwise use their social capital to fight to maintain it (since it’s their liveliehood). This group is an excellent example of the sort of grass-roots change that should be supported.

At the same time, government policy plays a big role. G-B has largely avoided making any effort to end the practice, whereas in Senegal to the north, there has been a determined governmental effort in tandem with grass-roots movements (like ‘Tostan‘), and though the practice remains (and, to be fair, was never as prevalent in the country overall as in G-B) substantial progress has been made towards reducing it – almost half of the areas that formerly practiced it have publically declared an end (although see reservations).

An interesting thing about the methodology used by Tostan in Senegal is that it focuses on collective decisions and declarations by whole villages. The downside of this is that it may hide the extent to which children are still being mutilated, but the upside is that often individuals, if isolated, feel compelled to continue the practice for fear that their daughters will otherwise be unmarriageable.

3 Responses to “Murder, Drugs, and Genital Mutilation: Struggles in Guinea-Bissau”

  1. ECOWAS considers intervention in Guinea-Bissau « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] ECOWAS considers intervention in Guinea-Bissau ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, seems to be pushing for the deployment of troops into Guinea-Bissau, which is suffering from the problem that most of its high-ups are in fact drug dealers mainly interested in bumping each other off. […]

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    While I appreciate the point that male circumcision is a bad thing (though I’ll confess my knowledge on the issue is not extensive), I maintain that female circumcision is substantially more serious, because removal of the clitoris is a more substantial harm than removal of the foreskin (that said there are some cultures with very extreme forms of male circumcision, and painful manhood initiation ceremonies and so forth, which would perhaps be different).

    I also don’t think a focus on female circumcision should imply a lack of concern with male. I don’t want to dismiss what concerns you, but I don’t agree with the broader agenda you link it to, which seems to be an anti-feminist one. To my mind both issues fit into a more broadly gender-abolitionist and anti-violence position, which would nevertheless be feminist because the gender system still gives more power to men.

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