Guinea Bissau: The Thai link in killings

Guinea Bissau: The Thai link in killings -, March 8, 2009

Lagos — Fresh facts on the killing of the Guinea-Bissau Army Chief, Brig. Gen. Batiste Tagme na Waie, which later triggered the assassination of President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira.

Waie was killed last Sunday when a bomb planted by unknown persons exploded in his office. A reprisal attack less than 24 hours later by elements within the army led to the tragic killing of Vieira.

In compliance with the constitution, the former Speaker of the parliament (the Assembleia Nacional Popular), Raimundo Pereira, was last Tuesday sworn-in as Interim President.

But the bomb that terminated the life of Waie has been linked to the Southeast Asian country of Thailand. The Prime Minister of Guinea-Bissau, Carlos Gomes, Junior, and Minister of Defence, Marciano Silva Barbeiro, made the revelation at separate meetings with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Ministerial delegation to the former Portuguese colony.

President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua had on Tuesday despatched a delegation comprising the foreign ministers of Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, and Senegal, accompanied by the President of ECOWAS Commission, to Guinea-Bissau where they engaged all Guinean stakeholders in an effort to restore confidence among the political actors, civil society and security services, and return the country to constitutional normalcy.

"It is very important to find out who made and bought this bomb (that killed the Army Chief) in Thailand," Gomes had told the delegation led by Nigeria's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief Ojo Maduekwe.

The Defence Minister and his service chiefs were in no doubt as to where the bomb came from: Thailand. In fact, the Minister of Defence showed what seemed to be a component of the bomb to the ECOWAS delegation. "The debris from the blast was so much that it took us about one hour to get the corpse of Waie out of the rubble that was his own office wing of the army building," Barbeiro said.

Although, Guinea-Bissau has been hailed for its smooth transition to an interim government, the situation in this land of Amilcar Cabra remains tenuous. "Ours is still a very fragile country and the international community knows that. I am not safe myself because there is no guarantee that there are no hidden bombs in my office," Gomes said, adding, "Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Conakry," and, indeed, the sub-region, "will not be safe if bombs are here."

Analysts say that Guinea-Bissau has become the soft underbelly of the sub-region. An admixture of factors has made Guinea-Bissau an attractive transit point for hard drugs bound for Europe and other parts of the world: pervasive poverty, unemployment, and $3 billion budget deficit compounded by $30 million in salary arrears.

There is a near absence of infrastructure to sustain any form of economic development. There is hardly any public power, with generators having to run round the clock, no potable water, and the few roads that have asphalt overlay have had them washed away over time. Ironically, the road bearing the name of the legendary Amilcar Cabra, the man who gave his all to wage a liberation struggle against the Portuguese, has never seen coal tar: it is an earth road.

The nation's economy is minute and driven largely by cashew, fish, and peanut exports. What this means is that even a small influx of drug money can have a major impact.

That is exactly what has happened.

Drug money is now the driver of the Guinea-Bissau economy. Last month, the United States State Department warned that the "degeneration of Guinea-Bissau into a narco-state is a real possibility."

The United Nations estimates that the cocaine transiting through Guinea-Bissau is worth more than a billion dollars a year, which is several times higher than the paltry national budget.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the bomb is being linked to Thailand. The Southeast Asian country has become a major hub for the production and shipment of hard drugs, especially cocaine.

The question on the minds of many after last week's killings of Waie and Vieira is, could it be fifth columnists (drug barons) are at work to create further divisions between the military and civilian authorities while they continue with their illicit trade unabated or it is a battle for the control of the spoils of the trade?

This is not the first time that Guinea-Bissau's Army Chief will be assassinated. In 2004, not long after elections had been successfully conducted, the then Armed Forces Chief of Staff was eliminated in similar Gestapo style.

Indeed, the killings of Vieira and Waie have been linked to a battle over the control of the illicit trade in drugs. The top military brass have been accused of taking bribes to allow drug planes to land and to turn a blind eye to drug activity.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Police, responsible for investigating the narcotics trade, are unarmed, equipped with mere typewriters, and the targets of anonymous death threats.

THISDAY observed parked at the Aeroporto International Osvaldo Vieira Airport, Bissau, a seized plane said to be linked to the trade in narcotics. Such seizures, it is gathered, are something of a rarity.

"What we have in our hands is a time bomb akin to the conflagration in Mexico. ECOWAS has to do something about this situation, else we will all be consumed in the impending inferno," Foreign Minister of The Gambia, Dr. Omar Touray, told THISDAY shortly after the ECOWAS delegation had visited the bombed-out office wing of the Army Chief on Wednesday.

Gomes was, perhaps, echoing the position of Touray when he said that the tragic killing of the President and Army Chief were "an attempt against ECOWAS, African Union, and all organisations and structures in the sub-region." He also told the delegation that the country did not have the wherewithal to wage a successful war against the drug traffickers.

The fear is that drug warlords operating out of Guinea-Bissau will accelerate the failure of the state. With a foothold in the former Portuguese colony, these mercenaries could unleash a war of attrition in other countries and pose serious security risk to the sub-region. It was in recognition of this that ECOWAS planned to work with the Guinean authorities and development partners to get to the bottom of the killings.

"You are not alone; we will stand by you all the way and provide experts that will work with you to find the culprits in this dastardly act," President of the ECOWAS Commission, Dr. Mohammed Ibn Chambas, assured the Guinea-Bissau leadership. But it remains to be seen how this could be achieved, given the complicity of the military and other high-ranking state officials in the narcotic trade.

Nonetheless, one of the issues that the extra-ordinary summit of Foreign Ministers of ECOWAS and the International Contact Group will be focusing on when it convenes in the next one or two weeks in Bissau, is defence and security reform, which is related to the fight against drug trafficking. Training and retraining of soldiers, especially of the top echelon of the military, is key to sustaining peace and security in the country and the sub-region, Air Vice Marshall Bala Golgak Danbaba, Chief of Policy and Plans at the Defence Headquarters and member of the Nigerian delegation to the solidarity visit, said.

The interim government of Pereira has limited powers and only 60 days to conduct fresh election. In a normal situation, this will present some challenge, but in a broken country like Guinea-Bissau, it would be a near-miracle if the feat is achieved.

ECOWAS and the International Contact Group on Guinea-Bissau, comprising the European Union, Africa Union, United Nations, CPLP (group of Portuguese speaking nations), and other stakeholders have pledged assistance to the country. But Cuban Ambassador to Guinea-Bissau, Pedro Dona Santana, said the pledge to offer assistance is an old refrain. "There have been efforts to bring aid and development to Guinea-Bissau. Most of these projects and programmes did not produce results, as the financial pledges were not redeemed," he said.

But the Dean of Ambassadors in Guinea-Bissau warned that not keeping to pledges to help the country through its trying times is an invitation to anarchy. "The priority here is the 60 days for the election. If we don't give support for this effort, it will be an invitation to further crisis," he said.

Going by the constitution, the interim presidency of Pereira has just 53 days, as at tomorrow, to conduct the election.

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