Guinea Bissau’s President Dies and a Narco-State Plunges Deeper into Crisis

President Malam Bacai Sanha of Guinea Bissau passed away yesterday in France. Mr. Sanha, who has been at the head of the country since 2009, had been receiving treatment at the Val de Grace hospital in Paris for a number of weeks. His unexpected death leaves a political void in the country, to be filled by Raimundo Pereira, President of the Assembly, who also stepped in to fill a power vacuum when the former president, Vieira, was assassinated in 2009, while a military junta organized elections.

Guinea Bissau has been plagued by instability, and elections have not brought genuine democratic reform in the small West African nation. Described as the world’s first “narcostate“, politics in Guinea Bissau are deeply influenced by drug trafficking. Power relations are steeped in shadowy business connections. For instance, President Sanha appointed Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto – a man labeled by the U.S. Treasury Department as a drug kingpin to head the Navy. Analysts have noted that Bubo Na Tchuto and the head of the Army, General Antonio Indjai, are rivals; the former was arrested last month after a suspected coup attempt by military personnel.

Rivalries at the top of the military hierarchy – as well chronic unrest within the ranks – have made Guinea Bissau’s political climate tense and uncertain. Vincent Foucher, of the International Crisis Group, talked about Gomes’ “growing hegemony“. Gomes, who has been operating a “rapprochement” with General Indjai recently, is expected to run for the presidency in the next elections, which are supposed to take place in the next 90 days, according to the country’s constitution.

The death of President Sanha will likely not bring a new era of democratic reform for Guinea Bissau. The country’s powerful military, political and criminal interests are closely intertwined and the status quo will probably remain in the foreseeable future. Whether the current Prime Minister becomes president and the head of the Army occupies a different position of power within the military are marginal shifts. This “tinkering at the edges” of politics and power will not fundamentally alter the fact that the population of Guinea Bissau – which is ranked 176 out of 187 according to the Human Development Index – remains bypassed by economic and social development.