Few Americans are probably aware of the fact that the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony with a population smaller than the state of New Mexico, has been dubbed "Africa's First Narco State" by the UN.
As a result, the attempted coup that recently befell the country's ruler, President Umaro Sissoco Embaló, who faced a "Scarface"-style gunfight at his presidential palace in Bissau, international authorities are growing increasingly concerned that his government could fall and the country could essentially be lost to the drug cartels, who might end up in control of the country.
The FT explored the situation in a lengthy report published this weekend. According to President Embaló, who faced his tiny country of 1.8M with a live broadcast the day after the assassination attempt - one of many high-profile coup attempts carried out both across the region and the globe - and told them that 7 of his own defense personnel had been killed during the attack. On Thursday, a regional body said it would deploy troops to help stabilize Guinea-Bissau.
The "attempt to kill the president, the prime minister and all the cabinet” was perpetrated by "an isolated force...linked to the people we fought," Embaló said after the attack had ended. The “failed attack against democracy...was well-prepared and organised and could also be related to people involved in drug trafficking."
Here's the problem (or at least what Embaló's drug trafficking enemies perceive to be the problem): elsewhere across the region, the unrest reflects unhappiness with government’s ability to stem rising jihadi violence. But the situation in Guinea-Bissau is tied to the corrupting influence of drug traffickers, who have enough money and arms to keep the jihadis at bay on their own.
Some even question if it was really a coup attempt. Embaló, who won the presidency in a highly disputed 2019 election, has characterized himself as a prosecutor of drug traffickers whose influence has become deeply entrenched throughout the country's military and the private economy.
According to the FT, South American drug cartels first established themselves in Guinea-Bissau in the early 2000s, exploiting its geography and feeble government to create a reliable new waystation for cocaine to travel on its way from Bolivia or Peru to Europe.
But while Embaló has never personally been implicated in trafficking, he hasn't shied away from certain local figures who have.
Traffickers switched their attention to neighbouring countries but Guinea-Bissau is again central to the trade, according to experts. Antonio Indjai, the ex-general that the US government last year called “one of the most powerful destabilising figures in Guinea-Bissau” when it put up a $5mn reward for information leading to his arrest, lives freely in Bissau.
Indjai, who according to a 2013 US indictment helped orchestrate a cocaine-for-arms deal with Colombia’s Farc rebel groups, now tends his rural cashew farm. He was pictured with Embaló at the presidential palace in 2020. Embaló has ruled out extradition, and said last year during a trip to the US that he would encourage authorities to drop Indjai’s case.
In fact, critics say, despite the president's rhetoric, it appears that drug trafficking through the country has generally increased since he took office. This is why some believe that the president's decision to blame the attack on drug traffickers is really proof that it was a 'false flag' attack (and a deadly one at that). Others pointed out that other typical markers of a coup - border closures, flight cancellations etc - were never enacted by Embaló.
But why would a president do this? Critics say Embaló's relationship with the military is eroding, which is why he staged the coup: to give him an excuse to seek help from regional peacekeeping forces so the military doesn't stage an actual coup against him.
Blaming the attack on traffickers is a politically savvy move, Luis Vaz Martins, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist, told the Financial Times.
“But this has nothing to do with drug trafficking,” he said. “The general sentiment here is that this is a fake coup d’état.” The murkiness surrounding the attack — and questions of how the president survived a five-hour gun battle in a country where coups are normally bloody and swift — may partly reflect tensions with prime minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam, who is close to the military.
"The relationship between the president and his allies is tense, and because of that he might not feel safe being protected by his allies, so he’s trying to bring [West African regional bloc Ecowas] forces in order to have the protection he needs," Vaz Martins said. "To try to prevent what has happened in places like Mali, Conakry and Burkina."
Whether Embaló stays, or goes, one thing looks certain: Guinea-Bissau will remain a major hub for drug trafficking, especially as demand continues to rise not just in Europe, but in an increasingly wealthy Africa.