Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to ‘Narco-State’ is a landmark volume which delves into the political tumult in the tiny West African nation over the last 18 years, says Dagna Rams.

The work on this volume was marked in 2014 by the death of famous Africanist and volume co-editor, Patrick Chabal. Many readers are familiar with Chabal’s commitment to terminology that is relevant to politics in African contexts instead of transplanting occidental theories – an exercise that almost always finds Africa lacking. Accordingly, the volume offers a balanced account of Guinea-Bissau that avoids extending the faults of its political leaders to the entire population. As Toby Green- the second editor- emphasises, “Guinea-Bissau ‘works’, and yet is a country that to all intents and purposes has had no functioning state for a decade or so” (p. 7).

The volume’s aim is to understand how the “instrumentalisation of disorder” (as Forrest’s assessment of post-Independence politics contends in this volume) among military and politicians has failed to spread across the society. In doing so, the authors critique the recent portrayal of Guinea-Bissau as a “narco-state” – a node in a drug trade that endangers international security – for an illegality perpetrated by a few should not define and castigate the society as a whole.

guinea-bissau_bookThe volume divides into three broadly-defined parts: “historical fragilities”, which looks at colonial legacies that frustrated post-colonial efforts, “manifestations of the crisis” and “political consequences of the crisis”. The crisis here refers to the protracted state of political instability that began around the civil war of 1998-9, which saw a number of coup d’états cut short the terms of all the successive presidents, and isolated Guinea-Bissau on the international political stage. According to the authors, the recent complicity of the elites in the international drug trade is a consequence of that downward trajectory.

By carefully keeping politics and civil society analytically apart, the authors were able to highlight the indigenous strategies of resilience. Kohl’s and Green’s contributions show that colonial and post-colonial political drives to solidify and instrumentalise ethnicity largely failed to take hold. People pursue inter-ethnic alliances and exogamous marriages that prevent divisions. Sarro and de Barros’s fascinating essay on religion in Guinea-Bissau shows how mixing of religions and religious alliances exist across society. We read about families, who “send one child to the mosque and another to the Catholic Church thus maximising alliances” (p. 122). The contributions of Temudo and Abrantes, and Havik focus in turn on the country’s main economy – cashew nut production that accounts for some 90 per cent of overall exports. As they point out, the agriculture has been in the hands of small farmers, who although unaided and under-recognised by the state, still managed to cultivate crops for export and domestic subsistence.

However, the volume also voices worries that the disruptive politics at the top might eventually exhaust the positive social forces. Massey’s contribution and Green’s conclusion warn against the growing reliance on drug trade for rents: “the urgent need for stable rents was clearly a contributing factor to the rise of the drug trade in the 2000s”, which in turn might disrupt local markets as those benefitting from the trade seek ways to launder money by buying land. Indeed, Temudo and Abrantes’ essay voices worries that the ability of the rural societies to deal with external shocks has been undermined by the recent neoliberal land use patterns that divert land from farming towards commercial use.

Roadside traders in Guinea Bissau Photo credit: Photo via Flickr ( CC BY-ND 2.0

Roadside traders in Guinea Bissau
Photo credit: Photo via Flickr ( CC BY-ND 2.0

How can this reliance on drug rents in the context of structural adjustment policies that reduced the role and power of the state be overcome? How can it be ensured that politicians and the military compromised by engagement in the illegal economy eventually take the path of reform? Nafafe points in the direction of the diaspora and suggests that overcoming the crisis would require its efforts. Ly turns towards women, who despite being the backbone of household’s survival are often spurned in the political life. The solution offered by the volume is strongly tied to what the authors perceive to be the country’s strength – its people.

The volume should be useful to historians of Lusophone Africa and West Africa. Many of the processes that it points towards in the Guinea-Bissau are also present elsewhere in the region. The authors also give a positive model of writing about the history of politics in an African context, interrogating the exact scope of state corruption and failure. They explain why Guinea-Bissau, unlike its neighbours in the region such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, was able to avoid a social conflict despite the political tumult. And they nuance our understanding of a “narco-state” as a dynamic picture of a dearth of rent-seeking options on one hand, and political corruption on the other. A state is not solely made of its politicians, runs the tacit message of the volume.

Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to ‘Narco-State’. Patrick Chabal and Toby Green (eds). Hurst Publishers. 2016.

Dagna Rams (@dagnna) is a doctoral student at the University of Lausanne. Her research is on politics and informal economies of electronic waste in Accra, Ghana.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.