More Trouble in West Africa's Narco State

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Presidential candidate Baciro Dabo

Some were actually hoping the wretched west African nation of Guinea-Bissau might have a fresh start this summer. In March, both the country's dictatorial President, Joao Bernardo Vieira, and its mighty army chief Tagme Na Waie were assassinated, creating something of a clean slate, a chance for the country to start anew with a presidential election scheduled for June 28.

But it was not to be. On June 5, a day before the election campaign was due to kick off, soldiers stormed the house of candidate Baciro Dabo and killed him. He had been planning a coup and was resisting arrest, the government says. He was assassinated in his bed, maintains his family.

The striking thing about a visit to Dabo's house in the capital, Bissau, hours after his death was the silence. Neighbors had come out in droves to watch the house from the sidewalk, but all stared with numb expressions on their faces. For them, this was just another symptom of the infighting that has plagued Guinea-Bissau since even before its independence in 1975, when the leader of the liberation movement against Portuguese colonization was killed by his own men. These small conflicts sometimes bloom into bigger bloodbaths, like the civil war in 1998, which pitted Vieira against a revolting army and left thousands dead.

Hardly anyone believes the official line that Dabo's death at the hands of the military was not orchestrated. The army has always been the main source of political power in Guinea-Bissau and has shown itself willing to interfere in politics all too often. What's worrisome about Dabo's and other recent assassinations is that it is unclear who is behind the killings. The army itself may be splitting into different factions along lines of ethnicity and preferences for the presidency. The army lacks a clear leader. Since the death of General Waie at the hands of unknown assassins, no one knows who, if anyone, is really in control.

Dabo served under assassinated President Vieira as Minister of the Interior, among other functions, and their faction made a host of enemies within the armed forces. Most of this antagonism dates back to the civil war, when Vieira tried to impose his will on a majority of the army with the aid of foreign military intervention. "This was a settling of political scores," said the president of the national Human Rights Commission, Luis Vaz Martins, speaking to TIME at Dabo's funeral. "It shows the complete absence of state authority." Martins fears that the country may be sliding back into civil war.

Richard Moncrieff of the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that will shortly publish a report on Guinea-Bissau, concurs. "The country is essentially being held hostage by various factions in the armed forces who try to control the political environment," he tells TIME. "Civil politicians have a gun at their heads."

In this environment, it is near impossible to build any state institution that is not mired with clientelism, let alone hold proper elections. Adding to this toxic cocktail is the drug trade, which according to the U.N. is rampant in the country. Latin American traders are said to be shipping in as much as several hundred pounds of cocaine per week, en route to European markets. Though the figure is difficult to pin down, Vladimir Monteiro of the U.N. peace-building support office in Guinea-Bissau says the sums involved are enormous for such a poor country and that the smugglers get a lot of cooperation from within.

The powerful in Guinea-Bissau are routinely rumored to have ties with smugglers, and that included Dabo, but diplomats admit that when it comes to evidence, they have little to go on and the amounts of money involved may be overestimated. What is known about the drug trade, however, is that it provides an alternative source of wealth, and thus of power. After all, in a country that according to the World Bank had a gross national income of only $300 million in 2007, a few million coke dollars can have a huge impact. As people in Guinea-Bissau like to joke: If the international community won't finance reform, the Colombians will.

Observers agree that central to any social, political or economic stability in Guinea-Bissau is army reform. The country has a standing army of 4,500, the biggest armed force per capita in the region. But unpaid and unwilling to relinquish their influence, the army is not likely to submit to civilian authority anytime soon. "Drugs do not improve the situation, but they are not key to the instability here," says general Juan Esteban Verástegui, who runs an E.U. mission to help stabilize Guinea-Bissau. "Over the years, starting with the guerrilla war against Portuguese colonization, [leaders have] developed very bad ways of running the country, leaning way too much on the army to sort things out."

Verástegui has for the past year been advising the government on ways to reform and contain the role of the military. But recent events show the process has far to go. And that bodes ill for the upcoming elections. "This wasn't the last one," said a bystander at Dabo's funeral. As they wait to see who's next, the people of Guinea-Bissau are once again holding their breath.