“There is obviously a serious drug problem here; many people are involved at different levels of the politics, of the government, of the army. But I still have difficulties accepting the label of ‘narco-state,’” said José Ramos-Horta, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau.
Mr. Ramos-Horta said that if the international community, especially Europe and the US, believe it is a serious threat, they should provide assistance with preventing Latin American drug cartels from using the country as a transit hub.
Yesterday, the UN Security Council extended the mission’s mandate and requested that it help fight organized crime and drug trafficking in the West African nation, which has a history of military coups.
Mr. Ramos-Horta said a key priority of his office is to reform the armed forces and the judiciary and help improve democratic governance in the country. He said the entire military needs reorganizing, a process that will take up to five years. He said that while some soldiers have been involved in the drug trade, “the vast majority of the soldiers and officers are simply people who have been neglected for years” and are living in “unbelievable poor, precarious conditions.”
“In such conditions, is a bit too much to expect that there can be discipline and ethics,” he said.
He said the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), particularly Nigeria and Senegal, are best positioned to lead this process, and have already started to put in money to rebuild the barracks.
Mr. Ramos-Horta said that many of the country’s highly educated citizens leave for Portugal, Belgium, France, and elsewhere because of Guinea-Bissau’s political uncertainty and limited economic opportunities. “If there is a significant re-engagement by the international community to rebuild the country and the institution of the state, there will be no difficulties in bringing back some of these highly educated people,” he said.
Mr. Ramos-Horta said that he sometimes puzzles over why Guinea-Bissau has not descended into anarchy, when so many other impoverished, multi-ethnic African nations have. “There is no civil war here, there is no gang warfare here. There are already naturally good existing social conditions, political conditions, to build a more stable, prosperous future.”
“It’s really a magnificent people, and they should be helped and compensated for it, rather than continue to be neglected.”
The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Warren Hoge: Our guest today in the Global Observatory is José Ramos-Horta, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau, one of the world’s poorest countries and currently a hub of international drug traffic with extremely volatile politics and a history of military coups, presents great challenges for the UN. And Mr. Ramos-Horta, the UN’s man there, brings particularly impressive credentials to the job, being a former president and prime minister of his country, Timor-Leste, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1996 for helping bring peace and justice to his own conflicted land.
José, welcome. I want to ask you first about the immediate goals of the mission or of the country. I understand that there is a plan to hold elections. When are those elections, and is there a road map to get to that point, and then also to consolidate things once the elections have been held?
José Ramos-Horta: Elections will be held towards the end of the month of November this year, and this transition period will then end, followed by the second phase of the international engagement, and that will be essentially to help assist in a proactive manner to rebuild the institutions of the state.
It has taken some painstaking efforts on the part of all of us here—not only myself, but particularly efforts by the political leaders here, the transitional president, the transitional prime minister, the National Assembly, political parties—engaged in dialogue to form a transition period road map leading from now until elections in November. It has not been easy, but nothing is easy anywhere when we have so many political parties, differences of opinion, of ambitions, etc.
The situation remains largely calm, although [with] much tension; poverty is wide spread, deep rooted; child malnutrition and health issues are rampant. The United Nations agencies here, from UNICEF to World Food Program (WHO), [are] struggling with very limited resources, trying to help out as much as possible.
WH: José, is the country getting assistance from its immediate region? Are groups like the AU and ECOWAS active in helping restore Guinea-Bissau?
JRH: I would commend definitely ECOWAS, the West African regional group, for the active leadership in spite of the many challenges they face in their own respective countries; some of them in spite of limited resources. They’re the ones who should take credit for acting fast following the coup to prevent the country from sliding further into anarchy. They impose on the political leaders of this country, this transitional regime that’s still in place; they prevent the dissolution of the constitution and the National Assembly. They also provide millions of dollars in cash to pay civil servants, the army, etc. But also, the international community, from the European Union and other bilateral donors, while they have imposed sanctions on the government, stopping, for instance, some government funded programs, they have not stopped humanitarian assistance. And this has prevented Guinea-Bissau from becoming a total humanitarian catastrophe, a total political chaos. So we are now having a good partnership with the United Nations, with the European Union, African Union, ECOWAS, the Portuguese-speaking community, the UN partner agencies, assisting in different ways within constrains of our own budget limitation to prevent humanitarian catastrophe and put Guinea-Bissau on track, in terms of restoration of constitution order.
WH: I mentioned at the outset that Guinea-Bissau is well known as an international drug traffic place. It has a coastline that’s usable by smugglers, it has all those 80+ islands where airplanes can land and take off and transport drugs to Europe and back to United States. Is there a plan for trying to eradicate that drug traffic, and does that plan involve substituting drugs with something else that can create an economy for the people of Guinea-Bissau?
JRH: First, as we know, the drugs originate in Latin America primarily, and elsewhere in the world, but particularly in Europe. Guinea-Bissau, like most West African states, [is] primarily a transit routes for the drug business. There is obviously a serious drug problem here; many people are involved at different levels of the politics, of the government, of the army. But I still have difficulties accepting the label of “narco-state.” If Guinea-Bissau were to be a narco-state, I could mention why there are few others that more fit that description. Regardless of whether it is indeed a narco-state or not, it is important that the international community, particularly the Europeans and the United States, if they believe that Guinea-Bissau presents a serious threat because it is a narco-state, they should re-engage the country immediately to provide assistance to prevent the drug cartels of Latin America for making use of such a fragile poor country turning into a narco-state.
I made this case when I was in New York, Paris just now, and I am confident that we will see renewed financial, technical assistance to Guinea-Bissau working with authorities here to improve their maritime surveyors, to improve their judiciary and the police so that they can do a better job in preventing the country from continuing to be used by the drug cartels.
WH: Now Guinea-Bissau is one of the few countries participating in the work of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. How is that working out?
JRH: I was very pleased in my recent discussions in New York with the Peacebuilding Commission, with the Head of the Peacebuilding Office and Assistant Secretary-General Judith Cheng-Hopkins, that there is a readiness to re-engage Guinea-Bissau as soon as we have the new transitional government in place, hopefully in the next few days or week or two, in order to assist in some very vital areas, like continuing what the Peacebuilding Fund has done in the recent past in regards to the modernization reform of the armed forces, the judiciary, and some other fast-break initiatives to help consolidating, improving democratic governance in this country.
And I believe that the Peacebuilding Fund, Peacebuilding Commission were some of the best, most innovative initiatives of the United Nations. It should be supported, so that it can deploy more resources into transition situations like Guinea-Bissau, fragile situations that cannot afford to wait for too long for donor funding to assist in rebuilding the institutions of the state.
WH: Now the military forces in Guinea-Bissau have over the years intervened to take over the government, and in more recent years, they’ve actually participated in the drug trade themselves, or at least they’ve been charged with participating in the drug trade. Is there a plan for rebuilding the military forces into a smaller but efficient and reliable force? And are there officers already there on which you can build a new force, officers who have not been prejudice or tainted by the behavior of their bosses who may have participated in the drug trade?
JRH: There is not obviously everybody in the army that is involved in corruption and drugs. There are some, but the vast majority of the soldiers and officers are simply people who have been neglected for years, because the army, as an institution, does not exist as such. There are people with uniforms, there are people with weapons living [in] extremely, extremely poor precarious conditions, including unbelievable poor precarious conditions of the barracks. In such conditions, is a bit too much to expect that there can be discipline and ethics. So, we have to reorganize, assist in reorganizing the entire army from A to Z, and that will take time, from at least a minimum of two-three years to five years. ECOWAS, particularly Nigeria and Senegal, are best positioned to lead this process, and they have already started putting in money to rebuild the barracks and at the same time helping with the pension fund which the Peacebuilding Fund of the United Nations will also be engaged.
I believe there are younger officers, some of them highly educated, others can be sent to take courses in areas in West Africa. I have had discussions with the French as well as the Nigerian and Senegalese, and they are more than happy to take officers into their academies. Brazil also has had significant programs in assisting with law and order, like with the police training here. The Brazilians have taught a very good police training academy here, both infrastructure as well as equipment. However, it has not yet operated precisely because of the coup. As soon as we have a new transitional government in place, the Brazilians are prepared to resume immediately their assistance in the police training program.
WH: I want to ask you about the nation’s population. They have been through a lot in the forty years of Guinea-Bissau’s independence. They have a lot of reason not to trust anybody, but are there individuals and civil society institutions on which you can restore the country? Is there a disposition within the population to change Guinea-Bissau in the profound manner that it needs to change?
JRH: There are many, many good people in Guinea-Bissau. In the civil society, for instance, this country has a very high number of highly educated people with Masters degrees, PhDs. Some of them work in very senior positions in international bodies.
There is, for instance, Mr. Carlos Lopes, one of the very top undersecretary-generals of the United Nations in charge of the entire United Nations Economic Commission for Africa based in Addis Ababa. He is a top academic. There was another one, a very senior World Bank official from the Guinea-Bissau, Mr. Paulo Gomez, and many others. I just mentioned these two, but there are numerous lawyers, prosecutors, judges; there are hundreds Bissau-Guinean doctors.
However, they are in Europe, they are in Portugal, they are in Belgium, in France. So, there isn’t a lack of highly educated people. However, they’re away, because of political uncertainty, or because of economic financial conditions. So, if there is a significant re-engagement by the international community to rebuild the country and the institution of the state, there will be no difficulties in bringing back some of these highly educated people. However, even here in Guinea-Bissau, there are people who never left in spite of the difficulties working in miserable conditions in hospitals, and elsewhere. They should be chosen first, supported first with better conditions, with more dignity, so that they feel recognized and compensated for their sacrifices.
WH: Let me continue on this optimistic side and ask you: Guinea-Bissau is a nation that brings together many ethnic groups, yet it has been spared the kind of ethnic violence that has emerged in other countries in its region. How do you explain that?
JRH: Well, I often wonder, puzzle, and am pleased that this very multi-ethnic, these very distinct groups, so many of them in small territory, different religions, disappointed, betrayed for many decades, and with extreme poverty—they have not descended into anarchy, into violence like looting stores, shops, vandalizing private and state properties, etc. It’s really a magnificent people, and they should be helped and compensated for it, rather than continue to be neglected.
I say sometimes, Bissau-Guineans should teach us in other parts of the world, how, in spite of poverty, they have avoided civil wars, they have avoided ethnic-religious conflicts. I am still puzzled. So, I can only say I am very pleased, because this is one quality and one less problem for us to have to deal with. There is no civil war here, there is no gang warfare here. There are already naturally good existing social conditions, political conditions, to build a more stable, prosperous future.
WH: Our guest today for the Global Observatory has been José Ramos-Horta, the SRSG for Guinea-Bissau. On behalf of all of us here, we wish you the best of luck there in Guinea-Bissau.
JRH: Thank you Warren, and God bless you all.