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Narco-state or failed state? Guinea-Bissau and the framing of Africa

Supporters of presidential candidate José Mário Vaz cheer at a campaign rally in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, in 2014. Reuters/Joe Penney

For the vast majority, knowledge and understanding of the African political landscape is gained not from personal experience but from mass media. Those with a global reach and appeal often have the most influence.

Media has the ability to create frames through which people and even governments view countries and regions. These in turn influence policy on aid, international security and trade. Countries can be represented in ways that can be hugely simplistic and overwhelmingly negative.

The importance of framing and representation of African states was brought home forcefully when I started reading the new book “Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to ‘Narco-State’.” This much-needed, detailed and minutely-researched collection of chapters is edited by Toby Green and the late Patrick Chabal. The book will be welcomed by those with a specific interest in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau. But it is also of great value for those interested in the dynamics of the so-called micro and fragile states.

A shining example of media framing

Guinea-Bissau has exemplified media framing and been given a particular image of failure and criminality to that country. It is worth briefly explaining what I mean by framing and representation. Framing involves the basic selection of which stories are reported by the media and which are not. It involves which countries are regularly in the news and which rarely figure but, when they do, are presented in simplified ways.

Framing is also in the telling of sensational stories that do not represent the reality or the country they are portraying. This leads to the establishment and periodic reinforcement of negative and misleading images of states, particularly those only reported when something appalling or novel has happened in them.

The new book provides a timely antidote to the potentially poisonous and certainly misleading portrayal of Guinea-Bissau as a failed state – that and the implication that it has become a narco-state that exists only in some sort of criminal underworld among states. This representation of a whole state and its people in the international criminal frame sits alongside other frames used to categorise Africa. The others include war on terror, humanitarian crisis, basket case and general failed state frames.

There are endless examples of how Guinea-Bissau is presented as a narco-state in the world media. A detailed piece in the Guardian is instructive. The newspaper’s reporting on Africa has generally been more thoughtful. But in this article the paper reported that despite its surface appearance as a potential tourist paradise the country was fighting to end its position as the world’s first narco-state.

A picture emerges of a poor, violence-wracked state with empty beaches and guesthouses. The only trade that is of importance is the drugs trade. The crux of the article is that attempts are being made internally with crucial external support to fight the trade but are not making progress. The trade in narcotics is also treated as something that has caused conflict and poverty rather than as a symptom of it.

Changing from within

The Green and Chabal volume turns that simplistic view on its head. It looks at deep-seated, historical problems of political legitimacy, and of economic subordination within a global trading system. It also examines the use of force and informal networks of power by competing political and military elites. The contributors don’t pull their punches about the recurrent political and economic crises. They note the development of the drug trade as a means of providing rents for the elites when other income sources either declined or dried up. They also examine the weakness of the state institutions and the porosity of the country’s borders.

The modern failures to establish legitimacy and accountability and the use of ethnicity as a weapon in political struggles are clearly located by the authors in history. They are pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial.

In this, Green’s contributions stand out as the most lucid and well-argued. He agrees that Guinea-Bissau meets the criteria of the Western-imposed narratives of failed state. But he points out the failings of the narco-state approach, with its implicit belief “that successful change can only come from outside the country”.

He goes on to press the convincing case that “the realities are more complex”. These relate to internal factors and indicate the need for indigenous solutions and the building of a nation from within and below, rather than from above and outside. He points out that despite the role of elites in the drug trade, and the recent history of coups and political violence, “day-to-day life in the country remains peaceful, in contrast to the stereotyped image.”

What makes the book particularly enlightening is the way it places the history and narrative of Guinea-Bissau as a state in context. It should be emphasised that it is a very nuanced approach to sub-Saharan African political and economic development. Power is very personalised and dependent on transactions between political patrons and their clients. This is within the context of unequal trade between African economies and the outside world.

These patterns developed before colonialism, and were entrenched and deepened during colonial rule. They have remained in place because of the interest of gatekeeping elites and their patronage networks. Power and wealth are accumulated through being the conduits for income from trade, aid and foreign finance. When income from trade in peanuts and then cashews fell in Guinea-Bissau, a new form of local gatekeeping emerged.

Guinea-Bissau is not a criminal state

The overall analysis and the concepts deployed are used as analytical tools in the context of Guinea-Bissau and its own history. This is not some overall and hugely simplified, one-size-fits-all African frame. Guinea-Bissau’s problems are common to much of Africa. But the manner in which these have developed are individual to each country.

Hassoum Ceesay, in his analysis of the narco-state discourse, makes very clear that Guinea-Bissau is not a criminal state. He points out that the drugs trade does not explain the political and societal challenges facing the country, but is a product of them.

Ethnicity is another common and misleading frame used by the media to describe the root of African conflict or political instability. But in Christoph Kohl’s chapter, it is something manipulated by political and military leaders for their own ends rather than a causal factor in itself.

The main conclusion of the work is that despite the evident weakness of state institutions and accountability of elites, Guinea-Bissau “is still a country that ‘works’.” As such, labels such as failed state, so glibly applied to Africa, are a hindrance to understanding the dynamics of development and change across Africa.

Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to ‘Narco-State’,” edited by Patrick Chabal and Toby Green, is published by Hurst.

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