Until recently, José Ramos-Horta led the United Nations’ peace-building mission in Guinea-Bissau, stepping in a year and a half ago as the country reeled from a coup in 2012 and the UN’s former chief there, Joseph Mutaboba, quit his job under concerns for his safety.
Ramos-Horta, 64, is a former president of Timor-Leste, which won independence from Indonesia in 2002 after a long guerrilla war and the forced resignation of the dictator Suharto. Six years earlier, Ramos-Horta had shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the territory’s spiritual leader, for striving to end bloodshed and move peacefully to independence.
Ramos-Horta left Guinea-Bissau in late June to return to Timor-Leste and to become chief executive of UBrainTV, an Internet news service based in Tokyo. During a brief visit to the UN in New York in June, he spoke to PassBlue about Guinea-Bissau, a small but resource-rich nation in West Africa that has been called a narcostate and where no elected leader in the country, which won its freedom from Portugal in 1974, has ever finished his term because of coups and corruption. Even the African Union has suspended the country as a member because of its questionable democracy.
But Guinea-Bissau, a nation of 1.6 million people, just wound up a final round of presidential and parliamentary elections without a coup and little violence. The new president, José Mário Vaz, who was a defense minister when the 2012 coup occurred, has taken office. Domingos Simões Pereira is the new prime minister; both come from the PAIGC (in English, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde), a longstanding political party that is rife with infighting.
Q. Is Guinea-Bissau on the mend at last?
A. Yes, I’m very pleased with the outcome of my 18-month mission in Guinea-Bissau. At least in the narrow sense, as the Security Council mandated: there is a return to constitutional order. This has been 100 percent a success, but I measure success not only in the sense that we have witnessed an almost flawless electoral act, but I measure success in another dimension: in that I was able to instill a climate of peace, of tranquillity, of hope and of dialogue among the leaders and people of Guinea-Bissau, including the military. This was more important than the electoral act itself.
Q. What was the most important aspect of the dialogue among the leaders, the people and the military?
A. The key component was that everything was linked to the political process; to consider success you cannot disassociate one element from the other. This is part of the whole process; for the electoral process to be successful and long lasting after the voting day you have to get people to trust each other; you can only do that by talking to each other, by putting everything on the table. Be honest and frank and at the same time be respectful; have an inclusive approach so that the leaders who win the election reach out to those who lost the election. This was my road map to success Guinea-Bissau.
Q. People at the UN are always talking about “inclusiveness” in a postelection setting, but how do you apply such an approach?
A. It’s not easy. The temptation is that once you win the election why bother with those who lost? In the context of Guinea-Bissau and other very fragile postconflict situations, those who win in the ballot, if they wish to govern peacefully they must show humility and wisdom of the truly great leaders, reaching out to those who stayed behind in the election and bring them in; not necessarily everybody has to be a minister, but you can find creative, constructive to involve others.
Q. Was the military in Guinea-Bissau the wild card during the recent election?
A. The military has been very cooperative throughout the election, the electoral process; there were only some very minor incidents — two isolated incidents — none fatal. And within three hours of the election result announcement by the National Election Commission, the military issued a statement accepting the result.
Q. How did you persuade Antonio Indjai, the army chief in Guinea-Bissau, to cooperate, given that he was a leader in the 2010 coup, which catapulted him to the head of the army?
A. Not only me but there were other factors to persuade him to work constructively to stabilize his country; [it was emphasized] that this was a chance for him to show leadership, commitment; of course, some pressure was exerted by the US, by Ecowas [Economic Community of West African States]. The US ambassador [for Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, based in Dakar], Louis Lukens, went to Guinea-Bissau to visit him.
Q. The United States still has an international arrest warrant out on General Indjai for cocaine trafficking and other charges, right?
A. I would prefer to see the US simply drop the charges and give him and others a chance. I have already approached many UN Security Council members to lift the travel ban on General Indjai and others in the military. I know the Africans, as well as China, Russia and others supported the idea. I hope the US side and Europeans agree with that. The military have helped restore constitutional order. So the US side should show some wisdom and drop the charges.
Q. The country is said to be a major cocaine-trafficking hub from South America to Europe. Has the drug activity diminished?
A. It is significantly minute; there is much less drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau than in Bronx or Brooklyn or even in D.C.
Q. How do you back up the claim that drug trafficking is minute in the country?
A. I don’t have the numbers, no one ever had . . . in calling Guinea-Bissau a narcostate. Either I’m blind or I’m stupid, because the 18 months there I didn’t see any ostensible sign of wealth from money laundering, such as when you see that in some other neighboring cities in Africa.
Q. You see signs of wealth from drug trafficking in Senegal and elsewhere in the region?
A. Dakar [Senegal], I guess; that’s one. Banjul [Gambia]; or Conakry [Guinea]. Or Nouakchott [Mauritania]. But everybody simply says, weak, poor Guinea-Bissau; it’s easier to bash them . . . but it’s not happening. Even when it did happen two years ago, it was not like they claim, with daily flights; there are one or two airstrips, very small; you cannot fly small planes across the Atlantic, you need larger planes; they couldn’t fly those [to Guinea-Bissau].
Q. Has the UN Office on Drugs and Crime got it wrong, then, on its assessment of drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau?
A. I guess they have given it some poetic license.
Q. Did the recent conviction by the US of José Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, the Guinea-Bissau naval chief, for drug trafficking have an effect on the situation?
A. The drug lords [in Guinea-Bissau] left immediately after he was indicted.
Q. So the drug business has disappeared in the country?
A. There is still ongoing — Nigerians or Bissau-Guineans who live in Brazil, they swallow capsules of cocaine — a kilo or two in their stomachs or intestines. They allegedly leave some airport without being checked, go through Lisbon and then land in Bissau. Guinea-Bissau police arrest them; they look like zombies. They interrogate and force them to defecate. And I’m sure there still exists some slightly larger consignments coming through passenger luggage: because the airport is poorly checked in Guinea-Bissau, no sniffing dogs, and plus there is corruption at airport. We should not be naïve . . . a suitcase or two does get through on a weekly basis.
Q. Can you be more specific about the drug trade route from South America to Africa?
A. It’s coming from São Paulo; the drug cartel in Colombia, in Bolivia, is smuggled to Brazil by Nigerians or Guinea-Bissauans, who travel to Bissau via Lisbon or Casablanca or by Lomé [capital of Togo], but this is minute; you can imagine how much drugs on a daily basis sail through Lagos airport or Accra [Ghana] or Dakar, so it’s not fair to pick on poor Guinea-Bissau.
Q. Cashews are still a main crop of Guinea-Bissau?
A. The main cash export, plus a lot of timber, but that is being ripped off by loggers; a lot of fish; again, Guinea-Bissauans don’t benefit from that; everybody robs them.
Q. What can you say about the new prime minister, Domingos Simões Pereira?
A. A very good man, decent, moderate, conciliatory; the best possible prime minister for Guinea-Bissau. He’s experienced, modest, decent, no involvement in corruption; the newly elected president [José Mário Vaz] has just been sworn in — I hope they will be able to work together; they are both from same party.
Q. Do you think the country’s history of coups is over?
A. I hope so in the foreseeable future. I don’t see the danger of another coup. There is a realization by political leaders that they must engage the military in dialogue, in consultations; look into their well-being. The military has been neglected in many years, living in precarious conditions. Civilian leaders cannot always avoid their responsibilities and blame the military. The No. 1 problem in Guinea-Bissau was always the political leaders; and second, the military, and not the other way around.
Q. Is there extensive corruption in Guinea-Bissau?
A. The money [that is taken] comes from the state budget and not so much from development aid — from its own resources: cashews, fisheries, timber.
Q. Reuters recently reported on illegal logging in the country in which the timber — rosewood — is primarily going to China. Is that so?
A. The amount of logging they take is huge, hundreds of containers a month over the last two years.
Q. Do the Chinese hire local loggers to do the work?
A. Local loggers are hired by local officials and there is zero processing done [in the country] to create added value. The trees are shipped through raw to China.
Q. Will they run out of rosewood in the forest soon?
A. There is a national outcry — it was a topic of debate during the presidential election, and I believe the current prime minister will stop it: issue an order to freeze every license. You can easily stop it by ordering the closure of any such businesses until they have a strategy to replant trees and careful control of logging, with processing in the country to produce high-quality furniture for local and external markets.
Q. Would you say that you have taken a similar approach to Guinea-Bissau as you did to Timor-Leste?
A. Yes, also in the sense if I’m given a mission I accept it. You have to have serious respect for people and respect to the credibility, the image of the United Nations. The choice of the secretary-general has to be always very careful; you need the best possible, experienced people who are not looking for a salary, a job, but people who really care about peace, who care about other people. If I were to be asked to serve, let’s say, in Central African Republic, I would do that only because I see pictures of the women and children in that abominable suffering, so I would approach the problem on a very humane level to stop the killing. You cannot be too much of a bureaucrat when you’re dealing with a tragedy.
Q. What are the conditions for women in Guinea-Bissau?
A. Women are the greatest asset of the country, the hardest working; unprotesting. They work in the field all day long, then before going home, they fetch firewood, some water, carry the children on their back. While the men leisurely sit under the shade of trees debating issues of today or yesterday; they have some cashew alcohol, which animates the conversation and they show some impatience that the wife has not arrived to cook the rice.
Q. Given the resources of the country, are there competing interests from the outside to exploit it?
A. Countries have competing interests: China and Russia are there; Russia has a big embassy there; Russia was the country that most supported the struggle for independence. Guinea-Bissau is smart, it wants to balance a relationship with the US, China, Russia, their neighbors. The US is showing great interest; they sent a five-member delegation to the inauguration of the prime minister. They have seen a great interest of Russia and China. If you want to get the US interest, you get Russia and Chinese to come, or vice versa.
Q. What countries are mining in Guinea-Bissau?
A. Bauxite — Angola is interested but nothing is happening. A US company is interested in phosphate; Russia is interested in heavy sand. It remains to be seen whether any of it will benefit the people.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.