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Cocaine 'mafia' launch bazooka attack on president as coup epidemic sweeps West Africa

Guinea-Bissau's president Umaro Embalo, speaking after the coup attempt against him CREDIT: AFP

For a man who had spent the afternoon stuck in a gun battle, President Umaro Embaló of Guinea Bissau seemed remarkably calm. Hours after troops attacked his offices with bazookas, he emerged for a press conference in a crisply-ironed shirt to reassure his people that the coup attempt had failed.

"We were attacked with very heavy weaponry for five hours," he said. "But our security forces were able to stop this evil."

Less reassuring was the lack of clarity over exactly what the "evil" was. Was it a plot by a rogue military faction or rival politician, as many suspected? Or was it - as Mr Embaló himself declared - the work of the Latino cocaine cartel "mafia" who use Guinea Bissau as a smuggling hub?

The idea that drug lords might kill an elected head of state may sound like an overblown script from the Netflix drama Narcos. Yet in Guinea Bissau, it would not be far-fetched: in 2009, the assassination of one of Mr Embalo's predecessors, Nino Vieira, was blamed on a fall-out with cartels that had bankrolled his regime.

More worrying still, last week's attempted "cocaine coup" is just the latest in a series of blows to west Africa's stability, with three other governments overthrown in 18 months.

The week before the attack on Mr Embalo, army officers in Burkina Faso removed President Roch Kabore, blaming him for failing to stop Islamist militants who have over-run the Sahel region. Discontent over the progress against the Islamists also sparked a coup against Mali's President Ibrahim Keita in August 2020, and an attempted coup in Niger in March 2021.

The Sahel state of Chad has also been under military rule since last May after its president of 30 years, Idriss Deby, died during fighting with anti-government rebels in the country's north.

President Alpha Conde was ousted by a special forces commander

Last October, a coup also took place in Guinea Bissau's southern neighbour, Guinea Conakry, where President Alpha Conde - a one-time protege of Tony Blair - was ousted by a special forces commander.

Diplomats fear West Africa risks being thrown back to its turbulent Cold War days, when it was known as the "coup belt" because of how often civilian rulers were deposed.

President Embalo narrowly avoided that fate earlier this month after his guards repelled the attackers, who struck during a cabinet meeting. "These were killers financed by the drug mafia," he said afterward. "They want to prevent my fight against international drug trafficking,"

Last week, he named three men previously jailed in the US for drug trafficking as those behind the coup attempt. Former navy admiral Bubo Na Tchuto and two aides were arrested in a DEA "sting operation" on a yacht off Guinea Bissau's coast in 2013, after agreeing to help smuggle tonnes of cocaine to Europe.

Mr Embalo said Mr Tchuto had orchestrated this month’s coup from a nearby military base, and that his two aides had taken part in the attack directly.

"During the coup, I see them with my eyes,” he added. "They want to make a coup and kill me and the prime minister and all the government."

President Embalo narrowly avoided that fate earlier this month after his guards repelled the attackers CREDIT: SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images

Mr Tchuto has not commented on the president's allegations, although he has been accused of involvement in past coup attempts. Some analysts speculate, though, that the president may even have staged the coup attempt himself in order to attract international protection.

"What does appear clear is that the attack was somehow linked to cocaine trafficking - either perpetrated by those involved in cocaine trafficking, or helpful in the administration’s positioning to observers abroad," said Lucia Bird, west Africa director for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

Right now though, Guinea Bissau is probably the least of the region's worries. Its population is only 1.5 million, and coup attempts have been a constant feature of life: 17 since independence in 1974.

Guinea-Conakry, by contrast, had enjoyed a decade of relative peace under Mr Conde, who outstayed his welcome by running for a third term aged 82. The country's military ruler has pledged fresh elections, but in the meantime Guinea-Conakry remains suspended by the regional power bloc, Ecowas.

In the last decade, Ecowas has won praise for promoting democratic rule. In 2015, for example, a coup attempt in Burkina Faso was stopped after regional leaders flew in to mediate. But this month, the bloc warned of coups becoming "contagious", thanks partly to the jihadist violence that has killed thousands across the Sahel and made 1.5 million homeless.

"Deteriorating security in Burkina Faso and Mali has encouraged a sense that civilian government isn't delivering, and that the military might do better," said Alex Vines, director of Chatham House's Africa programme. "These coups have some popular support, but the public is viewing the military through rose-tinted spectacles."

He added that Western military training missions to the Sahel had "ironically" built up the strength of national armies compared to other government institutions.

Complicating west Africa's security challenges are mercenaries from Russia's Wagner Group. They are already working for Mali's military rulers and are reported to be negotiating a contract with Burkina Faso's new putschists.

Last month, Sweden withdrew from a European special forces task group in Mali, refusing to work alongside Wagner. Other EU nations have similar reservations, potentially jeopardising the wider French-led counter-jihadism mission to the Sahel. Mali, meanwhile, has accused Europe of a "colonial" mindset by trying to dictate its security partners.

"Mali now has options between the West or the Russians, but long-term I don't think the Russians are credible partners," said Mr Vines. "They offer little on developmental issues, and are very far away - unlike the Europeans, for whom the Sahel trouble feels much nearer."