President Umaro Sissoco Embalo’s crusade against drugs and corruption in Guinea-Bissau

Umaro Sissoco Embalo is not the modest type. “I have no role model, I admire no one”, assures the Bissau-Guinean president, all dressed in bazin, in the comfortable living room of his residence in the district of zone 7, in Bissau. In one hour of interview with The World Africa, the strong man of the country, who came to power a year and a half ago, has nevertheless continued to compare himself to his counterparts around the world … and in particular to the Filipino Rodrigo Duterte, a populist leader who has distinguished himself since his election in 2016 by serious human rights violations in the name of the fight against drug trafficking and the defense of national security. “In three months, he put an end to many institutionalized practices”, prefers to retain Umaro Sissoco Embalo.

Known for his outspokenness and anxious to display himself as a strong man, this former brigadier general in the 1990s simply claims to “Embaloism”, which he summarizes as follows: “Order, discipline and development”. A recipe which should make it possible to put an end to the permanent instability of this country of less than 2 million inhabitants which has experienced four coups d’état and sixteen putsch attempts since independence obtained from Portugal in 1974. “There is no small state or small president”, asserts Umaro Sissoco Embalo.

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“Guinea-Bissau will no longer be the country you knew, where anyone does anything. It’s over, over! “, he launched to his voters, on December 29, 2019, on the evening of his surprise victory against the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), the historic independence formation. Qualified in the second round with barely 28% of the vote, the candidate of Madem-G15, a dissident party of the PAIGC, was able to bring together 18 opposition parties and various political figures of the country to win after a long post-election crisis.

“I decide, the others execute”

Always wearing a red keffiyeh during the campaign, the one who defines himself as ” anti-system “ Despite his past as Prime Minister (2016-2018), his youth (47 years old at the time) won over him and his declared ambition: the fight against the structural corruption that is plaguing the country. According to Transparency International, in 2018, Guinea-Bissau had one of the most corrupt public sectors in the world. On the pretext of wanting to fight this scourge, Umaro Sissoco Embalo has placed surveillance cameras “In all areas of Bissau”. As in Singapore, a city-state that “Was changed by one man”, he likes to compare, without naming Lee Kuan Yew, legendary and autocratic ruler (1959-1990) of the former British colony, whom he transformed into a flourishing economy.

A lover of media coverage, this former officer describes corruption as a “Social Covid” including both “Vaccines” would be “Discipline and order”. While hastening to clarify: “I am not a dictator! But when the boss is legal, society follows. “ He thus claims to have been at the origin of the imprisonment, in early May, of the former Minister of Health Antonio Deuna, accused of embezzlement. What does the separation of powers matter: “Here there is only one leader: I decide, the others execute. There is consultation, but I will never tolerate traffickers and corrupters. During the Covid, the WHO [Organisation mondiale de la santé] called for the release of prisoners: those who remained behind bars were accused of corruption, intentional homicide and drug trafficking or consumption. With me, these people will not have a presidential pardon. “

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According to him, this firm policy, by bringing stability, will help attract investors and get the country off the ground. A firmness that he says he applies in the fight against narcotics. Ready to fight ” by all means “ against the traffickers, he assures us that they miraculously “Deserted the country” since his election. An allegation impossible to verify and subject to caution, as Guinea-Bissau has established itself for decades as a drug hub. According to the UN, in 2018 at least 30 tonnes of cocaine entered and left the country each year. In September 2019, the local police and Interpol even carried out the biggest catch in the history of the country: nearly two tons of cocaine from Colombia.

Shortly after independence, the South American cartels took advantage of poverty and a failing administration to settle in this strategic area. On certain islands of the Bijagos archipelago, tracks have been drawn to land propeller cuckoos capable of flying for a few hours out of control radars. At the beginning of 2009, in this country described as a narco-state by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), President Nino Vieira was assassinated with a machete just after an attack targeting the Chief of Staff of the United Nations. armed forces against a backdrop of drug-related corruption. Three years later, generals involved in cocaine trafficking led the army to power.

Utility strike

If he assures that this time is over, a photo of Umaro Sissoco Embalo after his election continues to be controversial. He is seen posing alongside former Chief of Staff Antonio Indjai and General Ibrahima Papa Camara, both accused by the United States of being involved in drug trafficking when the military was in power . But the president has the answer to everything, even if it means changing his mind about his approach to justice: “I had heard this about Indjai, but he was never convicted or tried. I am not a magistrate! And at the time I was not here. I can tell you: no member of the army is involved in trafficking anymore. “

The president prides himself on attracting, since his election, heads of state from all over the world – “It had been thirty-one years since the Portuguese president had come here on an official visit” – and international donors, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Another event that he presents as a sign of appeasement: the gradual withdrawal, since 2020, of the troops deployed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) after the military coup of 2012.

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However, whatever he may say, all is not yet working in the right direction in Guinea-Bissau. Some public services have been on general strike since December. They are demanding in particular better working conditions and an increase in the monthly minimum wage (to 50,000 CFA francs, or about 76 euros) in a country which is still among the least developed in the world: 70% of the population lives below the threshold of poverty.

In Africa Umaro Sissoco Embalo does not only have friends. By declaring his opposition to the third terms, which he compared to “Coups d’etat”, he provoked the wrath of Alassane Ouattara and Alpha Condé, his Ivorian and Guinean counterparts, re-elected for the third time at the end of 2020 after contested polls. His allies have their names inscribed on the street signs of his district in zone 7. Among them, presidents Macky Sall (Senegal), Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria)… but also Denis Sassou-Nguesso (Congo-Brazzaville) , yet re-elected in March for a fourth consecutive term. But he professes his respect for the Congolese head of state, described as “A benchmark of Pan-Africanism”. Umaro Sissoco Embalo is not about a contradiction.