Security forces in Guinea-Bissau have thwarted a coup after gunmen attempted to overthrow the west African country’s government in an attack that may have been linked to drug trafficking, President Umaro Sissoco Embaló said in a video address.
Heavy gunfire had erupted on Tuesday in the capital Bissau near the government palace, where Embaló was presiding over a cabinet meeting, according to news agencies.
The attempted overthrow followed a surge of coups across the region: soldiers in Mali, Guinea, Chad and – last week – Burkina Faso have seized power amid rising insecurity and economic malaise.
Embaló said “many” security personnel had died but did not specify how many, in what he called a “failed attack against democracy” that “was well prepared and organized and could also be related to people involved in drug trafficking”.
“It was not just a coup. It was an attempt to kill the president, the prime minister and all the cabinet, ”he said, adding that the action was not linked to the army.
Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, has at times been referred to as Africa’s first narco-state because of the control drug traffickers have exerted over it as a hub for Latin American cocaine moving to Europe.
The attack came as fears of coups have spread across west Africa. “The ‘coup’ virus is now airborne across the subregion,” W Gyude Moore, former Liberian public works minister and senior policy fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development, wrote on Twitter. Unconfirmed videos on social media showed heavy fire in Bissau on Tuesday afternoon.
The Economic Community of West African States earlier on Tuesday condemned what it referred to as an “attempted coup”. In a statement, the 15-member regional bloc said: “Ecowas asks the military to return to their barracks and maintain a republican posture.”
The group issued a nearly identical statement last Sunday when gunfire erupted in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. The next day, soldiers announced on state television that they had overthrown President Roch Kaboré, suspended the constitution and dissolved the government. Coup leader Lt Col Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba was this week named interim president and head of the armed forces.
The move by Burkina’s junta followed a pattern set by Mali’s Col Assimi Goïta, who led the overthrow of the democratically elected government in August 2020 and fully seized power in May 2021, naming himself interim president.
Ecowas has repeatedly condemned the coups among its members, suspending and taking sanctions against countries where governments have fallen. But Moore said the bloc was “overwhelmed”.
“It does not have the bandwidth to handle so many crises, in the midst of a pandemic, while every member faces huge domestic issues,” he wrote.
The juntas leading Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali enjoy strong public support from citizens fed up with corrupt leadership, lack of development and the widespread insecurity that democratic elections have brought.
“Public distrust in civil governments is clearly on the rise, as shown by the popular support for unconstitutional change of power,” said Eric Humphery-Smith, Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. “This is a major reality check for the region’s rapidly declining list of democratic leaders.”
Guinea-Bissau has suffered nine attempted or successful coups since independence in 1974.