The following is an English translation of the original report, written in Portuguese for Expresso. To read the Expresso report in full, click here.
Former Prime Minister Aristides Gomes governed Guinea-Bissau three times. The last one, between 2018 and 2020, ended dramatically, when he was forced to take refuge for almost a year at the United Nations mission after Umaro Sissoco Embaló was sworn in as President and dismissed his government. He now lives in France, where he is a sociologist and professor.
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In an interview with Expresso while in Lisbon, Aristides Gomes explains the drug trafficking crisis and how Portugal was hasty in recognizing the new power in Bissau.
Micael Pereira: You were Prime Minister when the largest operations to seize cocaine took place in Guinea-Bissau. How did you follow up on those cases?
Aristides Gomes: We knew that drugs were circulating in the country. When I became Prime Minister again, in 2018, the first thing I did was to convene a Council of Ministers and make decisions that were essential for us to resume this fight. We identified the variables of the political, economic and social crisis that the country was going through. The parties did not understand each other and Parliament was not functioning. One of these variables was drug trafficking, because it had implications for people in the defense and security apparatus and, also, politicians. It was necessary to take consistent measures.
Pereira: What measures did you take?
Gomes: I decided to give resources to the Judiciary Police and appointed the person who would become the hero of all this, Dr. Filomena [Mendes Lopes]. She had already been director-general of the Judiciary Police, but was fired as a result of an unpleasant situation involving her fight against drug trafficking.
Pereira: Who fired the director of the Judiciary Police?
Gomes: The government headed by the current President. According to sources connected to the police, she was fired because she was doing her job.
Pereira: In March 2019 Operation Carapau took place, in which almost 800 kilos of cocaine were seized. We learned that there was an intervention by the office of the then President José Mário Vaz in that operation.
Gomes: There were attempts to prevent our team from making the seizure. But we succeeded.
Pereira: Do you confirm that there was a contact from the President's office so that the refrigerated truck with the cocaine would be released?
Gomes: More than just a contact from the cabinet. But anyway ...
Pereira: The President himself?
Gomes: I think we should leave that part to History, for the historians who will do the research. It’s better that way, so it won’t be said that I am politicizing the issue.
Pereira: Six months later, the biggest seizure ever was made with Operation Navarra. How did it happen?
Gomes: Operation Navarra started in my office. It originated from SIS, the State Intelligence Service, which I was in charge of as Prime Minister. Therefore, it was thanks to the information that came to us from the entire SIS network that we were able to work efficiently with the police.
Pereira: Was there political pressure again?
Gomes: Let's not go into details ... There is always pressure in these cases.
Pereira: Was it the President again?
Pereira: Are you talking about people in power?
Gomes: I’m talking about people that have another kind of power, the power to do harm without going through the institutional route. When there was the inauguration ceremony of the new President [Sissoco, February 2020], I no longer had power. When they withdrew the ECOMIB forces that were protecting me, there were drug traffickers in front of my house that we had arrested. They were not people with institutional power, but they had the ability to do harm.
Pereira: What can you say about the masterminds behind Operation Navarra?
Gomes: There is one who is still at large. He left the country at the time of the operation, he was not captured, but right after the non-institutional takeover of the new President, he showed up in Bissau and he was much more protected than I was.
Pereira: What is the name of this individual?
Gomes: Braima Seidi Bá. He went to trial, but, being at large, he came back. With military protection. Then there was a fuss. I wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations. And that made my situation worse.
Pereira: To what extent has your life been affected by these drug cases?
Gomes: The drug seizures had a very negative influence on me. I was a popular Prime Minister. I was appointed because everyone was in agreement, all the parties represented in the Parliament and the President himself. After those seizures, the divergence with some opposition parties became brutal.
Pereira: Which parties are you referring to?
Gomes: MADEM. I was surprised by the attacks from its leaders, minutes after we had seized the cocaine and captured the drug traffickers. MADEM and the President at the time did everything to replace my government. All this in the aftermath of Operations Carapau and Navarra. We arrived at the Presidential elections in an atmosphere of great tension.
Pereira: And what happened in the elections?
Gomes: In the second round, there was a contentious situation. The Supreme Court of Justice decided that the National Election Commission did not fulfill all the conditions to announce the results. In a contentious situation, the voice of the Supreme Court should prevail. We were waiting for a final decision. That's when the problems started again. There was a war within ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] itself, between factions. There were heads of state who supported Sissoco and others who thought that the matter should be clarified in a judicial way before the takeover. A mission of ECOWAS magistrates came to Dakar, but could not proceed to Bissau. The argument was that Sissoco had already done the investiture and decided that the ECOWAS forces should leave.
Pereira: Did Sissoco take over by force?
Gomes: Yes. Although he did not have the majority of the deputies present for the investiture, he had the support of almost all the armed forces. That takeover happened by force. I had a meeting with most of the ambassadors. I told them: there is a takeover going on, but I don't recognize it, because the dossier is still in the Supreme Court. And they all agreed with me. The Portuguese ambassador made a great speech. Then the first decree that Sissoco made was the resignation of my government.
Pereira: And how did ECOWAS react?
Gomes: There was internal dispute, but with covid, they ended up having a virtual conference and, in the end, Issoufou declared the recognition of Sissoco. All the others who had said they didn't recognize Sissoco went on to say that they took note of the fact that ECOWAS recognized Sissoco. Portugal did what we all saw. They went ahead in recognizing Sissoco. He was received in Portugal by the President and the Prime Minister.
Pereira: There is a famous picture, after the inauguration, with a number of military men around the President. One of them is General Indjai. What role did he play in bringing Sissoco to power?
Gomes: I think he played an important role in building that consensus within the defense and security forces to allow that takeover. In that photograph, you can see the coalition that was made between civilians and the military.
Pereira: Indjai is wanted by the American justice system for drug trafficking.
Gomes: He is not the only one wanted by the justice system in that photograph.
Pereira: You ended up taking refuge in the UN mission. How long did you stay there?
Gomes: Eleven months, almost a year. There had to be prosecutions against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice, the director of the Judiciary Police, the inspectors who worked in the two operations. There couldn't be any major seizures. When the ECOWAS forces left the country, I was left without security. The police and the national guard came to my house. That's when ECOWAS and the United Nations, to avoid scandal, sent representatives to my house. They told me, "You no longer have protection and these people want to enter your house, so you should leave with us."
Pereira: How do you see Portugal's position?
Gomes: I saw haste on the part of the Prime Minister and the President in inviting Sissoco. By going to Bissau. Perhaps there could have been some distance that would allow an appeasing dynamic. Although I would also never advise Portugal to immediately break with a new regime in Bissau.
Pereira: Do you feel [Portugal] President Marcelo's visit to Bissau last year was rushed?
Gomes: If this haste had served to pressure for human rights to be respected more, President Marcelo would have played a fundamental role. But the violation of human rights continues. One cannot understand that individuals are taken to the presidency to be tortured and that journalists are kidnapped and beaten.
Pereira: Is Sissoco connected to these cases?
Gomes: Directly. The MADEM activists who criticized Sissoco were taken to the palace and tortured by the President's cabinet. I would like (Portugal's) President Marcelo to have a role in stopping this. Portugal has a certain responsibility, given the history and the relationship between us. I would appreciate Marcelo saying that the President of Guinea-Bissau should pay more attention to human rights. If that doesn't happen, the relationship between us is a little hollowed out.
This interview is part of an investigative project produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center and with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.