With his usual style, Frederick Forsyth has produced another gripping, page turning novel.  “The Cobra” pits single minded undercover operatives against the world of narcotic trafficking.  But for the residents of one small, poor West African state, The Cobra is a rare opportunity to see their country’s name in print other than in dry donor reports and security assessments.

Guinea Bissau has struggled with extreme instability since its independence from Portugal. It has endured coup, counter-coup, political assassinations and mutinies on a depressingly frequent basis. The population are poor and under-served by their government. The political and security elite are apparently indifferent to the country’s plight. The countries of the region appear unable or unwilling to help; and the international community seems to do little more than tinker ineffectually whilst the day to day lives of ordinary Bissau-Guineans continues hard. Standards of governance are low, and the institutions of state designed to promote security and access to justice are incredibly weak. (Guinea Bissau has only recently managed to get one prison operating at anything approaching a serviceable standard – and that’s because the international community needed somewhere to lock up drug smugglers with something approaching a clear conscience.) But the elite put very little effort into resolving the country’s difficulties – although the current Prime Minister has perhaps done more than most to address some of the key issues.

Thanks to its weakness and instability, Guinea Bissau has become a useful transit point for narcotics on their way from Latin America to Europe. And it seems clear that some individuals in Guinea Bissau have become rich in the process. For these people, there is little incentive to change: why give up a lucrative practice? For some time now, the international community have been trying to address the wider security sector problems, recognising that they are the key obstacle to progress. (Although this is not to underestimate the traditional development challenges which would remain once the security problems have been addressed.) But the latest incident, in which the Deputy Chief of Staff effectively mounted a coup within the military and had himself installed in place of his boss, has thrown international efforts into disarray. The European Union have decided to close down their security assistance mission, ECOWAS (a group of West African states) has effectively parked the question of intervening to help and the African Union are only now opening an office. This leaves the United Nations who are clearly an uncomfortable an uncomfortable observer of the game of often lethal musical chairs for which politics in Bissau can easily be mistaken.

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are living under conditions of grinding poverty and are largely resigned to the antics of their leaders. At one level, Guinea Bissau is a classic example of a country about which the international community knows little and cares less. There are a number of quite credible arguments for leaving Guinea Bissau to its inevitable decay and collapse. But these are short term and overlook the country’s potential impact on the wider world. Narcotic smuggling continues and there are signs that other trans-national criminal interests are moving in, attracted by the ability to operate not just outside the law but in an environment with no law. And some observers claim that Guinea Bissau risks falling to radical Islam as poverty tempts more and more people to seek alternatives to their apparently indifferent government. Left to its own devices, Guinea Bissau is at risk of becoming another weak and collapsing state in a volatile region. And who needs that?