DAKAR (AFP) – Labelled a drug baron by the US, which snatched him on the high seas off west Africa this week, Guinea-Bissau military kingpin Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto enjoys certain celebrity in his home country despite being a man of controversy.
“Bubo”, as he is better known, has found himself time and again welcomed with open arms by the people of Bissau, even after one of his close friends deposed the head of the army in a mutiny and after being held for plotting a coup.
“I haven’t given money to all the people who salute me but they love me,” he once told AFP from the driving seat of a four-wheel drive jeep, one of a fleet of luxury cars he owns, including prestigious American makes.
The people see him as “a brave soldier of the war of liberation” that led to independence from Portugal in 1974, he boasted.
The athletic-looking sexagenarian with a reputation for largesse is as popular in the military as with civilians, and especially so among the lower ranked sailor, thanks to his former role as navy chief.
He is described by admirers in the armed forces as effective on the ground, a good manager and a man-of-the-people, close to the rank-and-file.
Yet he remains one of the most controversial officers in Guinea-Bissau, a precarious economy notorious as a hub of drug trafficking between South America and Europe, but also an entry point for drugs headed to other west African countries.
The United States has included Bubo on its list of Guinea-Bissau “drug barons” since April 2010, when Washington announced a freeze on his US-based assets and a ban on Americans carrying out “commercial and financial transactions” with him.
The same directive applied to Ibraima Papa Camara, then chief of staff of the Air Force of Guinea-Bissau.
Both were “involved in drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau and are primarily linked to an aircraft suspected of ferrying hundreds of kilos of cocaine from Venezuela to Guinea-Bissau July 12, 2008,” the Americans said.
They said they had long suspected Bubo of being “a major drug trafficker” in his country.
In August 2008 he fled to neighbouring Gambia over the drug trafficking accusations, spending 18 months there before making a clandestine return home.
He took refuge for a time with the UN before parading through the streets of Bissau when his rival, General Zamora Induta, lost the leadership of the army in a military mutiny orchestrated by Bubo’s friend and ally Antonio Indjai.
“Those who have accused me are gone,” Bubo said in 2010, despite continuing suspicions over his links to several aborted or successful coups in Guinea-Bissau, a country prey to chronic instability and marred by violence in which the military is often implicated.
On December 26, 2011, he was accused of being the mastermind behind an attack on a barracks near Bissau described by the authorities as an attempted coup. Arrested after the attack, Bubo was released without charge in June 2012.
Since then he has not held an official position in the army.
Asked about his fortune in 2010, the married father of several children said he had no money abroad but had become rich as head of the navy by claiming a percentage from taxes obtained from boats in Guinea-Bissau waters.
“I also have friends like the Gambian president (Yahya Jammeh), who often helps me financially,” he said.