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Guinea-Bissau: Back to Cabral?

Since the April 2012 coup, the situation in Guinea-Bissau has barely changed. But that outward inaction could be deceptive.
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Graffiti outside Guinea-Bissau's parliament reads "No coup. Respect the people's decision." Photograph by Bram Posthumus.

Bissau, Guinea-Bissau:

Downtown Bissau is a strangely quiet place. There’s little traffic, except for a rare hive of activity around the small port. For most Bissau-Guineans, the April 2012 coup has had catastrophic economic consequences.

A walk through the crumbling streets of the city centre gives ample evidence of economic life having ground to an almost complete halt. Petrol stations are closed or working at low capacity. Most of the restaurants and bars, once one of the mainstays of the city’s economy, are virtually empty. There is little money inside the country and outside visitors are staying away.

Down one of those streets, a group of market women are keen to tell their side of the story. They all gave the same surname: Baldé.

“We’re from the suburbs,” one of them says, “and we have been sitting here all day. Normally we would be back home by lunchtime. It’s four in the afternoon now and look: we’re still here. The problem is, since the coup the money has dried up. We used to make up to $35 a day. Today, we’re down to maybe three or four. I wish the government all the best. If they work for us, it’s fine. That’s what we expect of them.”

On April 12, 2012 – in the lead-up to the presidential election run-off – soldiers attacked the residences of several high-level officials and claimed to have arrested Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, the front-runner in the election. The coup was likely motivated by discontent over Gomes Junior's attempt to use Angolan military presence in Guinea-Bissau to weaken the army and bolster his own position.

After the coup, there was wide international condemnation. But then the players that should have made a difference lost interest or dropped the ball. The Economic Organisation of West African States (ECOWAS) mediated the creation of an interim government, but this leadership lacks authority.

Discussion and democracy

The small but vocal intellectual class in Guinea-Bissau has decided that the solutions to the country’s many problems will not come from ECOWAS, or for that matter from the United Nations Integrated Peace-building Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNOGBIS), which resides in a lavish and impenetrable building near the port. It will have to come from within.

“We need to put the state on completely new foundations”, asserts Miguel de Barros, a young social scientist and a self-described fighter for democracy. “Yes, we reject the taking of power by force. But any civil movement that opposes the coup must go beyond our current political situation. We must debate the future of this country.”

We meet in Casa dos Direitos, or Human Rights House. It is, by far, the prettiest building in town with a freshly painted white wall. It is a place heavy with symbolism, in the middle of the decaying centre, opposite the massive fort where the army has its headquarters. The building is also Bissau’s oldest prison and was used by both the Portuguese and the one-party rulers of Bissau as a torture centre.

“We must know what kind of deals have been made with ECOWAS,” de Barros continues. “We must know exactly what kind of mandate the interim government has. How it’s being financed. We don’t know any of those things. And in the mid-term, we need electoral reform. We need transparency about how political parties are financed so that we don’t have money from criminal drug gangs entering our political system as is the case today. And yes, we do need army reform. For twenty years, the army has been recruiting in an informal and illegal fashion. All these things need to be discussed.”

Attempting a national dialogue

De Barros is not alone. The director of Casa dos Direitos, Nelson Constantino Lopes, works in an office right above the place where his father was once held prisoner.

“After independence, my father ran into trouble with the new government. For me, his incarceration is a powerful incentive to be here. But, even more importantly, it’s for my children. I want to leave behind a country where getting an education is regarded as normal, where respect for human and civil rights is the norm and where you can express yourself, which currently is forbidden,” he explains.

What these men envisage is a national debate in which everyone participates. The citizen’s resistance group Civil Action, which opposes the coup, is a starting point. “We need to know what people think,” de Barros concludes. “We need to get talking, in the schools, the universities, the poor parts of town, the rural areas, everywhere. And everyone should join in. We must create a critical mass for change.”

There are signs here and there of that ‘critical mass’ building up. There is anti-coup graffiti on the streets and the debates at Radio Bombolong are lively. In a rather incomprehensible move, the authorities have left this hugely popular talk radio station in peace.

People with dignity

But outside Guinea-Bissau, the movement remains virtually unnoticed. The world has more urgent issues to deal with such as Mali and Syria. But Latin American drugs barons continue their business in Bissau, providing income for the logistical services the soldiers use. Worryingly, the southern Senegalese province of Casamance, which borders Guinea-Bissau is also reporting an upsurge in uncertainty. Criminals rob travellers and steal cattle. Formalities on the Bissau-Senegal border are in place but security checks are perfunctory. The special Senegalese drugs police are by far the most thorough in their spot checks.

It would appear as if Guinea-Bissau’s intellectuals are looking for a return to the mass consciousness-raising that happened in the days before independence in 1974. The number of references to Amilcar Cabral, the man who led the independence movement until he was assassinated in Conakry in 1973, is astounding. It is no coincidence that Cabral’s words adorn one of the walls of Casa dos Direitos:

“It’s a voluntary struggle for bread, for land. A struggle for schools, so that children don’t suffer. For hospitals … It’s also a struggle to show the world that we are people with dignity.”

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