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Making Sense of the Turmoil in Guinea Bissau

A history of coups, a powerful military involved in the drugs trade and a minimal state all inform the country's current situation.
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Children in Bissau.

Timeline of events

July 19 2011: 15,000 people take to the streets in protest against Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior accusing him of obstructing the enquiry into the 2009 assassination of President Joao Bernardo Vieira and other prominent figures.

December 26 2011: Renegade soldiers storm army headquarters in what the regime calls an attempted coup while Gomes Junior is forced to take refuge in the Angolan embassy.

January 9 2012: President Malam Becai Sanha, whom the soldiers were trying to overthrow, dies in hospital in Paris where he is said to have been in a coma for many weeks. Raimundo Pereira, President of the Assembly, takes over as Interim President.

January 10 2012: The opposition coalition party rejects the appointment of Peirera as Interim President and demands elections within 60 days, which the US endorses and promises to support.

Relative stability

Within six months, Guinea Bissau has experienced angry protest, an attempted coup, the death of its head of state and political upheaval. But in the seeming rubble of the country’s democratic systems and amidst this volatility, experts believe that some form of stability could be taking root.

Stability is a relative term. Guinea Bissau, a small, fertile country with an archipelago of islands on the West African coastline, has had on average one prime minister per year since the turn of the century and an attempted coup every six.

Since the death of President Sanha, Raimundo Pereira, President of the Assembly, has officially been standing in as Interim President but, as Toby Green, Director for Institutional Relations at the Amilcar Cabral Institute, the only dedicated Guinea Bissau think-tank points out, "Pereira is acting president and has been for some time – [President] Malam's death doesn't change the context of that.” Given that fact, “it would be a shame for it to be reported as an extra instability", he explained.

Pereira for president?

“If Pereira becomes president,” according to Green, “it could be a very important moment [as] he would be the first long-term president without a connection to the independence war”.

Guinea Bissau fought for eleven and a half years with Portugal to win its independence, which it achieved officially in 1974. After the war, an estimated 7,500 decommissioned Guinean soldiers were executed for serving the Portuguese. The period led to considerably out-migration, which created a large diaspora, and did little to relieve tensions.

Continuation of Pereira's leadership, the man who also acted as Interim President following the assassination of President Vieira in 2009, was too young to be politically involved in the war for independence and has a strong educational background as a lawyer. On paper this makes him an attractive candidate for office. But nothing in Guinea Bissau is ever simple.

Less than 24 hours after Pereira was appointed Interim President, a coalition of opposition parties put out a statement. "The Democratic Collective”, it read, “expresses its complete rejection of the ascension of National Assembly leader Raimundo Pereira to the post of interim president”. The coalition insisted that it could not endorse a situation in which Pereira would have the power "to dismiss the current Attorney General to avoid prosecuting suspects in the suspected assassination of President Joao Bernardo Vieira and army chief General Batista Tagme Na Waie”.

The assassinations of the president and the head of the army in 2009 have never come to trial in Guinea Bissau but opposition parties have often accused the current Prime Minister, Carlos Gomes Junior, of involvement. Many believe the reason the opposition object to Pereira as Interim President is because of his friendship with Gomes Junior, who is alleged to be obstructing the enquiry.

Hands-off government

Unlike most African countries, Guinea Bissau suffers an under-bearing state. The country’s national budgets are tiny: as an indication, the UN Security Council recently celebrated the establishment of a $200,000 national pension fund. There are few functioning public institutions and, outside the cities, barely evidence of a state at all.

While Guinea Bissau's attempted coups are totted up and bandied about by the media as a sign of the country's improbably precarious politics, in truth the coups usually consist of the military, the country's most powerful institution, simply removing one leader to make room for whoever wants to try next.

International Crisis Group Senior Analyst, Vincent Foucher, emphasised that the Guinean army do not tend to take power for themselves. “Usually what they do is remove a civilian and organise a transition. And then there's another civilian coming up. It's an army that has for some reason a sense that it shouldn’t' be itself in power, but that nevertheless the civilian part of the state must respect its rights and its privileges".

Military control

Nevertheless, the army presents a complex issue and the UN Security Council sees the demobilising of the armed forces and a reduction of its unsanctioned authority as crucial to the country's future. Toby Green described the Boxing Day coup attempt as "infighting amongst the army".

Always a powerful institution because of the military's role in winning the war that secured independence from Portugal in 1974, it has become even more powerful in recent years, alleged to control a roaring trade in narcotics, in which South America uses West African nations with lax borders as a transit point for drugs into Europe. Is the drugs money linked to the power struggles? “Hard evidence is difficult to come by”, according to Green, “but the best intelligence we have suggests that the military disputes and the drugs trade are connected".

Combating the illegal trade of drugs requires reducing the influence of the military which, in turn, requires bolstering the strength of the state. Whoever takes over as president will need considerable support in these endeavours.

A new hope?

This is a significant time for the country as well as the surrounding region. Less than 20 kilometres across the northern border in Senegal, a militarised rebellion has recently killed ten people and there are reports of hostages being taken by rebels at the police station in the regional capital Ziguinchor. Destabilisation has spread to both sides of what is a fairly arbitrary border and both conflicts are said to be linked to drugs.

There is clearly cause of concern, but there may also be room for hope, especially with the support of powerful friends.

Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the US State Department, has been quick to express the US’ hopes for Acting President Pereira, saying "we look forward to collaborating with the international community and working with Acting President Pereira to arrange timely elections", continuing, "we are pleased that the government of Guinea Bissau and its military recently worked well together in addressing an internal threat to democratic governance…We will continue to support their aspirations for peace, stability, and prosperity”.

While Guinea Bissau faces deep and systemic challenges, there is hope that if Pereira is elected, he could use the support of the people and international partners to act as a valuable stabiliser.

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