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Guinea-Bissau's Political Tempest

An assassination, accusations of vote-rigging and a boycott by the second-placed candidate have ignited Guinea-Bissau's presidential election.
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People gather in Guinea Bissau, photo by Asamblea de Cooperación Por la Paz

Bissau, Guinea-Bissau:

On Sunday March 18, the presidential elections in Guinea-Bissau were running smoothly until, 5 hours after polls closed, Colonel Diallo, the former army intelligence chief, was assassinated in the capital Bissau.

Rumours quickly circulated, pertaining to an attempted coup, vote-rigging and a further attempted assassination.

When the results were officially announced two days later and the top two candidates were invited to stand in a run-off, Kumba Yala, who garnered the second most votes, announced a boycott, claiming the first round had been unfair.

On the next night, General Jose Zamora Induta, former chief-of-staff to the military, sought refuge in an EU compound. "When you go to an embassy to stay, it is an indication that you are feeling threatened," EU spokesman Piero Valabrega said to Reuters.

Much ado

Guinea Bissau operates on two levels. A Shakespearean elite are locked in a seemingly endless cycle of dissent and mortal conflict, the machinations of which take place out of the sight and earshot of the population. These dysfunctional overlords comprise military, political and civil actors, and are beset by coups and assassinations. Since multi-party democracy was established in 1994, no president has served a full five-year mandated term – the first two were deposed, the next assassinated and the fourth died in office.

"Politics here is not about policies", Peter Thompson, a leading expert on Guinea-Bissau, explained to Think Africa Press.

Beneath the elite, the vast majority of the population live their lives as if the elite were not there. The people of Guinea-Bissau are largely untouched by all but one of the crimes of their leaders: their ego-driven political games, which rob them of a better quality of life.

Two noble kinsmen?

In the first round of the elections, Carlos Gomes Junior won 49% of the votes. Gomes Junior has been Prime Minister twice in the last decade and, according to a British diplomatic source, has become one of the wealthiest individuals in the country thanks to years of corruption.

Gomes Junior did not get on well with former president Joao Bernardo Vieira whom Gomes Junior described as a "bandit and mercenary who betrayed his own people" after he dissolved Gomes Junior's government in 2005.

Vieira was assassinated in 2009 alongside army chief General Batistma Tagme Na Waie. Gomes Junior has been accused of obstructing an enquiry into the 2009 double murder, while opposition parties have accused him of direct involvement.

In second place with 23% was Kumba Yala, a doctor of philosophy who was elected to office in 2000 before being toppled by military coup in 2003. A long-standing rival of Gomes Junior, Kumba Yala once staged a bizarre four-hour occupation of the presidential palace under Gomes Junior's government. Yala arrived at 4am demanding to be reinstated as head of state. He left at 8am in time for breakfast and was seen shortly afterwards smoking a cigar at his suburban home as Gomes Junior held emergency cabinet meetings to discuss Kumba Yala's dissidence.

Kumba Yala contended the validity of this month's elections – which were deemed largely free and fair by international observers – only after the announcement of the results. Arthur Sagna, his deputy campaign manager, on Friday showed journalists allegedly fraudulent ballot papers based on the fact the electoral register is out-of-date by three years. Bissau has a large diaspora and many returnees were unable to vote (there is no remote voting system). According to sources at the National Electoral Commission, 10% of registered names were unable to vote.

"The best outcome is for there to be a second-round of voting", said Peter Thompson. But whether the dispute will be resolved democratically is yet to be seen.

A military-political tempest

Calling Guinea Bissau coup-prone is somewhat misleading. Coup-leaders in Bissau aim to depose not conquer and only one of the country's presidents (Vieira in 1980) came to power by military means.

Nevertheless, the military is heavily engaged politically. Captain Braima Sonco, Head of the Armament in Guinea-Bissau and a veteran of the country's long but successful independence war, explains that "the army still commands a lot of respect" but describes its structure as a reverse pyramid. Decades of nepotism have left more chiefs than subordinates.

Of all the leaders, Kumba Yala is believed to have the best relationship with the military and is of the same ethnicity as that which dominates the army. On Friday, however, he said in an interview that the military do not tell him anything. They are as impenetrable an organisation for the international community.

Measure for measure

Over the past few years, essentially since Vieira came to power for the third time in 2005, Guinea Bissau’s role as a global transport hub for narco-traffic from South America to Europe has intensified.

According to a leaked 2009 US-diplomatic cable, up to one tonne of cocaine passes through Guinea Bissau's borders every night. But this is said to be excessive by the local United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as well as senior diplomatic and political sources. A source at UNODC source said that twenty tonnes per year is a more accurate estimate, although there is no published figure.

Drugs are both symptom and cause of Bissau's cyclical politicking and a senior diplomatic source in Bissau claimed that Colonel Diallo was assassinated on election night because he was a threat due to what he had witnessed, including corruption, assassinations and narco-traffic.

Like most of the elite’s political conflicts, however, drugs largely imperceptible in day-to-day life. "I've been here 33 years and I don't see anything of the drugs in this country once", said Jan Van Maanen, Honorary British Counsel in Guinea-Bissau.

The illicit trade is only visible in the few brand new Range Rovers and modified Landcruisers that carry passengers behind blacked-out windows. "Who in Guinea Bissau has the sort of business you need to afford a car like that?" asked a UN source in Bissau. 98% of Guinea-Bissau's official export earnings come from cashew nuts and most of the 1.6 million population are engaged in agriculture.

During a night in December last year, approximately 50km north-east of capital Bissau, military vehicles closed a stretch of the tarmac road between Nhacra and Mansoa. Residents nearby were told to stay in their houses. A generator was fired up and the road was lit. An aircraft landed, its cargo was unloaded and the plane refuelled.

According to local sources, the army claimed it was medical aid, but they took it to the nearby home of an army boss. Whether this, or similar unwitnessed incidents, bear any relevance to the political assassinations and infighting, may never be known. It is perhaps telling, however, that Colonel Injai's appointment as chief-of-staff of the armed forces led to EU suspension of aid over his alleged involvement with arms and drugs trafficking.

All’s well that ends well

Carlos Gomes Junior is the only leader in Guinea Bissau who has spoken out against the drugs trade, but Peter Thompson says that the government has recognised they need to take action.

"They don't want to be known as the global hub for drug-traffic", he said. But as long as old-guard politics stand in the way of stability, security sector reform looks like a distant prospect. "There is nothing to negotiate on when it's a choice between a small army pension and the sort of money they're making", said Jan Van Maanen, explaining how difficult a task it is to provide viable alternatives for the military who are involved in trafficking.

A senior European diplomatic source in Bissau described the political upheavals as essentially blackmail, based on years of crime and impunity. The UN has a security-sector reform programme that works on capacity-building in the judiciary and de-militarisation. In January, Angola has stepped in with $16.5 million in aid and operates a military training programme in the capital. China and Taiwan also have aid programmes in the country, and the UK is the latest to step in, proposing a multi-million dollar bilateral trade agreement.

Will international engagement be enough to wrest control from the old and powerful elite? John Blacken, former US Ambassador to Guinea-Bissau who lives there today, describes the current situation as "extremely delicate".

The outcome of Kumba Yala's allegations, and whether he decides to take part in a democratic second-round vote, will be a crucial factor in bringing any stability to this small, unstable nation.

Correction 28/03/2012 - The article originally stated that Colonel Diallo was assassinated five hours before polls closed. It was five hours after. This has now been amended.

Correction 30/03/2012 - The article originally stated that Colonel Injai had been blacklisted by US authorities for being a drugs "kingpin". Colonel Injai has not been blacklisted. Two other senior Guinea Bissau military officers have been. Injai's appointment led to EU suspension of aid due to his alleged involvement with arms and drugs trafficking. This error has now been amended and we apologise for it.

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