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Politicians, military undermine Guinea-Bissau’s stability

Parliamentary headquarters

The small West African country of Guinea-Bissau is slated to hold fresh polls later this year after yet another coup, but opposition to security sector reform (SSR) by some in the army, the manipulation of the armed forces by politicians, as well as the military’s interference in politics could jeopardize a return to stability, analysts say.

“There is an old guard within the military that does not wish to lose control of the armed forces. From their point of view, SSR is a serious threat to their power and therefore their sources of income. So whenever we are moving forward in the SSR process, sooner or later a military coup takes place,” said Paulo Gorjao, director of the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security (IPRIS).

Just days before the 29 April 2012 presidential run-off, the army arrested and detained Prime Minister and poll front-runner Carlos Gomes Junior and the interim president. Coup leaders accused Gomes of undermining the military. Analysts say veteran army generals are loath to reform and come under civilian control.

The army is dominated by the Balanta, the largest ethnic group. Balanta officers occupy most of the top military ranks. Gomes, of Portuguese-African descent, had defeated Kumba Yala, a Balanta, in the first round of the 2012 polls.

“The army does not [meddle in politics] on its own. It [meddles] because some sections of the political elite manipulate it as they cannot get to power through peaceful democratic elections,” UN Special Representative José Ramos-Horta, the former Timor-Leste president, told IRIN.

“But it works both ways, particularly in a society with ethnic loyalties. If you have a politician who belongs to a particular ethnic group and that ethnic group has a strong influence in the army, it’s not so difficult to anticipate where that army’s allegiance lies…

“SSR will take time. It is a sine qua non for peace and stability in the country,” said Ramos-Horta.

Drugs trade

Guinea-Bissau’s political instability has also created attractive conditions for drug traffickers over the past decade. The country is one of the key transhipment points in West Africa for drugs heading to Europe from South America.

Politicians and the military are involved in the cocaine trade and those who have dared challenge the traffickers have been killed or kidnapped, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said in a February report.

While the country’s instability predates the drug trade, analysts say trafficking has had an influence on the political crisis.

Cost of instability
69.3 percent of Guinea-Bissau’s 1.6 million people live in poverty.
Just over half of the population has access to clean water.
Life expectancy is 48 years.
Although child mortality has declined to 161 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011 from 210 in 1990, the death rate is among the highest in the world.
Primary and secondary school net attendance rate increased from 54 to 67 percent between 2006 and 2010, but education quality remains low.
IMF predicts a 3.5 percent GDP growth in 2013 assuming increased cashew harvests and prices and a resumption of public investment, but recovery dependents on political stability, it says.

Sources: World Bank, UNICEF

“I believe that military instability and the coups are mainly explained by drug-trafficking since the control of the armed forces is crucial to control of the sources of income related to drug-trafficking. Moreover, drug-trafficking also explains why SSR is so difficult to implement,” Gorjao explained.

“So as long as we don’t act to curb drug-trafficking, Guinea-Bissau will be condemned to regular power plays within the armed forces, with the spillover effects that result from it.”

Donors stay away

Guinea-Bissau donors withdrew budgetary aid following the 2012 coup. The European Union (EU), Bissau’s main donor, has held back 60 million euros since 2010 due to the recurrent instability and has bypassed the government in supporting water, health, human rights and other projects.

“We cannot continue to give institutional assistance, more so budgetary aid, to people who are not [legitimately elected], who cannot manage the state budget and who are infiltrated by drug traffickers,” EU delegation chief in Guinea-Bissau Joaquin Gonzalez-Ducay told IRIN.

“The country continues to be governed by an army involved in drug-trafficking and a puppet government incapable of advancing a political agenda,” he said.

Pressure on government finances has been added to by pay rise demands from the civil service and the military, the World Bank said in an April report. Budget support provided by the Economic Community for West African States and Nigeria is key to preventing possible unrest due to salary delays, it said.

“The regional support has been enough to support the functioning of the government apparatus but not for investment. If there is no investment there is no employment, no growth, just current expenditure,” said Alfredo Torrez, the International Monetary Fund representative in Guinea-Bissau.

He called for the development of the private sector once the political crisis is resolved. “Everybody is waiting for a very clear message, a [political] road map. Once everything is in place, the opportunity for recovery is very high.”

Political impasse

The Party of Social Renewal (PRS) of former president Kumba Yala, the Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) of ousted candidate Gomes, and other smaller parties, have held difficult negotiations on an inclusive government ahead of elections planned for November.

In May they agreed on the government’s composition, but it has not yet been formed and the parties have not yet agreed on the electoral commission chief or the election date. Some smaller parties have rejected the unity government framework.

“It marks progress definitely, but months of work should have been invested to conclude an agreement. There’s neither a new government nor an electoral commission. This is not a good sign,” said Vincent Foucher of the International Crisis Group.

"Nothing is being done to tackle the root causes of the [2012] coup…"

He argued that Guinea-Bissau’s political and economic system of patronage - amid meagre resources - is one of the fundamental problems that have caused the country’s protracted crisis.

He also bemoaned regional inequalities: “There is a serious problem of economic development that is worsened by wide inequalities between the capital city and the rural areas over access to resources and public services,” he said.

“The other problem is that political life is defined by the Balanta-backed PRS on one side and PAIGC - a machine to win elections despite deep internal divisions - on the other. This is an explosive combination.”

These fault lines are not currently being addressed, said IPRIS’s Gorjao. “Nothing is being done to tackle the root causes of the [2012] coup because nothing is being done at this stage regarding SSR and little is being done concerning drug-trafficking.”

The international community is looking to assist deeper reforms when a legitimate government is in power. But Guinea-Bissau analyst Seco Cassama warned: “We have never had problems during elections. It is after the elections that we have problems.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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