The following is an interview on 24 November with Samuel Nana-Sinkam, Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Peace-Building Support Office in Guinea-Bissau.
QUESTION: Mr. Sinkam, what is the mandate of UNOGBIS?
ANSWER: UNOGBIS was set up by the Security Council, on the suggestion of the Secretary-General, following an official request from the member country. It was set up with a clear mandate: creating an enabling environment for peace-building, genuine and lasting democratic institution building, and reconciliation in this country.
The other objective of UNOGBIS was to help the government achieve the voluntary remittance of arms, collection of arms from civilians under a government programme assisted by UNOGBIS.
UNOGBIS was also set up to facilitate understanding and cooperation between Guinea-Bissau and neighbouring countries, between Guinea-Bissau and the international community and between Guinea-Bissau and ECOWAS.
It was set up, too, to create the appropriate environment to move the democratic process forward, with full respect for the rule of law, and set up new and genuine democratic institutions for this country in compliance with the Abuja Treaty.
Q: What has UNOGBIS been able to do to advance the electoral process in Guinea-Bissau?
A: First of all, when we arrived here on the 24th of June, when the office was officially opened, in the human rights field - which was one of the basic conditions for favouring the appropriate environment to establish the rule of law in this country - all the prisoners were still in the hands of the military force in this country, the Military Junta. UNOGBIS was still discussing with the interlocutors in the field to bring back the prisoners and put them in the hands of the judicial system.
The success of our negotiations set a clear-cut division of power between the judiciary, the legislative and the executive as the three main powers in the country. Therefore, at that juncture, the military were officially no longer a player in the political scene, which was already a tremendous base for talking about reconciliation at that level.
Secondly, we organised - in liaison with civil society in the country - what we called a reconciliation seminar, which brought together all the civilian political factions, civil society, government and the military to come together and go through reconciliation. People really said what they had in their minds. The head of the Military Junta participated, the interim president participated, the speaker of the National Assembly participated, so that conference paved the way for the reconciliation process and since then a lot of other activities have been carried out, for example a two-day conference for all women who are candidates for the legislative election.
We also organised a soccer tournament for reconciliation that brought together all the young people from all regions, from all ethnic groups, and they slept together, lunched together, dined together and competed in the field. It was a way of bringing them together and saying: ‘listen, you have one single objective. You are all nationals of this country and the future of your country is in your hands.’
UNOGBIS has also assisted the Government of National Unity, in a determined way, to establish cooperation with the European Union, which is crucial to any meaningful international cooperation with this country.
We also brought the international community to accept the fact that elections can take place in this country, that the environment was conducive, peace was coming back slowly. We were not there yet but things were coming through slowly. So the international community abided by the commitment it took in Geneva and put together all the resources needed for the electoral process to go through.
The UN worked as a family. All the UN agencies contributed in bringing about this enabling environment. I am proud to say that we succeeded with our colleagues in UNDP, UNICEF, FAO, OCHA, WFP, WHO, UNFPA, UNHCR etc ... in working as a family and with coordination.
We succeeded also in organising a programme, financed by UNOGBIS, also with the financial assistance of the European Union, for all the candidates to present their programmes to the population with air time, TV time, radio time - 20 minutes per week for each candidate for three weeks, which gave them the opportunity of having one hour during the campaign to present their programmes to the population.
On November 26, the 12 presidential candidates would together have the opportunity to address the population live on television and radio before the closing of the campaign. This is the first time it will have happened in this country.
Q: I’d like to divert a bit and look at on one of the things you referred to: the prisoners. Have they been released?
A: No, and the reason is not that the will to release them is not there, but technicalities and the equipment are needed because, after the war everything was destroyed, even the judicial system suffered. A lot of lawyers are out of the country so we still had to train some to make sure that the trial goes through properly and the dossiers are analysed properly. We expect, based on the assurance we have from the attorney-general and the president of the Supreme Court, that between 40 and 50 percent of the prisoners will be released soon, which means that they have succeeded in having their files analysed to know exactly who committed violent crimes and who didn’t, those who only received instructions to act etc.
We are for reconciliation but our basic principle - and we hope the international community will back us on this - which is the basic principle of the United Nations, of the Secretary-General is:
Reconciliation, yes! Reconciliation without justice, no!
We are convinced that clear-cut justice will go through and, even if on a provisional basis, these prisoners will be released.
We organised, for example, visits of prisons with the entire international community here, that includes the embassies and the OAU. We shall again visit the prisons to see how the prisoners are treated and I must confess that all of the prisoners declared openly on television that they had not received any physical maltreatment at all. Their only problem was to say:
‘We would appreciate accelerating the trial to know whether we are guilty or not,’ and we keep telling them that the presumption of innocence is what is pushing us to make sure that they are released as quickly as possible because unless they are tried and convicted, we cannot compare them to other prisoners. They benefit from the presumption of innocence until they are tried and convicted.
Q: One of the components of your mandate is helping to improve relations between Guinea-Bissau and its neighbours. What’s the situation with regard to that?
A: I think relations with neighbouring countries have really improved. I’m not saying that everything is rosy, but with regard to relations with Senegal, for example, the interim president, Malam Bacai Sanha, flew to the OAU meeting in Algeria on the same plane as President Diouf, which is an indication of the level of improvement. During the Francophone meeting in Canada, the president of Guinea-Conakry received Prime Minister Fadul for two hours for discussion and debate on the issue, and The Gambia had already been there helping in terms of the situation in the country.
We have already indicated the improvement in relations with the European Union, with specific mention of the highly welcome improvement in relations with France, which has in any case maintained its economic cooperation all along.
Malam Bacai, the interim president, when he was on the border with Casamance, made it clear that Guinea-Bissau will never serve as a base to threaten its neighbour, Senegal, which is one of the few times we’ve had this type of statement from a high-ranking official and a president of this country, which indicates the type of smooth improvement in relations with those countries.
Q: At one point Guinea-Bissau was in the throes of a humanitarian crisis. Food was short, access to water, health services and so on was limited. To what extent has this changed?
A: I don’t think there has been serious improvement in that domain at all. You will remember the clear coming-forward by the international community during the UNDP Roundtable in Geneva, when the country was asking for US $139 million and ended up receiving US $200 million in commitments from the international community!
What happened on 6-7 May 1999 jeopardised what was going on. The international community drew back and said, ‘Listen, until there is a democratic election and the setting up of a new democratic structure in the country, we will not get involved, but if that happens in the country, we’ll go back to our commitment and open the doors for international cooperation, financial assistance for the country.’ That’s where we stand today, and we have to say that the Military Junta has committed itself, at the highest level, that is, General Mane, saying: ‘What we are looking for is security and peace for our country. We will remain in our barracks.We went there voluntarily. It was not our intention to take power, we just want security for our country. We want the electoral process to go through. We want the democratisation process to go through.’ And I must confess that up to now they have kept their word so on that front I have to congratulate them on what has been done and urge them to maintain that honourable stand and leave politics in the hands of civilians.
Therefore, it is my sole hope that the elections on 28 November, where we are having about 80 to 90 observers, will be transparent and clean, witnessed by all those international observers, and when their report is put before the international community and there is a new president, parliament, prime minister and government, there will be no reason for the international community not to go back to its commitment and disburse the resources needed for the development of this country.
Q: There was a scare last week when the Magna Carta, which you could call a sort of parallel constitution, was produced. What is the situation with regard to that?
A: Since we did not receive a copy of the Magna Carta, as a UN institution we were not consulted on that issue, it would be very difficult for me to comment on it. Still, what we have found out is that people have been wise enough, whether it is the Military Junta, whether it is the government or whether it is the political parties, to come to an understanding. And I know, after the press conference that took place, the Military Junta officially withdrew the Magna Carta and, at the press conference, they announced that they abide by the rule of law, they remain in the barracks, they back the democratisation process in the country, and they are in favour of the elections. So on that basis I think it may have raised more tremors than the actual fact as such. Once more, we were not party to the Magna Carta, so we cannot comment and have no comment.
Q: What has been achieved in the area of disarmament, helping in the collection of arms, and what is on the cards as regards the demobilisation and reinsertion of former combatants in society?
A: Let me start with demobilisation. The World Bank, based on the mandate it received in Geneva, has already started working on it and it is my understanding that the World Bank has prepared a draft which is under discussion now with the authorities for the demobilisation process to start. As soon as the new government is in place, I think the demobilisation programme will start and I am sure that once it is in place the military will decide to downsize the army and set up a republican army whose size is compatible with the financial resources and the mission of border security and the defence of this country. I have no doubt that this will be achieved so the demobilisation is on track.
UNOGBIS has been contributing, and will continue to contribute closely to the demobilisation and reinsertion process.
I know the World Bank is working on the programme with ILO, UNDP, FAO, all the UN agencies, and with financial help from the international community.
On the issue of arms collection, a voluntary programme is being set up by the government. We are helping them on technical grounds and it’s not military disarmament. It’s civilian disarmament on a voluntary basis and we have been working with the UN disarmament institute in Lome, with DRR, DPA, OCHA, UNICEF, UNDP, FAO, WFP, all our other agencies, to help the government establish the programme.
Its objective is to go through with the disarmament of civilians in exchange for food, land and community projects. We thought it would not be appropriate to exchange arms for financial resources. You may end up creating more or less a market for arms in this subregion, which is not the objective. We had to end up with a combination of development programmes, in the form of community development programmes or arms-for-food and arms-for-land programmes.
The mayor of the city of Bissau has offered 500 lots of land to exchange for arms and the person, for example, who obtains such a plot will receive seeds and fertiliser from the FAO to cultivate it.
That is what the government is working on and wants to start after the election. I hope it will be successful.
Q: What is needed for there to be lasting peace in Guinea-Bissau?
A: The consolidation of peace is a medium-to-long term process. What we need in this country is first of all, for the democratic process to go through, which is what we are working on. But when I refer to the democratic process I am talking about a genuine democratic process since it comes from within with the adherence of all the strata of the population in that process.
You need reconciliation. I mentioned that reconciliation does not mean injustice. Reconciliation without justice, no. They would have to find a clear-cut way and make sure we have transparent justice and not vengeance.
The country’s democratic institutions need to be strengthened.
You cannot talk peace to someone who cannot send his or her children to school, you cannot talk peace or democratisation to someone who cannot have an aspirin in the hospital, you cannot talk about reconciliation or the democratic process with someone who always has an empty stomach. All these things have to go together.
But on the other hand you cannot talk about development without peace, so the two have to go hand in hand, which means you need coordination from all UN agencies, from the international donor community to help this country go through a clean, clear-cut, responsible and acceptable development programme.
And finally, one of the major problems this country has been facing all the time is the issue of the former combatants. They fought for the liberation of this country but since then some of them have been neglected. There is no lasting solution to the problem of Guinea-Bissau without finding, in tandem, a solution to the issue of the former combatants.
It is our expectation and strong wish that any president, any government and the parliament that emerge from the 28 November elections will address this issue as a priority within a comprehensive national political, economic and social programme. There is no doubt that the UN and the international community will always be there to provide assistance.