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Security sector reform hangs in the balance

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Security sector reform has stalled since the 1 April detainment of the prime minister and his ally the army chief in Guinea-Bissau, and political instability and lack of significant progress on reform is putting the future of the European Union (EU) reform mission into question, say officials.

The EU, with the help of bilateral governments and the UN Peace-building Office in Guinea-Bissau, (UNIOGBIS), has been working with the Guinea-Bissau government since 2006 to restructure and rebuild the military, armed forces, police and judiciary - each of which are in varying states of disorganization, dysfunction or disrepair.

“This is a permanent impasse due to the numerous crises, conflicts and political and military instability [in Guinea-Bissau]” said the most recent EU Mission for Security Sector Reform brief.

The EU reform mission was recently approved to start from 1 June this year, but has since been downsized from a full team to a few technical advisers and specialists, according to its head Gen Juan Esteban Verástegui. “The [reform] mission could be jeopardized by the 1 April events… We are in standby mode,” he told IRIN.

It is up to officials in Brussels to decide whether or not the mission will be further extended from September, or if it should be phased out, he said.

Security sector reform is vital to boost stability in this coup-prone, drug-trafficking country. Continuous political instability - there have been three governments, three prime ministers and three presidents since 2006 - has blocked leaders from building up basic services such as health and sanitation, or improving people’s living conditions.

There are currently nine police units in Guinea-Bissau, each with overlapping and unclear missions, and inadequate resources and training; a justice sector which is strongly influenced by political power, lacks sufficient laws or the means to enforce them; and top-heavy armed forces which are not content to be led by civilian rule, according to the EU.

The armed forces have played a direct role in much of the country’s recent violence, including the 1 April events, according to analysts.

“The main goal for reforms is to create armed forces which will work under civilian power and work according to the constitution,” EU reform mission head Verástegui told IRIN. “This is not possible if the heads of the armed forces do not take this route… It is dangerous to improve a tool that will be used in the wrong way - this is a scary scenario.”


In March there was progress on the legal side of the reform process, according to Verástegui.

A government reform working group and its partners - including bilateral governments and the UN, led by the EU - drew up laws reforming the army, public order police, and the future National Guard. These were approved in parliament and awaited final approval by the head of state in April. Meanwhile, a legal package for judicial reform was put up for parliamentary review; and a government-partner team had drawn up a list of reform projects requiring funding, to be presented to donors in June in New York.

But these activities stopped in April following the latest bout of political unrest, and the extraordinary session to stamp final approval was cancelled.

UN head in Guinea-Bissau Joseph Mutaboba is pessimistic about the future of the reform process. “If things go on like this I don’t think anything will be the right solution [reform-wise], because every time you wake up, you think things are going to change for the better, and from nowhere you hear someone is dead or arrested arbitrarily,” he said in the latest UNIOGBIS bulletin.

“How do we efficiently address it [impunity]? How do we protect people? None of us is protected here: neither the UN, nor the diplomatic missions nor the president, prime minister or other ministers,” he said.

However, Antero Lopes, SSR chief at UNIOGBIS told IRIN, “This is a process. We cannot expect immediate results. It is only a combination of long-term and immediate strategies that can address the root cause of the problem.”

While restructuring, training and legislation is vital over the medium to long-term, he said, as rehabilitating barracks, improving basic equipment and uniforms can progress more quickly. A cadre of newly-trained public order police was just appointed, and a ‘model’ police station built, which is a good beginning, he said.

The military did not respond to IRIN’s requests for an interview.

Learning lessons

The EU mission is now in reflective mode. “Perhaps the operation was premature in Guinea-Bissau,” Verástegui told IRIN. “Maybe we thought we could do it [reform] more quickly than we could - this is, after all, a medium-to-long-term process.”

But there have been some positive outputs from the EU reform mission presence, he pointed out. Security sector reform is now accepted as a given in political circles and crops up in most major political speeches, while giving final approval to the military reforms is top of the agenda for the second session of parliament, which started on 4 May. Many members of the military support building up a professional, well-trained army, according to Lopes.

“The magnitude of the reforms needed is so big that change will only be possible if all partners align and continue to intervene,” Lopes said. “We cannot turn a blind eye and let the situation deteriorate.”

Verástegui agrees: “We should not give up completely, because if we do, this country will not be able to do it alone… If we give up, no one will step in to help them in the future.”

People in Guinea-Bissau are keen for change and are appealing to the international community to stay and engage. Jorge Quade, a Bissau-based university student, told IRIN: “The reforms are not progressing at all. There is no transparency; and the old generals don’t want to retire. But if we still have a show of unity from the whole international community, we could possibly enforce change.”


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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