Q&A: What’s going on in Guinea-Bissau?

Dr Marie Gibert says that the coup is a struggle for power between the country’s military and civilian leaders.

Outgoing PM and presidential candidate Carlos Gomes Junior has been held by the military since his arrest [REUTERS]
Outgoing PM and presidential candidate Carlos Gomes Junior has been held by the military since his arrest [REUTERS]

It is a country known for its coups, political assassinations and thriving drug trade.

Needless to say Guinea-Bissau, a small nation of no more than 1.5 million people, bordering Senegal and Guinea Conakry on the far Western coast of the African continent is not particularly known for its sturdy political values.

Its gains as a democracy over the past seven years notwithstanding, the country plunged into another crisis on Thursday, when the military took control of radio and television stations and the ruling party headquarters in an attempt at a military coup, just weeks before a runoff presidential election was set to take place at the end of April.

But the military has denied that it harbours ambitions to take control of the country, and alleged that its actions were merely an attempt to “save the country” from interference from Angola. 

Al Jazeera speaks to Marie Gibert, from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham Trent University about Guinea-Bissau’s struggle for and with democracy, the impact on the region and how to read the latest developments as part of the country’s larger history.

Azad Essa: It has been said that democracy breeds democracy. Considering the history of the country since independence in 1974 – ridden with coups and political instability – are recent events surprising, considering the death of president in January and that the country was due to head to the polls?

Marie Gibert: Guinea-Bissau has barely experienced any stability since its independence – itself gained after a long and violent struggle against colonial Portugal – and the recent events only add a new page to this very troubled history. The former president, Malam Bacai Sanha, was considered a stabilising force although his power – especially over the military – was limited.

“The main issue in Guinea-Bissau is how to break the vicious cycle of instability and elite competition and struggle that has hampered stability and peace for so long. But we are light years away from the kind of state collapse witnessed in Somalia.

– Marie Gibert

His death in January was expected, as he was known to be very ill, but it nonetheless triggered fears for the country’s stability. The first round of the presidential election, meant to designate his replacement, was peaceful and raised hopes that the second round would soon put an end to the uncertainty created by Mr Sanha’s death. The nature of the first round results, however, gave an overwhelming majority (49 per cent) to the former prime minister, Carlos Gomes Junior (now detained by the army), but not enough for him to be immediately declared the winner, clearly heightened tensions.

The other candidates, including former president Kumba Yala, who came second with 23 per cent of the votes, felt robbed of any chance of weighing on the final results of the election and called for a boycott of the second round, thus triggering new political tensions.

And the army, aware of Carlos Gomes Junior’s popularity within the country and without, clearly felt threatened too – as it knows full well that this election could give the new president the legitimacy needed to go ahead with the much delayed reform of the army. This seems to be yet another struggle for power and influence between Guinea-Bissau’s military and civilian leaders.

AE: Streets are said to be filled with soldiers with heavy weapons; the country’s democratic values seem to be continuously under strain and information remains mostly scarce in one of the poorest and politically unstable countries in the world. Is this ‘another Somalia’, as has been suggested?

MG: I think a comparison with Somalia would be a huge simplification. The government, first, is rather popular with the international community, which believes Carlos Gomes Junior (who left his post as prime minister during the presidential campaign, but clearly keeps an upper hand on the government’s affairs) to be a reformer and a competent leader.

Another important factor is that Guinea-Bissau, in spite of the many coups and mutinies that have marked its politics over the last years, has been able to run free and fair presidential and legislative elections.

The government is therefore legitimate and has the support of the elected parliament and of the ruling party, the Partido Africano da Independencia de Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). Third, Guinea-Bissau’s power struggles, coups, mutinies and political assassinations have remained confined to a small elite.

In other words, we do not have, as in Somalia, armed clans and militia who live off the violence and insecurity and have made a livelihood out of the ongoing conflict. And Guinea-Bissau’s population has clearly expressed, on numerous occasions, its rejection of the violence – and its thirst for stability and development.

The main issue in Guinea-Bissau is how to break the vicious cycle of instability and elite competition and struggle that has hampered stability and peace for so long. But we are light years away from the kind of state collapse witnessed in Somalia.


If Guinea Bissau managed to make some gains through civilian rule in its recent past, how is it that the power conundrum between the army and the civilian rule remains to feature so dominantly?

MG: There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that the democratisation of the country has not seriously questioned the power and influence of the army.

This is both because of a significant past – the army still draws its legitimacy from the independence struggle and also, to a certain extent, from its capacity to act as a guarantor of the rule of law, notably under Kumba Yala’s rule at the beginning of the 2000s – and because no reform of the army has taken place yet.

The army thus remains considerable in number and power terms. The second reason is that in a country with little resources other than development aid (and, to a certain extent and since a few years, the money made from drug-trafficking), the stakes are high.

This makes the power struggle extremely fierce, and although the army has declared its allegiance to civilian rule, any sign that it may lose some of its privileges or power will lead it to step in and put its foot down.

AE: The military has argued that they have no interest in retaining power and that the move was sparked by a deal made between the PM and Angola. Is this coup about the current prime minister or is foreign interference a genuine factor in the current standoff?

MG: This coup is clearly another event in a long history of elite competition for power, and a reaction to the former prime minister’s perceived domination of Guinea-Bissau’s politics. But foreign interference has naturally heightened the tensions and stakes.

Carlos Gomes Junior is known to have developed special relations with Angola and some have even suggested that the 200 Angolan troops posted in Guinea-Bissau were partly meant as a personal protection force.

During the last army mutiny in December 2011, Mr Gomes Junior sought refuge in the Angolan embassy. The presence of foreign troops in the country, even from an ally such as Angola (another former Portuguese colony), is a touchy topic in Guinea-Bissau – a country that fought for its independence and has a very bad memory of the Guinean and Senegalese intervention during the civil war in 1998-1999.

So the military’s claim that they are reacting against a secret deal between the Angolan and Bissau-Guinean governments is probably a pretext, but is very symptomatic of the Bissau-Guinean elite’s paradoxical relationship with the international community. It needs and seeks the support of the international community, but is also extremely wary of foreign interference in its affairs.

“There is clearly a risk [in Mali] of different political agendas, including a ‘terrorist/extremist’ one, merging to form a very dangerous force in a desert region that has always been extremely difficult to govern and control.

– Marie Gibert

AE: ECOWAS was first to respond to the crisis, followed by the AU, but are African regional and sub-regional bodies – as well as powerhouses such as Nigeria and South Africa – failing to create a standard where coups are no longer welcome on the continent?

MG: I think ECOWAS and the AU have actually shown, over recent years, that they could react very quickly and, at times, very effectively, to unconstitutional changes of government. They are often the first to suspend member states, send mediators, call for sanctions and set up embargoes.

But external actors, however efficient and/or influential, always have limited power when confronted with long cycles of domestic power struggles and instability.

In the case of Guinea-Bissau, we have seen southern regional bodies – ECOWAS and the Portuguese Speaking Community (CPLP) – take over when the European Union decided to put an end to its security sector reform mission and suspend aid to the country in 2010.

Unfortunately, the ECOWAS-CPLP alliance was short-lived, but this new southern alliance is nonetheless remarkable, and countries such as Angola and Brazil, as well as ECOWAS institutions, have remained involved in Guinea-Bissau and have sought solutions, along with the UN and its integrated office, UNIOGBIS, to the country’s ongoing political instability.

AE: Senegal, Mali and Guinea Bissau’s elections in 2012 were seen as tests of political continuity in the region. Senegal survived, even thrived, but both Mali and now Guinea Bissau have taken significant steps backwards. What are the ramifications for the region?

MG: These are three very different cases. Senegal has a long history of democratic politics and stability. This year’s presidential election was a huge test for the country following considerable political tensions and violence, but its democratic institutions and culture ensured that it passed this test remarkably well and remained a model for the rest of the region. In Mali and Guinea-Bissau, the army has always had considerable power and never ceased to interfere in civilian politics.

Mali’s case is very worrying because of the role played by the Tuareg, and by former combatants who lost a livelihood with Muammar Gaddafi’s demise last year.

There is clearly a risk, there, of different political agendas, including a “terrorist/extremist” one, merging to form a very dangerous force in a desert region that has always been extremely difficult to govern and control.

So the events in Mali are no doubt extremely worrying for the rest of the region. Guinea-Bissau’s political instability, on the other hand, has generally (with the exception of the civil war of 1998-1999) been confined to the country’s elite and there is therefore little risk of a spill-over of the tensions to neighbouring countries.

AE: These three countries have different dilemmas. At the same time, there is a great deal of turmoil in a highly connected West African region. Is there a common thread one might identify between the different countries in understanding the political movements and shifting power dynamics in the region?

MG: The main connection is probably West Africa’s particular post-colonial history. The newly independent countries had either, like Guinea-Bissau, gone through violent independence struggles which gave considerable legitimacy to the national army, or felt they should assert their newly gained sovereignty, notably through the establishment of a strong army (sometimes, as in Mali, drawn from the former colonial army).

So one common feature is definitely the existence of armies, for several decades after independence and until the democratisation reforms, that felt empowered and that have not hesitated to intervene in civilian affairs, either because their interests were threatened, or in the name of the rule of law (or a certain interpretation thereof).

The other connection is the fragility of the democratisation process in many of these countries. We have to keep in mind that these are still recent democracies, but also that scarce resources and the centralisation of power tend to heighten the stakes. So, in many ways, the democratisation process needs to be renegotiated time and time again so that the different elite factions (civilian and military) are reassured and agree to the ongoing reforms.

What is happening in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, I think, is a sign that the armies – or some leading elements within them – have been feeling threatened over the past months or years and the civilian leadership has not been able to keep them in check and/or to reassure them. 

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa 

Source: Al Jazeera

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