April has always been a significant month in Guinea Bissau’s political calendar.
In April 1974, soldiers in Portugal began the Carnation Revolution, which ended the war its reluctant army had been waging against independence fighters in five of its colonies, including Guinea Bissau.
April 2014 saw the death of Kumba Yalá, the first president to come from the opposition since independence in 1974. During his three-year-stint in office until being overthrown in a 2003 coup, Yalá proved to be as dysfunctional and unpredictable as his nemesis, three-time President João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira.
A veteran of the war of independence, Vieira’s shadow looms large over Guinea Bissau’s history: he staged the country’s first coup in 1980, provoked the 1997-98 civil war and died as he had lived – violently. He was assassinated in 2009.
Death, disorder and drugs
The thread connecting these events is the military.
Freedom fighters were central to the independence struggle and to the African Independence Party for Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), the party that led the struggle.
The military has always been close to the heart of Guinea Bissau’s politics and its patronage systems, which were initially fuelled by proceeds from the country’s principal export – cashew – and the aid money that started flowing in after independence.
But in recent decades, a much larger business model emerged with the arrival of cocaine. Latin American drug barons found Guinea Bissau’s “un-patrolled” coast an excellent place for the transhipment of their wares, on their way to the rich markets of Europe.
The amounts of cash this generated dwarfed the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and inevitably the drug transport business became the object of ferocious battles for power and influence.
Still, the citizens resent the “narco state” moniker that international media have stuck to their country because the vast majority are not involved in the drugs trade and never profit from it.
The coup that occurred 10 years ago this month – in the early hours of April 13, 2012 – was intimately connected to this side of Guinea Bissau’s economy.
It also added another source of income: illegal logging, coordinated by the coup leaders, especially General Antonio Indjai, the brains behind the move.
Ten years ago, the soldiers stepped in to prevent an imminent election victory of PAIGC politician Carlos Gomes Junior. He wanted security sector reform, which endangered the trafficking business.
Kumba Yala, still alive at the time, was widely suspected of having supported the power grab; like most of the army personnel, he belonged to the Balanta ethnicity, the largest in the country. Such loyalties do not determine political outcomes in Guinea Bissau but remain a factor in political events. Gomes now lives in exile in Portugal.
In April 2012, the sight of ministerial buildings closed and their gates padlocked was rather surreal. The soldiers were hardly visible and common people were carrying on as before, growing their crops, going to market, trading their wares, avoiding predatory traffic police and trying to survive.
Law and disorder
The violent political events that happen all too frequently here can be traced to a handful of well-connected individuals used to getting fast and easy money. This was the case 10 years ago and again earlier this year when the current president, Umaro Sissoco Embalo, survived an assassination attempt.
Embalo, a former prime minister, is only the second non-PAIGC president in Guinea Bissau’s history, even though his roots once again lie in the party and the army that fought for independence.
A brigadier general, Embalo owes his post to the country’s most prolific political financier, Braima Camará, a businessman believed to have made his fortune in the cashew and hospitality industries – and yet another ex-PAIGC stalwart. In late 2018, Camará founded MADEM-G15, a party centred around 15 PAIGC dissidents in parliament.
This Movimento de Alternância Democrática – Grupo 15 adopted Embalo as its candidate for the 2019 presidential elections, which he went on to win amid controversy.
To this day, the PAIGC refuses to recognise Embalo as the elected head of state.
Indjai, the putschist, who now has a $5m US government reward on his head for drugs and weapons trafficking, made an appearance at Embalo’s inauguration. It was an image that simultaneously looked like an endorsement of the new president and a menace to the country.
Embalo campaigned on a law and order ticket but the bloody events of February 1 this year suggest that he is struggling to bring the power plays and the money that fuels them under control.
On the day, heavily armed men attacked the Palacio do Governo, a large ministerial complex just outside the city centre, where the president was leading a cabinet meeting. A lengthy gun battle with military loyalists ensued, in which 11 people died.
Embalo later named three renegade army officers as the instigators, including the notorious Rear Admiral Bubo Na Tchuto, who spent a few years in a US prison after being captured during a sting operation conducted by US agents off Cabo Verde, in April 2013.
In a bid to link not just the traffickers but also the PAIGC to the assassination attempt, the National Guard was ordered to prevent the party’s ordinary congress from taking place, just a few days after the shooting.
No culture of accountability
These events represent another turn for the worse.
Veteran political commentator and government critic Rui Landim called the crackdown on political parties and media that has followed the shoot-out “the beginning of a reign of terror”.
His own house came under attack after he had made comments on the February 1 events in a regular column he curates for a popular local radio station; the station was ransacked and three of its staff members were seriously injured by unknown assailants.
Almost 50 years after independence, civil society groups like Voz di Paz (Voice of Peace), progressive media houses and activists like social scientist Miguel de Barros continue calling for reform in the security sector and the body politic.
“We need transparency about how political parties are financed so that we don’t have money from criminal gangs entering our political system,” de Barros said.
Ideally, a culture of accountability will enable Bissau-Guineans to come to terms with the dysfunctionalities that have bedevilled the way their country has so far been run. The Portuguese colonisers never bothered with accountability and the new rulers forgot it in their zeal to liberate the country.
It is needed to build a system of better governance and to shed light on the many human rights abuses that took place during colonial times, the war of independence, the years of harsh one-party rule afterwards and the horrific civil war.
But the fresh crackdown suggests that the necessary changes civil society activists have been advocating for may not occur and that could worsen the fate of the estimated two million people of Guinea Bissau.