Guinea Bissau: The Challenge of Ending Political Violence

Guinea Bissau
Guinea Bissau


Despite the declaration by the African Union (AU) that 2012 is the Year of Shared Values (including the spread of democratic norms), West Africa has witnessed two coup d'états - in Mali and Guinea Bissau - and widespread political tension arising from contested electoral processes.

While in the early 1960s and 1970s, Benin might have been 

labelled 'the bad apple' in West Africa because of the many coups and counter-coups (at least six from 1963 to 1972) Guinea-Bissau could now claim that reputation because of the frequency of power transition through military coups and political assassinations. In truth, there hardly is a country in Africa where the army represents such a great danger for peace and stability as in Guinea Bissau. For the third time in two years the country will now have to embark on another post-coup transition.


Even though there is still uncertainty over the main actors, the coup d'état in Guinea Bissau on Thursday, 12 April could be seen as an extension of the events of 1 April 2010 when the deputy army chief of staff, Antonio Injai staged a mutiny against the Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior and the then army Chief of Staff General Zamora Induta. Zamora was jailed while the late President Malam Bacai Sanha negotiated a politico-military compromise between Injai and Carlos Gomez Junior. The President even went as far as accepting a foreign military presence in the country to protect state institutions, as part of the compromise.


Although superficial, this renewed understanding between President Sanha and the Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior helped to maintain dialogue on some of the main challenges affecting the post-conflict reconstruction of Guinea Bissau, particularly the issue of pension funds for retired army officers, and the mobilisation of new partners. The illness of the late President Malam Bacai Sanha and his death in the beginning of 2012 ushered yet another power struggle that was marked by one attempted coup (December 26, 2011* ) and the political assassination of the former military intelligence chief Colonel Samba Diallo) ahead of the first round of the presidential elections on 12 March 2012.


It is long held that the army in Guinea Bissau does not really need political power to ascertain its authority and keep control over the lucrative drug trafficking network that has flourished in Guinea Bissau in the last decade. Often the army defines, manages and maintains its sphere of influence through its ability to work closely with politicians and/or top military officers. That influence has become the major security threat for normal political life based on a strict respect for democratic norms of a state born of hard fought liberation struggles.


Indeed, for almost three decades, a fragmented army has hampered state building while an incoherent political elite has created a web of conflicting interests that are incompatible with a much needed common vision to pull Guinea Bissau away from the political abyss. In taking center stage in the latest military coup, the army has put forward a number of fallacious arguments opposing the military presence of Angola in the country. In reality, it is the Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior and his reform agenda backed by Angola that have become the main target of the rebellious soldiers.


Although he won the endorsement of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), Gomes' decision to stand for the transitional presidential elections, revived old antagonisms between leaders with liberation credentials and those perceived to be harboring a reformist agenda within the ranks of the ruling party. While Carlos Gomes Junior was endorsed by key structures of the party as its main candidate, two other contenders, Serifo Nhamadjo (interim National Speaker) and Baciro Dia (Defense Minister), broke ranks and stood as independent candidates. However, Gomes enjoys significant support among external actors, including Angola - a country that has become a major player in the national politics of Guinea Bissau. It is precisely because of this support and his alleged attempt to redefine a new balance of power that prompted the military coup.


Another important factor that may have inspired the military coup was the outcome of the regional response to the coup d'état in Mali. The coup in Guinea-Bissau occurred just six days after the signing of the ECOWAS facilitated Bamako Framework Agreement for the restoration of constitutional order in Mali. As a first step, that agreement led to the handover of power by the Mali military junta to a transitional government led by Acting President Dioncounda Traore, who was previously the Speaker of the National Assembly.


With this in mind, and in a bid to ensure constitutional legality, the military junta in Guinea-Bissau announced a two-year transitional government in partnership with a number of political parties. A challenge for ECOWAS and other partners is how to ensure that this pattern of legitimising regime change through the establishment of an interim transitional government does not set a bad precedent for other states as an emerging regional response in tackling unconstitutional change of government through military coups.


It seems however that ECOWAS has a strong basis for rejecting, de-legitimising and effectively restoring constitutional order beyond the so-called National Transitional Council in Guinea-Bissau. Just days before the coup, a tripartite ECOWAS-AU-UN mission met with the military to underscore the importance of the military in preventing the disruption of the electoral process. Also, the ECOWAS mediation and the UN Security Council had recommended the deployment of an ECOWAS-led peace support mission in Guinea-Bissau, including a civilian component led by Guinean President Alpha Condé.


This mission was intended to replace Angolan forces and ensure an effective implementation of a regional roadmap on the defence and security sector reform programme and promote civilian protection during the electoral processes in Guinea-Bissau.


Therefore the justification of the military coup based on the presence of the Angolan mission is rather misplaced. It will be thus very important for ECOWAS to strongly impress on the military that there should be an immediate return to constitutional order without delay. This will be a major challenge for both ECOWAS and other partners. Meanwhile convincing the army to step away from political power will be an essential part of the resolving the country's woes.


* This was before his death so it can't be 'culminated'.


David Zounmenou and Jide Martyns Okeke are senior researchers in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of the ISS.


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