Security Sector Reform in Guinea-Bissau: An Opportunity Not to Be Missed
Africa Briefing N°109
19 Mar 2015
The full briefing is available in: French (PDF).
Guinea-Bissau’s international partners will meet in Brussels on 25 March to examine, among other things, the crucial issue of security sector reform (SSR). In the last 40 years, the army has attempted a dozen coups and three have been successful. This instability has been one of the impediments to the country’s development. But the current context has never been so conducive to making progress on this issue: the army lost credibility as a result of the 2012 coup; the 2014 elections brought to power politicians who are less dependent on the military because of their strong electoral legitimacy and the support of international partners; finally, the latter are less divided than they were in 2012. This opportunity should not be missed. International partners should provide the necessary financial support, and the new government must address internal tensions in order to preserve its legitimacy and the conditions conducive to SSR. All must remain acutely aware that reform is a long-term process and that it requires delicately balancing some deeply entrenched interests.
The influence of the army has long been detrimental to the country. Though it never exercised power directly, the army achieved autonomy and became a major political force. It has undergone a gradual ethnicisation, with the Balanta ethnic group, which represents about a quarter of the population, coming to consider it as its preserve. Its institutional structure began to unravel, with clientelism and factionalism sometimes taking criminal overtones as some military networks got involved in cocaine trafficking.
Military influence peaked with the April 2012 coup. The subsequent deterioration of socio-economic conditions eroded the army’s legitimacy. The current government, elected in April-May 2014, owes nothing to the army. Its position has also been strengthened by its alliance with the main opposition party, which is seeking to redefine its exclusive and troublesome links with the army and the Balanta community.
At the international level, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken the lead on Guinea-Bissau since 2012, especially with regard to the army. Other international actors have now rallied behind its leadership. Its military mission (ECOMIB) seems able to deter disgruntled soldiers from violent acts against the government.
However, these positive developments are threatened by persistent tensions between President José Mário Vaz and Prime Minister Domingos Simões Pereira. Both are members of the same party, but clientelist politics, coupled with constitutional provisions for a two-headed executive branch, have led to an uneasy polarisation. These tensions might eventually become intertwined with underlying suspicions between international actors and anxieties in the military.
The new government has restored control over the army, including by replacing a number of commanding officers. Governance as well as the economic and financial situation have improved. SSR is still at a preliminary stage, although the roundtable planned for 25 March has compelled the government to clarify its plans: a five-year program costing more than $270 million, including a special pension fund to finance the retirement of hundreds of armed forces personnel. However, the government’s request of a high amount for the pension fund and its plans to retain a large army post-reform could discourage international contributions and jeopardise the institutional consolidation of the armed forces. Some provisions are not very practical, others carry risk. These weaknesses will have to be addressed along the way. The process must start quickly so as to maintain the current momentum.
In order to make SSR a success and a real factor in promoting change, national and international actors must focus on the following measures:
- The president and the prime minister must avoid turning the issue of the defence and security forces into a political controversy. The ECOWAS president and the ECOWAS commission president must work together to facilitate agreement between the two heads of the executive.
- ECOMIB’s presence must be guaranteed until the end of President Vaz’s mandate in 2019, with a reduction in numbers in accordance with how the situation develops. The European Union must help ECOWAS, which has so far taken exclusive responsibility for ECOMIB but has hinted at budgetary difficulties, to maintain its troops on the ground.
- International partners must support SSR. The security sector reform steering committee must resume periodical meetings and help promote transparency and coordination, and a committee should be created with representation from the Guinea-Bissau authorities and international partners to monitor the use of all funds raised for SSR, using the same model as the special pension fund.
- The recruitment of new soldiers and some aspects of the special pension fund, notably for voluntary retirement, must be lowered. SSR should result, in the medium term, in a reduction of military expenditure, which is currently too high for a country that is not facing immediate external threats.
- Funding the retirement of personnel is necessary but should not take place to the detriment of building sound defence and security institutions. ECOWAS must encourage national authorities to develop a framework to formalise and consolidate career advancement processes and living conditions of members of the security forces.
The program should not include the ethnic rebalancing of the army, a feature of some previous SSR programs. This question will only be resolved by addressing historical inequalities in other areas.
Dakar/Brussels, 19 March 2015