Guinea-Bissau: Transition after the Coup
Guinea-Bissau: Transition after the Coup
Briefing / Africa 4 minutes

Guinea-Bissau: Beyond Rule of the Gun

The assassinations of the chief of defence staff, General Batista Tagme Na Wai, on 1 March 2009 and President Joao Bernardo Nino Vieira early the next day have plunged Guinea-Bissau into deep uncertainty. National Assembly Speaker Raimundo Pereira was quickly sworn in as interim president pending the election the constitution requires.

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I. Overview

The assassinations of the chief of defence staff, General Batista Tagme Na Wai, on 1 March 2009 and President Joao Bernardo Nino Vieira early the next day have plunged Guinea-Bissau into deep uncertainty. National Assembly Speaker Raimundo Pereira was quickly sworn in as interim president pending the election the constitution requires. That the killings occurred only months after the acclaimed November parliamentary elections, however, indicates that, in current circumstances, the democratic process cannot cope with the rule of the gun, as well as the extent to which the military’s use of force has overwhelmed state institutions. Without outside help to end military involvement in politics and impunity, it may be impossible to halt a slide into further violence. Elites need to stand up to the military, but they require support. The international community should work for an international or hybrid commission of inquiry into the killings. Security system reform needs to be improved by better international coordination and creation of a national commission with enhanced autonomy.

The situation further deteriorated when, in the early hours of 5 June, a presidential candidate and former minister was shot dead in his home, and a few hours later another former minister was also shot dead, along with a bodyguard and driver, while motoring into Bissau. The authorities claimed that they were resisting arrest for their part in a coup plot, for which former Prime Minister Faustino Imbali was taken into custody.

The precise motives remain unknown, but both the March and June killings have credibly been linked to deep mistrust among the political-military elites. The commission of inquiry established to investigate the March killings is likely to be fatally weakened by lack of political will to uncover the truth and widespread fear of intimidation and retaliation. Without international involvement, it is highly unlikely that the true culprits will be identified. This reflects the inability of the justice system to counter impunity and deal with the widespread criminality linked to drug trafficking that has engulfed the country.

Since the return to multi-party rule in 1994, no president has successfully completed the constitutionally-mandated five-year term. General Tagme is the third chief of defence staff to be assassinated in nine years. Although the violence pre-dates the surge of organised drug trafficking in the region, the possibility of huge illicit riches has increased the stakes in the power struggle, leading to a vicious cycle of criminality and political instability, the beginnings of which are visible not only in Guinea-Bissau but also in neighbouring Guinea. Recent events point to increasing factionalism in the military, which could pose a serious challenge to current efforts to reform the army.

Reactions to the March killings, domestic and international, have been mixed. Some Bissau-Guineans regard them as presenting a welcome opportunity for a new beginning, given the destabilising nature of the personality conflict and rivalry that existed between President Vieira and both General Tagme and Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior. But most, especially in private conversations, view it as confirmation that the military holds the state to ransom and is likely to continue to do so in the absence of an international force to protect state institutions. The international community, while condemning the assassinations, has endorsed the interim government and the planned election without sending a strong signal regarding the continued use of force and widespread abuses committed by the military.

Prior to the 5 June killings, preparations for the presidential election on 28 June 2009 were well advanced, and there is every chance they will take place as scheduled, in view of the support and endorsement the process has received from the international community and the political parties represented in the National Assembly. The campaign has been peaceful, with three favourites emerging, Malam Bacai Sanha, Kumba Yala and Henrique Pereira Rosa – all former heads of state. The election has the potential to help move the country beyond the present impasse, but it could also provoke further instability. In any case, an election alone is not enough to halt the continued militarisation of politics.

To begin to build political stability through the de-militarisation of political power, the following measures should be pursued by political and military elites in the country and supported by the international community, particularly the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (Comunidade dos Paises de Lingua Portuguesa, CPLP) and the UN:

  • Guinea-Bissau’s political elites, in particular the new president, should fully and decisively implement reform of the armed forces, prioritising the planned reduction from 4,458 to 3,500 troops. They must stop looking to the military to settle or adjudicate political disputes and desist from creating client groups in the army.
  • The military itself must realise that its continued involvement in politics and related violence has seriously eroded its once proud legacy. If it is to regain public trust, it must turn away from this and embrace professional reform. Senior officers should consider early retirement and postings to regional and wider international peacekeeping operations as honourable options for ending their careers.
  • The international community must send a strong signal that the continued use of force and human rights abuses are unacceptable and will entail consequences. The international force to protect state institutions and civilian politicians that some former senior Bissau-Guinean officials have proposed should be established. Likewise, an international or hybrid commission of enquiry into the assassinations backed by a UN Security Council mandate should be nego­tiated with the new president, as several Bissau-Guinean politicians have urged, and pushed hard if, under pressure from the armed forces, he proves reluctant.
  • Security system reform (SSR) needs to be much better coordinated between the UN and the European Union (EU); a lead country should be identified for implementation, possibly Portugal, the former colonial power; and a trust fund created and the number of direct donors reduced. Domestic ownership of the process should eventually be enhanced through establishment of a national commission, with greater autonomy than the current steering committee.


Dakar/Brussels, 25 June 2009

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