Guinea-Bissau: The Post-Election Test
Guinea-Bissau: The Post-Election Test
Guinea-Bissau: Transition after the Coup
Guinea-Bissau: Transition after the Coup
Op-Ed / Africa 5 minutes

Guinea-Bissau: The Post-Election Test

The west African state’s unique power-structures combine with the interests generated by a modern drug-economy to present a tough challenge to the international community, says Richard Moncrieff.

The fact that the presidential election in the west African state of Guinea-Bissau on 26 July 2009 ended peacefully is something of an achievement given their political background. The turbulent preceding period had been marked by a series of political assassinations, including the killings on 1-2 March of the military chief-of-staff, General Batista Tagme Na Waie, and of the president, João Bernardo Vieira. The good news was reinforced when the losing candidate, Kumba Yala (Ialá), a volatile figure who served as president in 2000-03, calmly accepted the victory of Malam Bacai Sanhá. The new president, to be sworn in on  8 September 2009, has chosen the reformist Carlos Gomes Júnior as his prime minister.

Many in the international community responded with relief to this outcome, believing that the internationally-financed package of reforms - including, vitally, of the armed forces - can now make some real progress under Carlos Gomes Júnior's stewardship. 

Maybe this will indeed happen. But the picture may be far too rosy. Political violence in Guinea-Bissau tends to be extremely difficult to predict, and does not normally follow or accompany more visible political tensions. There may be an appearance of calm, but far beneath the surface lie dark currents that eventually lead to outbursts of violence. There is no reason to believe that the present political situation is any different, or that these currents have gone away.  

The parallel state

The modern history of Guinea-Bissau helps explain this. The country was born - exceptionally in west Africa - of a long and bloody liberation war, against Portuguese colonial overlords; this eventually helped bring down the fascist government in Lisbon and led in 1975 to the independence of Guinea-Bissau and the offshore islands of Cape Verde (then one country). During the war, the guerrilla leader Amilcar Cabral, inspired by comparable wars of the 1950s and 1960s, created revolutionary cells across the country under the aegis of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC). He was so successful that by the time the Portuguese departed, this comradely network controlled most of the country. 

Amilcar was killed in January 1973, and was succeeded in the leadership by his brother Luis. In the early post-independence years, Luis Cabral transformed these cells into a parallel channel of information and security. There was a political calculation here: Luis Cabral, whose origins lay in Cape Verde's Creole elite, was worried about the power of an army that was dominated by poor and ill-educated troops of Bissau-Guinean origin. João Bernardo Vieira, who came to power in 1980 via a coup d'état against Luis Cabral, was himself of modest Bissau-Guinean roots and was trained by the military; but he also found these parallel structures a useful means of keeping a watch on his army colleagues.

But the army never lost its sense of self-importance and entitlement from its experience of having fought the liberation war, and in Guinea-Bissau the president and the army chief-of-staff are still widely considered equals. This uneasy coexistence of a liberation army and a quasi-communist party-state underlies a gruesome pattern of executions and political assassinations that spans the period from the spasm of bloody purges of officers in the mid-1980s to the March 2009 violence. Here, Guinea-Bissau resembles much of the post-communist world in that the party-state's networks and structures have persisted even after its ideology and legitimacy have collapsed. Even more worryingly, the rivalries generated by the parallel-power system appear to reach across generations. 

The style of secretive factionalism characteristic of the system was greatly exacerbated in the civil war of 1998-99, which saw João Bernardo Vieira pitted against the vast majority of the army's rank-and-file. The politicians killed or arrested by the army in June 2009, three months after the double assassination, were all Vieira loyalists - indicating a settling of scores built up since that period. Baciro Dabó, murdered by soldiers at his home on 5 June, had served as Vieira's interior minister and been a key figure in the president's state-security services. 

Moreover, the emergence of drug-trafficking networks in the country from around 2004 has raised the stakes considerably, by transforming the factions into competing "guns for hire" (see Emmanuelle Bernard, "Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope", 13 September 2008). The cerebral Amilcar Cabral would doubtless be appalled to see the structures which originated in his liberation struggle degenerate into warring factions. 

The reform window

All this is playing out in almost total obscurity, greatly complicating the reform efforts of the international community. The fact that no one has claimed responsibility for the killing either of the president or that of the chief-of-staff is symptomatic. This differs greatly from military involvement in other west African countries, where typically a military strongman appears in front of the international press following a coup d'état to explain how the army is going to save the country from ruin. No one knows for sure who is responsible for the March 2009 killings - and given the wholly cosmetic nature of the national commission of enquiry, that will not change anytime soon. But one thing is sure: the perpetrators of recent violence, whoever they are, remain the country's real power-brokers. 

The international community has two priorities in this situation. First, it should help address this cycle of silence and killings - either through a commission of enquiry of its own (international or a hybrid), or through facilitating a greatly reinforced judicial system. The beginnings of a basic order of justice must be constructed (see Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making", 28 April 2009).

Second, the ongoing work to reduce and professionalise the army must be pushed through. This process is being quietly but firmly resisted by the military's senior officers, as it threatens their control over competing military factions. Such resistance in itself demonstrates the importance of the reform - those seeking to frustrate it are exactly those who are using army units to settle scores and protect their positions in the region's crime networks.

But even this reform will need to go further. Beyond the army lies an elusive cluster of different security networks and militia, some well organised and controlled, others fluid and inchoate. They should be either decommissioned or (as in the case of the state-security services) profoundly restructured. 

The desire of Guinea-Bissau's military power-brokers to accommodate the international community is demonstrated by their willingness to see the return to constitutional rule. The country is one of the world's most aid-dependent. Malam Bacai Sanhá, who served as interim president immediately following the civil war in 1999, is relatively respected inside the country and abroad. The new president has spent decades within the labyrinths of the PAIGC ruling party. Although his power is evidently constrained by those who trade in violence, this may be the best the country can at present hope for.

The international community has a chance to help Guinea-Bissau make the most of the opening represented by its peaceful election. But to do so it must acknowledge the depth of the country's existing problems. In Guinea-Bissau, it is what lies under the surface that counts. 

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