Security Sector Reform in Guinea-Bissau: An Opportunity Not to Be Missed
Security Sector Reform in Guinea-Bissau: An Opportunity Not to Be Missed
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Beyond Turf Wars: Managing the Post-Coup Transition in Guinea-Bissau
Beyond Turf Wars: Managing the Post-Coup Transition in Guinea-Bissau
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Soldiers gather in front of Guinea-Bissau's military headquarters in Bissau in March 2009. REUTERS/Luc Gnago
Briefing 109 / Africa

Security Sector Reform in Guinea-Bissau: An Opportunity Not to Be Missed

A legitimate civilian government, economic improvement and an army that has lost credibility are an opportunity for Guinea-Bissau. Regional and international partners meeting in Brussels on 25 March should commit to finance security sector reform to help the small state move beyond its history of military coups.

I. Overview

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

Report 190 / Africa

Beyond Turf Wars: Managing the Post-Coup Transition in Guinea-Bissau

International actors need to commit to a common strategy to help coup-plagued Guinea-Bissau implement the security, justice and electoral reforms it needs to escape its status as a link in drug trafficking to Europe.

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Executive Summary

Guinea-Bissau took another dangerous turn on 12 April 2012, when the army arrested Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior, who was about to be elected president. A military junta accused him of conspiring with Angola to curtail the military’s power and quickly installed transitional authorities, before officially stepping aside on 22 May. International condemnation was swift, but differences developed between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP). The former, pushed by Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, supports a year’s transition, the latter, especially Portugal and Angola, immediate resumption of the presidential vote. Coup and transition may have opened a way for vital reforms, which must go beyond changes in the army and combating the drugs trade. But for that to happen, ECOWAS and CPLP must reach a consensus on working with international partners to mobilise resources for security, judicial and electoral reforms and refusing to validate Gomes Júnior’s illegal exclusion from political life.

Crisis Group warned three months before the coup that two related factors posed significant risks for stability: the likely victory of the prime minister in the presidential election and the military presence in the country of his ally, Angola, including its part in security sector reform (SSR). Both caused the military (Forças Armadas da Guiné-Bissau, FAGB) to fear what might be in store for it under a Gomes Júnior presidency.

The coup that suspended the constitutional order and broke off the second round of the presidential election (scheduled for 29 April) was not a mere reflex of an isolated minority of narco-military against a reformist civilian government. Rather, it demonstrated that the tense relations between civilian and military elites that have marred progress since independence in 1974 remain unresolved and that these in turn feed into broader grievances around issues of citizenship, entitlements, the rural/urban divide, regional inequalities and the mounting sense of historical marginalisation felt by the Balanta ethnic group that depends on its majority in the army to champion its cause.

Controversy rages over the role opposition leaders may have played. Both Serifo Nhamadjo, a rival within Gomes Júnior’s Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) and political heir to the deceased president, Malam Bacai Sanhá, and Kumba Yalá, a former president whose Partido para a Renovação Social (PRS) is rooted in the Balanta community, have influence in the military. But the coup was also stimulated by the inability of the electoral process to deliver uncontroversial results. Nhamadjo and Yalá, as well as Henrique Rosa, a former transition president, rejected the March first round results, claiming registration flaws and voting fraud.

The coup also confirmed that Gomes Júnior’s divisive style made him many enemies among politicians as well as soldiers. The legitimacy he gained by improving the lives of ordinary citizens was weakened by opposition accusations of nepotism and that he was implicated in not yet credibly investigated political killings in 2009. While he denied the accusations, many citizens put their lives on the line in his defence during the April 2010 military turmoil but failed to do so two years later.

The events likewise raise questions about why international efforts to help the tiny, poor, aid-dependent country have so persistently failed to bring real change. After the European Union (EU) pulled out as a result of the April 2010 troubles, and in the absence of other major international patrons, Angola did much to produce stability, but it has not been able to stimulate transformation or build and maintain consensus at the national and international level on shaping the future. It allowed itself to become an object of suspicion in the country and locked in jurisdictional fights with some key ECOWAS member states, which weakened its credibility, acceptability and efficiency.

Guinea-Bissau is unlikely to receive substantially more attention in the near future for several reasons: the international community’s preoccupation with other, much bloodier situations; the capacity of the transitional authorities to maintain domestic order so far and play the dialogue game; and the willingness of ECOWAS to engage with them. The CPLP’s tough stance – seeking a stabilisation force and completion of the presidential election – has encouraged Gomes Júnior and the PAIGC to refuse all compromise and made ECOWAS the military’s favourite with which to broker a deal.

The regional organisation has obtained two significant concessions: preservation of the parliament and release from detention of Gomes Júnior, who left the country two weeks after the coup. The price has been ECOWAS support for a one-year transition, to end with new elections. Nhamadjo took over as transitional president, and Rui Duarte Barros, a PRS associate, became prime minister, formed a cabinet and presented his transition program on 21 July. ECOWAS deployed a 629-man strong police and army contingent (ECOWAS mission in Bissau, ECOMIB) to help with security sector reform, support the transition and facilitate the departure of the Angolan military mission, which was completed peacefully on 9 June.

Transitional structures are now in place, and new elections have been set for April 2013. But the transition remains unsteady. The new authorities are a mix of technocrats and opposition politicians of varied stripes, and a new sharing of spoils is under way the impact of which on state capacity is yet unclear. THE PAIGC remains in control of the parliament and hostile to the transition authorities, while politicians backing the transition are trying to keep Gomes Júnior at bay through their accusations. The military has formally retreated from public life with the dissolution of the junta in May but remains influential. Factionalism persists within it, and rumours of a new coup circulate endlessly. The withdrawal of much international assistance and disruption of the cashew nut export sector herald rough times for the transition authorities.

But though there are limits to the transition as engineered by ECOWAS, it is the only game in town at this point. The more radical demands Gomes Júnior and the PAIGC are making with encouragement from Angola and Portugal could make the transition a riskier exercise. Tempting as it may be for some to hold back in the not unrealistic hope it will collapse, it is more prudent to work through ECOWAS and in the present framework.

In their quest for a negotiated settlement, ECOWAS and its key member states have allowed themselves to be perceived internationally as letting the junta get away with too much and doing away with elective democracy, all in order to neutralise Angolan influence. The bulk of the international community has nevertheless been pragmatic in accepting the regional organisation’s leadership – it is the player with the ear of the military and the transitional government – but uneasiness persists in diplomatic circles over its handling of the situation. This makes it difficult for the transitional government to gain international recognition and recover suspended aid, without which it will be hard to mobilise resources for a successful transition and necessary reforms.

ECOWAS and several of its member countries have legitimate interests in Guinea-Bissau, as well as leverage over the new authorities. That leverage can and should be used to work out a peaceful solution. However, ECOWAS, which has put a good deal of its prestige on the line, should learn from Angola’s experience: it must not act in isolation from the rest of the international community and become party to the complex conflicts that have divided Guinea-Bissau. It should instead help the transitional government realise and then do what is needed to rebuild international good-will: demonstrate its sincerity about reform. There would be a much better chance for this to happen if especially ECOWAS and CPLP would put aside their turf wars and develop a common strategy. The CPLP and its member countries should show greater flexibility, and the African Union (AU) should help facilitate discussions between the two organisations.

Dakar/Brussels, 17 August 2012

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