The recent successful holding of legislative and presidential elections has raised hopes that Guinea-Bissau can move closer to the end of a two-year political crisis marked by international isolation and a devastating economic decline.
A post-elections rapprochement
The results were accepted by the population, international opinion and political rivals. There were concerns that the military, with a history of meddling in politics, would create problems if its preferred candidate, Nuno Gomes Nabiam, lost. But in a surprising move, António Indjai, the army chief and leader of the April 2012 coup that provoked a new political breakdown and sent the country backwards, publicly saluted president-elect José Mário Vaz, who beat Nabiam into to second place.
Since the elections, Vaz’s African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC,) that has historically dominated Guinea-Bissau’s politics, has sought to pursue dialogue with the main opposition Social Renewal Party (PRS).
This effort has been welcomed by Guinea-Bissau’s international partners, who have encouraged the PAIGC to avoid a “winner-takes-all” mentality, and bring its opponents into the fold. UN Special Representative José Ramos-Horta has repeatedly called for an inclusive government.
According to Vincent Foucher, Dakar-based analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank, the high levels of political violence and the repeated instability witnessed in the past have been driven by intense competition for access to state resources.
“Fundamentally, the country’s economy remains weak and clientelistic. So the state is the key prize, and the political game is winner-take-all. That is why the few hundred business, political and military figures that play the game sometimes come up with violent manoeuvres.” Foucher argues that: “the best defence against another coup is a civilian regime that maintains its legitimacy through policy outcomes and good governance.”
How to rein in the military
But the structural problems that have handicapped Guinea-Bissau in the past have not gone away. Foucher stresses that sorting out dire administrative problems and establishing proper governance will not be easy. Previous efforts to reform the security sector have faced strong resistance, particularly when they challenged the long-established privileges of the armed forces. Guinea-Bissau’s army remains oversized and top-heavy, with many long-serving officers reluctant to retire.
“It is true that there is a history of military interference in politics in Guinea-Bissau, but today, the political context is different,” argues Ovidio Pequeno, special representative for the African Union (AU). “The military have always interfered when the politicians are weak and divided. As for now, the new authorities have the legitimacy to lead the country.”
Mending the economy
Analysts point out that Guinea-Bissau’s new political authorities have to revamp a broken-backed economy and address serious deficiencies in hard-hit sectors like health and education.
Poverty rates are extreme. Guinea-Bissau has long been blighted by high levels of corruption. Illegal logging and over-fishing are amongst the issues that will have to be dealt with. Problems like salary arrears, going back over a long period, will require external assistance. “The government that will take over will find the coffers empty,” Pequeno warns.
Deforestation and drugs trafficking
President-elect Vaz has promised to closely review all contracts for the exploration of natural resources. Over the past year, environmentalists have been warning of the risks of a brutal devastation of Guinea-Bissau’s forests. A local newspaper recently denounced the logging by Chinese and Gambian companies in the Region of Quínara.
Combating drug-trafficking will be another difficult challenge. With no proper oversight, poorly paid police and armed forces, and a barely functioning justice system, Guinea-Bissau has long been identified as one of West Africa’s leading “narco states”, dangerously vulnerable to the influence of drug traffickers. Former navy chief Bubo Na Tchuto, who was captured by US forces in April 2013, recently pleaded guilty on charges of conspiring to bring drugs into the United States.
Last year, a slump in the price of cashew nuts, Guinea-Bissau main export earner, which sustains some 80 percent of its 1.6 people, left nearly half of the population facing serious food shortages. 2013 was the second consecutive year of falling cashew nut prices in the country.
What has changed since April 2012?
The crisis provoked by the coup in April 2012 has brought dire economic consequences and bitter lessons.
“What has changed is that people in the army and in politics have learned the hard way that coups brought international isolation, and that isolation brought major budgetary issues,” said ICG’s Foucher.
In the aftermath of the April 2012 military coup, Guinea-Bissau’s main international donors, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Development Bank suspended technical and financial aid. According to the African Economic Outlook, Guinea-Bissau’s fiscal deficit widened to 4.7 percent of the GDP in 2013 from 2.7 in 2012. Budgetary shortfalls meant slashing state expenditure, driving the country further into poverty.
The return to constitutional order should pave the way for renewed international support, which in turn should help initiate some kind of economic revival.
Learning the lessons
“There are many lessons that the coup has taught the politicians, the military and the people in general; a sort of national experience. The difficulties experienced during the two years of transition have convinced the majority that a coup is not a solution for solving political problems,” says AU’s Pequeno.
In addition, the emergence of a new and younger set of political leaders is a source of hope for the country’s stability, Pequeno told IRIN.
According to Luís Vaz Martins, president of the Guinean Human Rights League (GHRL), much has changed as the country now finally has a legitimate government and an elected president due to be inaugurated on 23 June.
Reconciliation and amnesty
A formal accord between the PAIGC and the PRS in which they agree to work together for reconciliation, is an important signal.
In a joint statement signed by the in-coming Prime Minister Domingos Simões Pereira and the leader the PRS Alberto Nambeia, the two parties have agreed to work for a bill to accord amnesty to the leaders of the 2012 coup. This, however, may well trigger angry reactions as many believe it will help perpetuate the widespread impunity that has reigned in the country.
The idea of an amnesty was previously put forward by the transitional government, but blocked in the National Assembly and heavily criticized by civil society and human rights groups. GHRL president Martins told IRIN that his organization will oppose any attempt to approve an amnesty bill. True reconciliation, he said, is achieved through transitional justice.
Nevertheless, in its April 2014 report, the ICG suggested that the newly formed National Assembly pass the bill. ICG’s Foucher can see the drawbacks, but acknowledges that an amnesty now “is an acceptable price to pay for political stability and a chance to try and build stronger institutions that can make the lives of the whole population better.”