A new threat to stability in Guinea-Bissau emerged this week when former military strongman General Ansumane Mane declared himself head of the armed forces and revoked promotions awarded by President Kumba Yala.
Mane’s moves were condemned by Guinea-Bissau’s government, which asked Mane on Tuesday to respect the constitution and its institutions. The UN Security Council said on Tuesday that it would hold Mane responsible if his action led to further unrest and chaos. It urged him to start dialogue with the government on the basis of the country’s constitutional order.
However, a humanitarian source told IRIN on Wednesday that Mane had refused to meet anyone since he ordered the promoted military officers to hand back their commissions.
Yala had promoted 32 officers last week: 14 became generals, 10 were made colonels and eight became lieutenant-colonels. Mane was made a four-star general, the highest rank in the country, but stayed away from the ceremony. He said at a news conference on Monday that there were too many generals in the country of 1.1 million people and that there should be equality and justice in any readjustments in the military.
In addition to revoking the promotions, Mane placed chief of staff Verissimo Correia Seabra and his deputy, Emilio Costa, under house arrest, before declaring himself supreme chief of the armed forces and replacing Seabra with General Buota Nan Batcha.
News organisations reported clashes on Thursday morning between Mane supporters and soldiers loyal to Seabra, who escaped from house arrest on the previous evening. The Portuguese ambassador in Bissau, Antonio Dias, said later on Portuguese radio that the shooting had stopped. He said people on the outskirts of the town had fled at the first shots, as occurred during a 1998-1999 civil war, in which about 300,000 people were displaced. “Everyone is trying to leave,” Dias told RDP radio.
Last week’s promotions had been due in September, but were postponed thrice because of disagreement between Yala and Mane, the Pan African News Agency (PANA) reported. PANA quoted Mane as saying on Monday that the list Yala signed was not the one they had agreed to, which forced him to consider the promotions null and void.
This week’s developments, the humanitarian source said, are significant. “It means that he (Mane) does not recognise the authority of the head of state,” he said. Moreover, when Mane issued a communique reassuring the public that all was calm, he signed as commander of the military junta. That junta was supposed to have been dissolved following the presidential poll in November 1999 and January 2000, which Yala won.
“There has been a longstanding malaise between the military and the government,” the source said. “The junta never accepted to stay in the barracks. This is an excuse to make a comeback.”
Over the past few months, nearly all decisions made by the president have been challenged by the military and usually the head of state has backed off, according to the source.
One of the best known cases involved the head of the navy, Lamine Sanha. In April, the government relieved him of his command after he unilaterally released a foreign boat found fishing illegally in Guinea-Bissau waters. He refused to vacate his post, appealed against his dismissal in a court of law and won.
Earlier, Yala had appointed Seabra minister of defence. The military did not agree and the appointment was withdrawn. Mane was offered the post of adviser to the head of state but turned it down.
Humanitarian sources said the arrest early this month by regional authorities in the north of some 300 men who were heading towards the border with Senegal, reportedly to join the Mouvement des forces democratiques de Casamance (MFDC), also helped to deepen the rift.
A humanitarian source based in Abidjan told IRIN the MFDC, which has been fighting for two decades for a separate state in southern Senegal’s Casamance region, had helped Mane’s forces fight President Joao Bernardo Vieira in 1998 and 1999. Vieira’s forces were supported by Senegalese and Guinean troops.
After Mane overthrew Vieira in May 1999, his military junta co-governed Guinea-Bissau with handpicked civilians. Just days before the first round of internationally observed presidential polls on 28 November, the junta issued a document detailing the role it aimed to play after the elections, which it wanted all political parties to sign.
The Magna Carta, as the document was called, stated: “When commands emanating from (state organs) run counter to the constitution and the law, passive disobedience shall be legitimate resistance; when active it (the disobedience) shall be legitimate revolt.”
The document also outlined the competencies of the president and other state institutions.
During the first two terms following the 1999 election, it said, the president would appoint or dismiss the armed forces chief of staff on the recommendation of the military junta. The junta - along with the government - would also have a say in the appointment of the attorney-general, according to the document.
Should there be a crisis that impedes the functioning of state institutions, the president would dissolve the government after consulting the junta and the Council of State, it added.
The publication of the Magna Carta in late November 1999 provoked an outcry, with political leaders rejecting the document outright. The junta withdrew it, but its actions over the past months appear to be in line with the Magna Carta, the Abidjan-based source said.
The new development compounds the difficulties Yala faces. In September, a power-sharing row broke out between his Partido da Renovacao Social (PRS) and its coalition partner, Resistencia da Guine (RGB) and Yala sacked the five RGB members in his cabinet. This threatened to cause a constitutional crisis since the PRS does not have an absolute majority in parliament.
However, the dispute was resolved and the RGB ministers were reinstated.
Public servants have been protesting against the non-payment of overdue wages and allowances and last week opposition parties demonstrated, calling for the resignation of the government. At least one party, Uniao para a mudanza, has come out in favour of Mane’s position, the humanitarian source said.