The death of Guinea-Bissau President Malam Bacai Sanha on 9 January from health complications could either perpetuate the instability that has long plagued the country, or provide an opportunity for political parties to negotiate a smooth, constitutional transfer of power which could in turn help shore up the country’s development, say analysts and diplomats.
Two weeks prior to the president’s death, on 26 December, Navy Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto was arrested alongside 29 military staff, following a fight between different military factions.
While described by some as a coup attempt, it is more likely the fighting was a standoff between Tchuto and his long-time rival Army Chief of Staff General Antonio Indjai, who have family and clan rivalries as well as overlapping interests in the lucrative drug transit trade, analysts told IRIN.
Against this backdrop, National Assembly speaker Raimundo Pereira is acting as interim president and has 60 days to organize presidential elections.
This presents an opportunity for the opposition and government - dominated by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), with 67 out of 100 parliamentary seats - to work together for higher goals, said a Western diplomat in Dakar who preferred anonymity. “Guinea-Bissau has an opportunity here. The opposition and government could act responsibility, and the government could reach out to the opposition to be part of the process.”
Initially the leading opposition party, the Party for Social Renewal (PRS), opposed Pereira - who is seen as being close to Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, as interim leader.
The 60-day time limit puts pressure on the government to prepare for elections, but most agree if the country is to abide by electoral rules - which include holding a census before a new election - this time-frame is impossible to meet.
Following the assassination of President Jaoao Vieira in March 2009, it took the country four to five months to organize and hold presidential elections.
Post-60 days, if no clear constitutional parameters are set, opposition figures could make things difficult “and if disgruntled, could try to make arrangements with the army - which is always the recipe [for insecurity] here,” said a political adviser in the capital Bissau, who also preferred anonymity.
Finances may also complicate issues: presidential elections should cost around US$4.5 million, which “is a lot to raise in two months”, said the adviser, while further funds will need to be leveraged for legislative elections planned towards the end of this year.
Head of the National Assembly Cabinet Carlos Fonsecka Rodriguez told IRIN he has high hopes. Brandishing a copy of the constitution, he said: “It is up to us to be mature and sensible and to follow what we have put in the constitution. It is necessary that we Guineans know how to show the world that we are capable of respecting what is written.”
Guinea-Bissau ranks 176 out of 187 countries on the UN’s 2011 Human Development Index - lower than the regional average. Life expectancy is just 48 years, partly due to very high infant mortality rates: Roughly one in 10 infants die before they reach age five. While primary school enrolment has risen over the past five years, just half of the adult population is literate.
In a political setting characterized by “opportunistic political alliances” as the diplomat put it, the alliances of ex-President Sanha and Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior balanced each other out, keeping an “uneasy peace”.
Some sawy Sanha as a unifier. Ansoumane Sagna, legal adviser to interim President Pereira told IRIN, “Sanha listened, he understood… He was a true unifier... He always tried to improve Guinea-Bissau.”
Now the balance has tipped, leading to a “mounting hegemony” of the PAIGC, which could see a shoring up of power between Prime Minister Junior and Army Chief Indjai, says International Crisis Group’s Guinea-Bissau researcher, Vincent Foucher.
But PAIGC is deeply divided, said the Bissau-based political adviser, and before that, there is likely to be a scramble for power within the party, which could lead to an “element of political instability”.
Drugs and the military
Other destabilizing factors in the country have not changed: the bloated military and its strong influence on politics and the transit of large amounts of cocaine from South America to Europe.
International police observers have linked both the army and navy chiefs of staff to the drugs trade. Either one or both were allegedly implicated in two recent mainland arrivals of drug-loaded planes - one of them in Mansoa, just 50km northeast of Bissau.
Some have alleged that by locking up Tchuto, the army is left to take over his side of the network, but in doing so, he also risks becoming a “Balanta martyr”, said the diplomat, referring to Guinea-Bissau’s largest ethnic group which has traditionally dominated the military.
When it comes to reforming the security sector - that is, downsizing and professionalizing the army and police among other reforms - some progress has been made. All the necessary reform-related laws have been passed; the Angolan government and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have provided funding for this to the tune of US$38million; and the Guinea-Bissau government, in a show of good will and ownership, has set aside $500,000.
Law enforcement procedures and the judiciary have been “incrementally” strengthened, said the diplomat, though when it comes to “putting people on trial and sending them to jail” there haven’t been many returns.
But one of the first concrete steps - to retire and put on pensions some 400 military officers and generals by the end of January 2012 - is off-track. An announcement was due out on this next week but will not be made, said the political analyst.
While Army Chief Indjai is outwardly supportive of security sector reform, the process continues to threaten many in the military and must be carefully handled, say observers. However, many say the above delay is necessary as the constitutional question is more pressing.
Most civilians IRIN spoke to in the capital Bissau, are ready to see action taken. Richard Antwi, a pastor in the capital Bissau, told IRIN: “They [the military] need to be trained to know that their job is to stay in their barracks and to have nothing to do with the political system - yes to protect and defend the country, but not to intervene and take power.”
Herein also lies an opportunity, said the Western diplomat. “He [Indjai] has the opportunity to be the head of a groundbreaking, professional Bissau-Guinean military… Nothing more could help the country’s economic growth prospects than this,” he told IRIN.
The recent stint of relative peace has already brought the country development advantages. In December 2010 the World Bank and International Monetary Fund forgave the country US$1.2 billion worth of incurred debt under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries package. As a result, the government no longer has to spend the bulk of its budget on interest payments but can move on to invest in infrastructure and social services, and can more powerfully attract international investment to do so.
Several “non-traditional” donors have started to show an interest in Guinea-Bissau - with Angola and Brazil - each keen to show their leadership capacity in the lusophone community (and the former with a keen interest in the country’s bauxite reserves) - investing significant amounts in the country. China is rebuilding the presidential palace; Brazil has invested in police training; and the African Development Bank has invested in road rehabilitation.
In the last year in Bissau - renowned for its lack of electricity, unpaved roads and deteriorating water and sanitation services - solar-powered street-lamps and traffic lights have been erected on main streets and pedestrian overpasses have been built on crowded thoroughfares. “There has been a marked improvement in living standards in the capital over recent years,” said the diplomat, who gave much of the credit for proactively attracting foreign investment, to Prime Minister Junior.
Most hope that the events of 26 December were not the beginning of a pattern of unrest, and that the country can continue to move on. As businessman Joao Gomes in Bissau, put it: “We are tired of not having peace.”