Guinea-Bissau will hold elections on 16 March to end yet another post-coup regime, with many hoping the polls will help calm an internecine and drawn-out instability. Observers believe that a political coalition and deeper commitment by the international community after the polls can shore up the country's recovery.
Multiple coups and assassinations have marred the West African country's political history since the first free polls in 1994. Corruption and misrule have bogged down governance and public services, and over the last decade drug trafficking has worsened power struggles between the military and the political class.
Political power in Guinea-Bissau is largely centralized - a legacy of its colonial past. Until the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1991, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) was the only party, ruling from independence in 1974.
With limited checks, the presidency has become a powerful office that draws intense political competition due to a winner-take-all culture. The country has both a president and a prime minister, but the prime minister is named by the president, who also makes key military and government appointments, dismisses officials and can dissolve the government. As a result, the president's allies have access to opportunities at the expense of opponents.
Polls and coups
Joao Bernardo Vieira came to power in 1980 through a coup; he later won the 1994 elections. Five years later, he was overthrown following his dismissal of army commander Asumane Mané over arms-smuggling allegations. Vieira then fled and parliament speaker Malam Bacai Sanha was installed as interim president.
The country then held elections in 1999. Kumba Yala of the Social Renewal Party (PRS) was elected. In 2000, army chief Mané was killed.
Yala was deposed three years later, following a stint characterized by misrule and antagonism with the military. He was ousted by Mané's successor, Verissimo Correia Seabra, who was himself killed in a 2004 army revolt.
New elections were organized in 2005 and were won narrowly in a run-off by Vieira, who had returned from exile. But in 2009, he was slain by renegade soldiers following the killing of army chief Batista Tagme Na Wai, who had replaced Seabra, in a bomb attack.
Another round of polls was held in 2009, bringing Sanha back to power. He died in office in January 2012. Three months later, the army staged a coup. Just days before the 29 April 2012 presidential run-off, the army arrested and detained Prime Minister and poll front-runner Carlos Gomes Junior and the interim president. Coup leaders accused Gomes of undermining the military.
“If Bissau-Guineans want the country to be pulled back from the abyss, they must have the vision and the courage to work together so that in the upcoming elections there will be no winners or losers,” UN Special Representative José Ramos-Horta said.
“The winners should accommodate the losers within a reform agenda for the entire public administration, security forces, public sector,” Ramos-Horta, the former Timor-Leste president, told IRIN. “The UN, in partnership with [other international actors], should develop a five-year plan to rebuild Guinea-Bissau from scratch.”
Guinea-Bissau’s protracted political crisis has put off many of its donors. The European Union (EU) and Portugal currently remain as the country’s main partners, Ramos-Horta said, pointing out that regional powers Nigeria and Senegal have grown weary of the Bissau’s turmoil.
The 2012 coup was met with strong international condemnation. However, differing approaches towards the coup regime seemed to put international actors at odds.
The African Union (AU) suspended Guinea-Bissau. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) denounced the military coup but backed a transitional process. The Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) and the EU called for the second-round elections to continue. The UN initially urged an immediate return to constitutional order.
Key lenders, such as the African Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other bilateral donors, have suspended development aid, severely affecting government operations.
“It’s crucial to hold the elections for two main reasons. Since the coup d’état, some of the international players such as the CPLP, the AU and the UN have been reluctant to engage with the government. Without elections, these institutions will not have engagements with this government,” said Elisabete Azevedo-Harman, research associate at Chatham House’s Africa programme.
“Internally, the current transitional government never really involved the PAIGC (the ruling party before the coup d’état). As a result, one of the main political parties is not officially engaged in this government. That is why you see such a chaotic situation, with some ministers arrested or facing accusations by the attorney general or by their colleagues. The government is very fragile… ministers representing different and small political parties have their own personal and private agendas. It has not been very easy,” she explained.
However, she disagreed with calls by some international actors for a post-poll coalition government. “I am not sure that a coalition is healthy for democracy, and I don’t see that as a relevant condition for stability,” she said.
Stumping for polls
ECOWAS, West African countries, Timor-Leste and the EU have pledged some US$30 million for the elections. Half of the money has been received, said the UN Office in Guinea-Bissau.
Around half of the targeted 800,000 voters have been registered, with hopes the remaining number will be registered by the end of January. The AU has stressed that there should be no further delay in holding elections, which were earlier set for 24 November 2013.
Observers agree that that the polls are just one small step towards reversing Guinea-Bissau’s turmoil. Extensive reforms to the public sector, including the security service, and the political sphere are needed to help restore normalcy.
Guinea-Bissau’s crisis has become increasingly complex due to domestic factors and external influences, such as the use of the country as a transhipment point for drugs.
“International partners must therefore commit to a more strategic and unified stabilization effort in the country as part of this transnational response,” said a report by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.
For Ramos-Horta, the IMF, the World Bank, and sub-regional financial and banking institutions should second experienced international advisors to Guinea-Bissau’s public sector to help uproot corruption and rebuild the administration.
“There has to be serious reform and modernization of state institutions. Without such a strategy, Guinea-Bissau is doomed,” said the UN representative.