Guinea-Bissau observers doubt that the long-delayed post-coup presidential election set for 13 April will be sufficient to jolt the country back to stability. But there are hopes that the polls will restore constitutional order, revive donor support and stabilize the economy.
Years of political upheaval have debilitated governance, wrecked the economy and impoverished most of the country’s 1.6 million people. The impact of the political crisis following the April 2012 coup and a global cashew nut (Guinea-Bissau’s top export earner) price slump that year hit the economy. Nearly half the population was eking out food in 2013 due to poor cashew sales.
Many donors have been put off by chronic political instability amid squabbles between the political class and the military elite. No president, since independence, has served a full term. Public services are crumbling. Health workers and teachers have repeatedly gone on strike, while drug-trafficking has stoked graft and power struggles.
Key Guinea-Bissau lenders, such as the African Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other bilateral donors, froze development aid following the coup.
Why do the elections matter?
“To have the international community back again, elections need to happen. The citizens of Guinea-Bissau have been kidnapped by the current situation and something needs to happen,” said Elisabete Azevedo-Harman, research associate with UK-based think tank Chatham House.
A December 2013 food assessment by the World Food Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization, Plan International and Guinea-Bissau’s National Institute of Statistics found that only 7 percent of families were food secure, and 64 percent of households faced food shortages.
While Bissau-Guineans have become accustomed not to rely on the state for basic services and to expect little from elections, the 13 April presidential and legislative polls are being seen as a small yet critical stepping-stone towards a better future, though observers note that the country will continue to need outside help.
“The elections will resolve nothing if international partners do not work closely with Guinea-Bissau in the crucial period after the inauguration of the new president,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in an assessment this week.
What are the hopes and risks?
The army has said it will respect the electoral process. However, its history of meddling in politics does not inspire much confidence. It is also unclear how it will react if its preferred candidate, Nuno Gomes Na Biyan (a member of the majority Balante ethnic group which also dominates the military), loses.
“It remains to be seen how the army will react if he is not chosen,” said Chatham House’s Azevedo-Harman. “The reform of the military is crucial not just because of the permanent interference of the military in the politics of the country, but also regarding narco-trafficking.”
Some 800,000 Bissau-Guineans are eligible to elect a president among the 13 candidates running for the top office. The contest appears to be a two-horse race between José Mario Vaz of the Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), and Abel Incada of the Party of Social Renewal (PRS). Vaz is a member of ousted prime minister Gomes’s party.
The potential reinstatement of constitutional government and the resumption of foreign aid, however, do not necessarily guarantee that the population’s main needs will be addressed. Bissau-Guineans have repeatedly witnessed misuse of aid.
UN Special Representative José Ramos-Horta has previously said that Guinea-Bissau’s post-poll stability is possible if politicians banish the winner-takes-all culture that excludes opponents and rewards loyalists with government appointments.
“In Guinea-Bissau, our problem is not the election, but the post-electoral period,” said Bissau-Guinean lawyer and analyst Fodé Mané. “The leading candidate is [normally] expected to win the elections, but we don’t know who will [actually] be the winner.”
In the 2012 polls that were overtaken by a coup, soldiers arrested and detained Prime Minister and poll front-runner Carlos Gomes Junior, and the interim president, just days before the run-off vote.
How can Guinea-Bissau end the cycle of instability?
Observers are urging stronger international engagement and coordination of support to help restore stability in the small West Africa country.
There were conflicting approaches by various international organizations following the April 2012 coup. The African Union took a stronger stance than the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), condemning the coup, suspending Guinea-Bissau’s membership and was hesitant to fully support a post-coup transitional authority, which ECOWAS backed.
The community of Portuguese-speaking countries (CPLP) also slammed the coup, refused to recognize the interim authority and demanded the continuation of the electoral process. The European Union, Guinea-Bissau’s largest donor, also refused to recognize the transitional authority.
“What is important is not just the engagement of these organizations, but a platform of engagement that allows them to work together, and not competing with different perspectives on Guinea Bissau,” said Azevedo-Harman.
The South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies pointed out that events since the 2012 coup have not changed the fundamental causes of Guinea-Bissau’s perennial instability and elections alone will not be sufficient.
“This highlights the extent of the post-election challenges that the future government will face, and which will require close and attentive international support,” it said in a report.
Following a recent visit to Guinea-Bissau, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda, said Guinea-Bissau had an “opportunity to progress, but it must agree on a common vision which moves the country’s politics away from short-term power struggles and towards working for the well-being of all members of society, especially those living in abject poverty.”