On the night of 12th April Guinea-Bissau ‘Military Command’ put troops on to the streets of Bissau, the country’s capital, closed the frontiers, imprisoned the Prime Minister, the acting President and others, sacked the government, dissolved parliament, and shut TV and radio stations. These events were justified, according to the ‘Military Command,’ because the Prime Minister, backed and assisted by Angola, was bent on “annihilating” the armed forces of Guinea-Bissau.
These events took place in the midst of a presidential election. On 18 March, the first round of voting in the elections to replace President Malam Bacai, who died in January, had given the main candidate, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes, jr., (known as Cadogo), just under half of the votes. Cadogo was backed by the main political party, the former liberation movement, the PAIGC. The runner-up, former President Kumba Yala, obtained 23 percent of the vote. His party, the PRS, or Party of Social Renewal, is the country’s principal opposition. International observers – from ECOWAS, the Africa Union, the Community of Portuguese-speaking Nations (CPLP) and the British Parliament (the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Guinea-Bissau) – all pronounced the elections to have been free and fair.
By law, the second round should have been between Gomes and Yala, due to take place on 29 April. But as soon as the results of the first round were declared Kumba Yala and five other runners-up declared that the election had been fraudulent, and said they would boycott the second round.
Prior to these latest events, there had been a general feeling among observers that Guinea-Bissau was moving in the right direction. The cashew nut harvest had been successful, with good world prices. Carlos Gomes was being seen as a man who could get things done. Bissau had had a face-lift: roads were improved, and, for the first time in years, street lights in Bissau actually lit up the city at night.
The international community seemed pleased with progress, though critical of the slow pace of Security Sector Reform (SSR), and of efforts to tackle narco-funded corruption. But Prime Minister Gomes had failed, notably, to end years of mutual suspicion between him and the army, or to reach out to the Ballantas, the largest single ethnic group, strong in the army and who see Kumba Yala as their leader. He had also let rumours about the role of the Angolan military mission (MISSANG) get out of hand.
It is now clear that the “Military Command” is not a faction within the armed forces, but the entire institution, under their Chief, General Antonio Indjai. He became Chief of Staff in April 2010 following a mutiny in which the previous Chief was deposed; in other words, he appointed himself to the post. In August 2010 the European Union pulled out of a major armed forces reform and restructuring project following his appointment, and refused to deal with him.
The reaction of the international community to the coup d’etat was immediate, tough, and unanimous. ECOWAS, in the midst of a crisis over Mali, fielded a delegation to Bissau immediately, and named the President of Guinea-Conakry, Alpha Conde, as Mediator. An ECOWAS summit to discuss Mali and Guinea-Bissau will be held in Abidjan before the end of the month. CPLP met in Lisbon the day after the coup and was highly condemnatory. Jose Ramos Horta, the former President of Timor L’Este, said he was prepared to act as mediator. The US called for the electoral process to be resumed. The African Union suspended Guinea-Bissau’s membership.
At the Security Council meeting, the Angolan foreign minister – whose government is currently Chair of CPLP – said that Angola was involved in Guinea-Bissau because CPLP had decided to support the processes of reform in the country. He had no doubt that the crisis had been “created by the military class.” The Portuguese Foreign Minister, Paulo Portas, advocated “isolation, sanctions, embargos” against the coup leaders.
This firm line is having an effect on the new ‘authorities.’ Military spokesmen after 12 April said they had dissolved all political institutions. But the “opposition” politicians who went along with the coup have now disowned it. It was announced on 19 April that the Speaker of Parliament, Serifo Nhamadjo – one of the runners-up in the first round presidential election – had been appointed interim President, and that a National Transitional Council had been appointed to rule the country for two years and to prepare for elections at the end of that period. But Nhamadjo denied that this was the case. He stated that, as far as he was concerned, Parliament was still functioning. He was generous in his praise for the Angolan Military Mission.
Calls for an international peace-keeping force (variously described as an ‘interposition’ or ‘stabilisation’ force) to be sent to Guinea-Bissau at once have come from ECOWAS and also from the CPLP. This would be under a Security Council mandate but not a United Nations peacekeeping operation. The Military Command have been swift to condemn any suggestion of international military involvement in Guinea-Bissau. Any attempt, they say, to land foreign troops will be regarded as an invasion and responded to accordingly.
It now seems clear that the non-acceptance of the election results by Kumba Yala and his colleagues, and the accusations against Angola, provided a smokescreen for an intervention designed to perpetuate a situation of constitutional confusion in which the military were largely unaccountable, and in which criminality, especially regarding narco-traffic, could proceed unhindered. Another key aim of the coup was to ensure that the assassinations and killings of recent years – three of them of former Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces – remain unpunished and uninvestigated.
The danger is that deployment of an international force would be exploited politically inside the country and increase political and ethnic polarisation. The population’s experience of foreign troops in Guinea-Bissau (notably in 1998 when African peacekeepers from Senegal and Guinea-Conakry were deployed in support of an unpopular government) is not encouraging. However, the time for a bargained exit of the coup leaders may be approaching. Better jaw-jaw than war-war.
David Stephen was Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Guinea-Bissau, and Head of the United Nations Peace-building Support Office for Guinea-Bissau, between 2002 and 2004. Last month he acted as adviser to an electoral observation mission of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Guinea-Bissau.