from Africa in Transition

Guinea-Bissau: The Road Ahead

July 6, 2016

Blog Post

This is a guest post by Russell Hanks. Mr. Hanks is a national security professional and a retired diplomat with the U.S. Department of State.

Guinea-Bissau has a new government, or not, only a few months after the previous attempt to paper over its seriously polarized politics. Elections in 2014 were indecisive and installed officials with the same differences that led to the 2012 coup. The current dispensation is no more likely to bring political stability to the nation than the last.

Guinea-Bissau has been plagued by instability since its independence in 1974. Following independence, two decades of one-party government stalled progress. An accommodation among the then-political factions was within grasp in the 1990s, as the one-party system gave way to efforts to liberalize the nation. These efforts were aborted by civil war and the subsequent intervention by its neighbors.

Post-civil war, the three primary factions came to an uneasy accommodation. The old guard remained in control. A second group of politicians strived to break this faction’s hold on the economy. The third power element, the military, focused on promoting nationalism and served as the arbiter between the two political factions.

Assassinations, coup plots, and corruption upset the balance among the three. Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior (Cadogo) stepped into the vacuum left by the assassinations of both the president and the chief of defense staff. Cadogo proceeded to starve the military, forcing it to self-finance. Not limited to the military, the theft of natural resources (fisheries and timber) and transshipping cocaine expanded to provide needed funding. The opposition found itself fighting a defensive battle as suspicious murders and police intimidation of its supporters continued. Cadogo’s heavy-handed approach to the 2012 elections, necessary after the unexpected death of the president, precipitated a 2012 military coup that ousted him from power. In the two years of interim government preceding the 2014 elections, Cadogo was exiled and his political power diminished.

The elections of 2014, however, exacerbated the divisions in the polity. After much acrimony, Domingos Simōes Pereira, a reformer, took the leadership of the majority party, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde. However, a former Cadogo supporter, Jose Mario Vaz, gained the party’s nomination and eventually won the presidency.

Vaz was elected president and Pereira became prime minister. Vaz, intent on continuing a policy of crony capitalism, almost immediately challenged Pereira’s efforts at institutional reform and reconciliation with the international community. In 2016, Vaz dismissed Pereira.

While current trends remain unclear, it appears that Vaz and his supporters remain intent on continuing the climate of corruption and impunity. Pereira and his allies are still working, although from a disadvantaged position, toward reforms. The military remains in the barracks for the moment, but it is unclear if it remains united behind its new leadership.

While the president has sworn in another new prime minister, constitutional questions remain about his legitimacy. Until those questions are resolved, development and reform are stalled.

Without a new election, not likely before 2018, the unstable political and economic situation will continue. Narcotics trafficking remains lower than in 2011, but corruption continues. Within each of the competing groups there are reform-minded people; but unless they can unify, any present or future government will remain hampered by challenges to its authority and questions of its legitimacy.