Guinea Bissau

A planned runoff election to replace late Guinea Bissau president Bacai Sanha, who died in January, has been cancelled because of a military takeover in the tiny west African country. Bimbo Ogunnaike reports

Guinea-Bissau is one of West Africa's smallest, yet most unstable, countries. It is plagued by rampant drug trafficking, repeated coups, mutinies and political assassinations. No elected president has ever finished his term. On April 12, the country toed this path again. The army, led by Army Chief of Staff Antonio Indjai, struck, dissolved government and derailed a presidential election billed to take place at the end of April. In the overnight coup, soldiers attacked the house of former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, the front-runner in the presidential election, and arrested him. They also arrested interim President Raymond Pereira.

Like in any military putsch, the Guinea Bissau coup plotters gave reasons for their actions. Coup leaders say the two men conspired with neighboring Angola to attack Guinea-Bissau's military. They also claimed there was a "secret deal" with Angola to undermine the army. Junta spokesman Na Walna accused Gomes of handing a secret letter to Angola in which he asked the UN chief to send troops to Guinea-Bissau "even though our country is not at war". To back their claims, the junta published a letter by the former PM to the UN Secretary-General asking for UN military intervention.

As usual in coup situations marches and protests were banned. The country's ruling junta placed an immediate ban on marches with a threat of "severe repression" against any demonstration by any group. The junta launched an "appeal to the whole population … to refrain from organising any march or demonstration, whether for or against the overthrow of the government of Carlos Gomes Jnr.". It said in a statement that "Those who disobey the order (will face) severe repression". Pointing a veiled finger of accusation at Angola for complicity in its affairs, the junta said that Angola is "an expansionist country which intervened in Ivory Coast, in Congo to replace (former president) Pascal Lissouba and elsewhere in central Africa".

Despite the official reason for the coup what is very clear is that Gomes had fallen out with the Army because of his efforts to reform the bloated and notoriously unruly army. According to many observers, tensions between the military and the PM had risen because of Gomes' support for a long-overdue reform of the security sector. The reform would involve a reduction in the size of the armed forces, retiring older soldiers and building up the civilian police force. Some international officials say certain military leaders do not wish to be retired, fearing they will no longer benefit from their privileged position in the drug trafficking economy, which continues to flourish in the country.

With the coup comes an end to the electoral process many believe would have led to the election of Gomes as president. On March 18 he won the first round with 49 percent of the votes. His opponents contested the fairness of the process and refused to join in a second round. Gomes is seen as a "divisive figure", according to Vincent Foucher, Guinea-Bissau specialist with the International Crisis Group in Dakar because he lacks the diplomacy and tact required to impose civilian rule on the distrustful military heads. According to Foucher, in an editorial two weeks before the coup, the Prime Minister's "overwhelming hegemony fed opponents' frustrations" and "this frustration is dangerous because it is shared by part of the army and is leading to the possibility of yet more military intervention in political life".

Some say opposition politicians pushed the military into taking action before Gomes' anticipated victory. A Guinean academic called a declaration that there would be no campaign by opposition leader Kumba Yala, just before the coup, a "troubling coincidence". As a member of the Balante, a strong ethnic group which dominates the army, and a long-time supporter of the military, Yala is a prime suspect. Despite having condemned the military's actions, he signed the 18 April declaration of opposition leaders and military commanders calling for the dissolution of government institutions and the implementation of the two-year transitional rule proposal.

The coup was met with widespread international condemnation. Newly elected President of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission, Désiré Kadré Ouedraogo, reiterated the Commission's opposition to the coup and its determination to see to the restoration of constitutional order in the country as soon as possible. In a statement Ouedraogo said, "The ECOWAS Commission has just learnt with great concern about the on-going attempt by the military to overthrow the Government of Guinea Bissau. ECOWAS is particularly disappointed with the timing of the coup attempt, coming just days after a joint ECOWAS-AU-UN mission met with the military hierarchy to warn against any temptation to disrupt the on-going electoral process. The Commission firmly denounces this latest incursion by the military into politics and unreservedly condemns the irresponsible act, which has once more demonstrated their penchant to maintain Guinea Bissau as a failed state. ECOWAS demands the immediate restoration of constitutional order to allow for the completion of the on-going electoral process"

The African Union also denounced the junta and issued threats of further action against the junta. It immediately suspended Guinea-Bissau. AU Peace and Security Council chief Ramtane Lamamra urged the AU Commission and ECOWAS to consider imposing sanctions on the coup leaders. "Given the frequency of coup d'etats in Guinea-Bissau, council requests the (AU) Commission in consultation with ECOWAS … to submit to it within two weeks a decision or proposals for additional sanctions against the perpetrators," he said. The pan-African body previously condemned the coup as "outrageous". The UN Security Council also condemned the military action with Susan Rice, the U.S ambassador to the UN, urging "the immediate restoration of civilian authority". UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said that he was "extremely concerned" at the arrest of public officials. He called on the armed forces "to immediately and unconditionally release all detainees and ensure the safety and security of the general population".

Meanwhile, Angola has denied its troops played a role in the coup. Angolan Parliament sitting in Luanda recalled about 600 soldiers from its neighbour. Although Angolan troops are stationed in the country, "The presence of Angolan troops in Guinea-Bissau was essentially based on a bilateral co-Angola, Guinea operation pact to train soldiers of the army" said junior defence minister Salviano Sequeira. "There was no interference nor did Angolan troops overstep their brief" he said. Angolan soldiers were deployed March last year for a training programme.

Due to international outcry, the junta proposed a two year transition programme for the country. But the plan has not been accepted by the people and the international community. ECOWAS called the two year transition programme an "illegal" proposal. The UN, Security Council, European Union and AU also condemned it. ECOWAS communications director Sonny Ugoh said the Commission was "completely taken aback" by the proposal. "The Security Council rejects the unconstitutional establishment of a Transitional National Council by the military leadership and its supporters".

The security situation in the country is becoming a source of concern. Soldiers raided at least two government buildings including the traffic administration building and agriculture ministry in the capital stealing cash and supplies. Local radio reported other cases of looting by soldiers, including the theft of cattle from herders in the country's interior. Even with no deaths, a climate of fear and uncertainty pervades the capital. Repressive measures are being employed by the military, according to observers and rights groups. In some areas Members of Parliament and officials of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) - Gomes' party are targeted and arrested.

A little economic progress was achieved under Gomes' rule including economic growth of 5.3 percent, increased revenue from cashew crop due to marketing restructuring, improved electricity supply and rehabilitation of major roads. All these achievements will be stalled say observers. However Gomes is not without blame. High-profile murders, including those of ex-president Joao Bernardo Vieira in 2009, a chief of staff of the armed forces and a candidate at the 2009 presidential elections occurred under his rule.

The coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau made presidents of ECOWAS countries attend a special summit to discuss the crises. Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, current head of ECOWAS, chaired the gathering which also had in attendance, Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, ECOWAS mediator in the Mali crisis, and newly-elected Senegalese President Macky Sall. The 15-member ECOWAS community has been rattled by the two coups and mulled troop deployment to both countries. Aside being suspended by the AU, the World Bank and African Development Bank have stopped development aid to Guinea-Bissau.


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