Fahamu (Oxford)

Guinea Bissau: The Real Reasons for the Coup d'état

analysis

For Guinea-Bissau to achieve stability, there must be a return to constitutional order and a conclusion of presidential elections.

On 12 April 2012 the people of Guinea-Bissau and the international community were surprised by another coup d'état in Guinea-Bissau. There have been several since the country declared its independence in 1973. While Guinea-Bissau has become accustomed to violence and tragic events (military coups in 1980, 1986, and 2003, civil war in 1998/99; and the assassination of a president and other high state officials, including several chiefs of staff of the armed forces) no one was prepared for this event. The country was a few weeks away from the second round of the presidential elections set for 29 April. With 48.9 per cent and 23.3 per cent of the total votes respectively, Carlos Gomes Júnior and Kumba Yalá had established themselves as the main contenders.

This article seeks to identify the reasons behind the political instability that has characterized Guinea-Bissau. Among diverse explanations, I seek to distinguish between those given by the instigators of the coup, and those advanced by scholars of Guinea-Bissau. Among the latter, there is consensus that there are multiple causes, some with deep historical roots. From a holistic perspective concerned with the deeper causes of a political unrest prevalent in Guinea-Bissauan society, this article highlights two types of explanations of the coup. The first is concerned with the immediate motivations, while the second refers to older and more structural causes. Although they are of different nature, function, and range, the factors that explain the coup cannot be understood separately, as they are different links on the same chain.

In terms of the immediate causes, it is important to recognize the deterioration of relations between the executive (represented by Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior, in power since 2008) and the military elite. The deterioration can be traced to a stabilization mission composed of Angolan troops and known by the name MISSANG (Angolan Technical Military Mission). This mission was created during the formation of the celebrated agreement between the governments of Angola and Guinea-Bissau aimed at stabilization, peace, and support for reforms in security and defense sectors. The hotly discussed 'special' relationship between Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior and the Angolan ruling class is related to negotiations that took place in August 2010, when Guinea-Bissauan authorities accepted the principle of receiving a peacekeeping and stabilization force in the country. The attempted coup and events of 1 April 2010 led the international community to consider sending this stabilization force. Therefore the establishment of the Angolan forces in Guinea-Bissau was rooted in the will of the international community to the Guinea-Bissauan state.

Though these forces were established legally, given the hesitation expressed by some leaders as to the adequacy, correctness, and opportunity of this decision, many have denounced Carlos Gomes Júnior for mismanagement. Along with his alleged mismanagement of the MISSANG mission, Gomes Júnior has committed (or allowed others to commit) crimes (including the beatings and disappearances of prominent political and military figures, the deaths of Army Chief Tagma Na Way and that of ex-president Nino Vieira, rampant clientalism and nepotism in public administration, etc) and that has fanned the flames of discontentment not only within the military but also the political class, including personalities from the same political establishment. The decline in relations between the government and military elite reached its lowest point when certain sectors of the same elite began to feel uncomfortable with the presence of foreign troops in the country. More than the simple presence of these troops or the alleged signature of a secret agreement between the governments of Angola and Guinea-Bissau (to strengthen MISSANG with arms and strategy) the heart of discord appeared to be the fact that such a presence voted to fail, 'a priori', any attempt to change the constitutional order or advance any acts contrary to the normal functioning of institutions. To add to the tension, the center of certain political and military circles has developed a certain paranoia - a mental process highly influenced by anxiety and fear, with practical consequences resulting in efforts to prevent Carlos Gomes Júnior from acceding to the presidency. The same anxiety has allowed the military elite to believe there has been a conspiracy on the part of the Prime Minister vis-à-vis military leaders.

This process deteriorated in part because of the reasons analyzed above, but also because of the deliberate effort to instrumentalize Balanta[1] ethnic identity in favor of the petty interests of one group, which can only lead to nonsensical accusations and irrational situations. The strong statements of the leader of PRS (Party of Social Renovation) and candidate for the second round of presidential elections not only reflects this way of thinking, but also reveals a desire to create a coalition between the military elite and a part of the political elite. This coalition has translated into other aspects of the contradiction between the reasons advanced by the leaders of the coup in the first days following the coup and the reasons announced and circulated days later.

Beyond this, there are three other reasons that may explain the coup as the culmination of a situation of instability and the deterioration of the conditions under which state power is exercised. The first arose in the mismanagement of the transition from the national liberation struggle to the construction of a modern state. The polices and measures implemented by the new power (embodied by PAIGC, African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde since 1973) was not likely to ensure a clear separation between civil and military affairs or permit the military contingent from the national liberation struggle to be transformed into a truly republican armed force. At the same time, for many years political life and the management of public services were dominated by the paradigm of the single-party state.

The single party PAIGC was composed of elements that once belonged to the military wing of the liberation struggle (the People's Revolutionary Armed Forces). After liberation, the party continued to be seen as a kind of eldest son, with a limited ability to act widely despite emancipation. On their side, the armed forces were more committed to the ideology and interests of the single party than to the norms and rules that should govern republican armed forces called to defend first and foremost the interests of the people of Guinea-Bissau. This resulted in a somewhat incestuous relationship between the political and military elite - a tendency that was reinforced during the mandate of Nino Vieira. It has since become one of the cornerstones in the relationship between civilian and military leaders.

Some analysts have focused more specifically on the breakdown of the hierarchical order and the political turmoil caused by the 1980 military coup. This poisoned legacy is certainly not unfamiliar to the politico-military situation that preceded the April 2012 coup. Who does not remember something funny about the recent pictures of the armed forces carrying a contingent of the public order police, during a demonstration in front of the headquarters of the National Electoral Commission? Indeed, the strong presence of the state party has constricted the space that could be filled by a civil society (which could serve as a counterweight to the excesses of a state party that became hegemonic.)

The second structural reason has to do with the mismanagement of crises and conflicts (violent or not) that have periodically developed in the Guinea-Bissauan political scene involving on one side politicians properly speaking, and on the other, politicians aligned with the military. Cycled crises recorded within PAIGC eventually undermined the foundations of leadership at the height of the challenges facing Guinea-Bissau. It would be tedious to enumerate all of the crises and conflicts that the country has seen in recent decades, but we will cite one example that illustrates the dimension of excess in order to elucidate elements of the latest coup. On 1 April 2010 there was an attempted coup. The coup failed when an intervention led by the president and international community prevented the deposition of the Prime Minister. The heart of the crisis was the deposition of the chief of state, Commander Zamora Induta (by the deputy chief of staff António Indjai) under the pretext that the first had acted in a 'deviant' and 'reprehensible' manner. Whether or not these allegations are true, we should ask why it is permissible for a republican army, in a state of law that is guided by the regular functioning of institutions, and in which military power is subordinated to a civil power, to depose its superior under such pretext. At the time, the troops under the command of António Indjai had also taken hostage and humiliated the Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior. The late president Malam Bacai Sanha, against all expectations, and in power for only a few months (June 2010) appointed the same António Indjai Chef of Staff of the Guinean Armed Forces.

With this act, a dangerous and irreparable precedent was set; in the very center of the armed forces, scrupulous respect for hierarchy was abandoned, along with the knowledge that the military is subordinated to political stakeholders. Acts like this certainly serve to explain the behavior of soldiers that subvert not only the military hierarchy but also undermine the rule of law.

A third explanation for the coup has to do with the degeneration of the state apparatus, and the state itself. It is common knowledge that the embryo of the modern state, initially forged in the first years following independence, has suffered weakness without precedent in the last 20 years, especially under the reign of Kumba Yalá (1990-1993). Guinea-Bissau's present situation resembles that of a country in which neither the law or hierarchies are respected - the combination that puts things near, if not identical to that of failed state. The trafficking of drugs did nothing more than aggravate this, leading some analysts to classify Guinea-Bissau as a narco-state. The state of affairs is compounded by the fact that the army of Guinea-Bissau is highly ethnicized (majority Balanta) and previously infiltrated by single party ideology. That is why many voices claiming to reestablish the Guinean state are premised on strengthening national unity, on reinventing the political system, and on building a functional and independent justice.

For this coup to happen exactly when the country was preparing to complete the second round of the presidential elections is, at least, an 'unhappy' coincidence. It was clear from the beginning that the electoral process itself would be disrupted. Then, as some analysists have suggested, there is a relationship between the [complaint] introduced by some candidates and the outbreak of the crisis; especially when you know that it has resulted in the refusal of the candidate Kumba Yala to participate in the second round of elections and threatening statements to peace and political stability.

For the country to find the path to stability again, the exit from the crisis must include a return to constitutional order. And this means the liberation of interim president Raimundo Pereira and prime minister Carlos Gomes Júnior. The country should be able to carry out the second round of presidential elections. Everything must be done both nationally and internationally to bring the military to reason. The process of building lasting peace, democracy, and the rule of law is incompatible with any compromise to those that would usurp power through a coup. It is essential that the international community does not turn its back on Guinea Bissau. We must see the coup as an opportunity to ensure that Guinea-Bissau returns to stability and a civil peace that is sustainable.

  • Carlos Cardoso joined CODESRIA in August 2004 as the Programmes Officer for the Children and Youth Programs, Academic Freedom and Human Rights and the Special Initiative for Lusophone Africa.
  • Our thanks to Megan Eardley (megan.eardley@gmail.com) for translating this article from Portuguese.

NOTES:

[1] The Balanta (same spelling in Guinea-Bissau Creole and Portuguese, balante in French transliteration), meaning literally "those who resist", are an ethnic group found in Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Gambia. They are the largest ethnic group of Guinea-Bissau, representing more than one-quarter of the population. But despite their numbers, they have remained outside the colonial and postcolonial state because of their social organization. The Balanta can be divided into four subgroups, (three of which are Balanta Kentohe, Balanta Ganja, and Balanta Brassa, the largest of which are the Balanta Brassa. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balanta_people

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