Africa: How Will West African Posturing Affect Guinea Bissau?

Bissau — There are currently 600 West African troops in Guinea Bissau who will supposedly guarantee peace and security through the country's period of transition.

The arrangement, brokered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) at their summit in Dakar, early May, became necessary after the Guinea Bissau army staged a coup on April 12, which dissolved an almost complete electoral process.

In addition to the troops, the arrangement provides for a transitional government, with a president and a cabinet of ministers who must take care of the country's affairs and prepare for its next elections.

As they were coming in, the ECOWAS soldiers (from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire) were housed in a refurbished military academy in Cumeré, some 35 kilometres from the capital. In Bissau itself, some 200 Angolan soldiers from another military mission, holed up in a luxury hotel they have refurbished themselves, have recently left the country. They are being replaced by the ECOWAS mission, ECOMIB.

This is not how it was supposed to have ended...

By now Guinea Bissau should have an elected president - almost certainly former prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior, nicknamed "Cadogo", of the PAIGC, the largest and best-organised party in the country - and the second round of the presidential elections, which would have been held on April 29, should have taken care of that. Now the country is governed by one of the losers of the first presidential round, Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, and by an interim government, led by the economist Rui Duarte Barros. Barros, an economist who led the West African Economic and Monetary Union, is a prominent member of the opposition party PRS of former president Kumba Yala, who are widely held responsible for supporting the April 12 coup. Interestingly, PAIGC, the unofficial winners, form no part of the ECOWAS arrangement.

"It's remarkable," scoffs Nelson Constantino Lopes, the coordinator of a recently opened human rights centre in Bissau, Casa dos Direitos. "We are living in a country where the neighbours can come in and tell us who our president will be for the next year. We have a president and a government that have been imposed on us, after a coup that invalidated the will of the people of this country. As I said, it's remarkable."

The website Ditadura do Consenso, run by journalist and writer Antonio Aly Silva, also agrees. It qualifies the current situation in the country as: "A takeover of national sovereignty, from the people and into the hands of the military and incompetent politicians. This may be a cabinet of technocrats but these are also failed politicians." The blog quotes approvingly from left-leaning Portuguese university lecturer José Manuel Pureza, who says that Guinea Bissau has become a battleground for international interests.

Silva himself, who was briefly detained on April 13 for identifying the coup leader, has repeatedly written that Nhamadjo is not his president. After all, no-one elected him and Lopes agrees: "It's betrayal. You basically tell the military that staging a coup is fine and you will be rewarded with government positions."

In whose interest is this arrangement?

ECOWAS had initially declared itself as "committed to the return of the democratic process," but is there anything to explain the discrepancy between their words and their actions? Guinea Bissau is indeed a battleground for foreign interests, in concrete terms and principally: Angola on the one side and Senegal, Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire on the other.

Think Africa Press and Exclusive Analysis, a specialist intelligence agency, reported earlier this year how Angola has developed a military mission and significant business interests in Guinea Bissau - mainly in the interests of the Angolan elites in and around the ruling MPLA. They have a stranglehold on the country's political and economic life, and have done so for a decade. The mission to Bissau was criticised by the political opposition in Angola but to no avail.

In Bissau it was the army that feared Angolan actions would imperil its business interests, including the lucrative logistical services it renders to Latin American cocaine barons. But the coup leaders also claim that Gomes Junior has "sold his soul to the Angolans". Apart from being a politician, Gomes is also a businessman with interests in the oil sector, particularly the Portuguese company GALP, which is partly owned by the Angolan state oil company Sonangol. A Gomes presidency would have consolidated Angolan military and economic inroads into Guinea Bissau.

But it was not only the Guinean army and political opposition that were hostile to further Angolan encroachments. President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d'Ivoire does not have fond memories of Angolan support (military and otherwise) of his deposed opponent Laurent Gbagbo. Nigeria is not to keen on Angolan competition either. Vincent Foucher, an analyst at the International Crisis Group in Dakar has been following events in Guinea Bissau and explains that the principal Francophone and Anglophone leaders in ECOWAS were pretty keen to see the Angolans leave:

"They were wary of the situation, and certainly also of Gomes' close ties to the Angolans. So they were, shall we say, not entirely unhappy when the junta put an end to the Angolan presence in the country. And then there is of course also Senegal, who wants absolute security on its southern frontier."

This means that Guinea Bissau must not again become a rear base for the low-intensity rebellion in the Casamance region of Senegal.

What it boils down to

In short, it's about turf. The winners, so far, are ECOWAS and the coup leaders. The loser is Angola, which has used the vehicle of the CPLP (the association of Lusophone countries) to voice its displeasure and demand the return to the constitutional order. But with "Cadogo" in Lisbon, every passing day the transitional government establishes itself more firmly, in spite of growing civil anger and action about the arrangement many see as illegitimate.

The real losers however are the people, who have been deprived of their right to choose their president. In a communiqué dated May 14, Civil Action, a citizen's resistance group, called for peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience. Could this be the embryonic democracy that has eluded Guinea Bissau for so long?

Bram Posthumus is an independent press and radio journalist with more than 20 years of experience living and working in West and Southern Africa. Alternating between Dakar and Amsterdam, he reports on political, cultural and economic events for a variety of radio, print and internet media.

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