Guinea-Bissau took another dangerous turn on 12 April 2012, when the army arrested Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior, who was about to be elected president. A military junta accused him of conspiring with Angola to curtail the military's power and quickly installed transitional authorities, before officially stepping aside on 22 May.
International condemnation was swift, but differences developed between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP). The former, pushed by Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso, supports a year's transition, the latter, especially Portugal and Angola, immediate resumption of the presidential vote. Coup and transition may have opened a way for vital reforms, which must go beyond changes in the army and combating the drugs trade. But for that to happen, ECOWAS and CPLP must reach a consensus on working with international partners to mobilise resources for security, judicial and electoral reforms and refusing to validate Gomes Júnior's illegal exclusion from political life.
Crisis Group warned three months before the coup that two related factors posed significant risks for stability: the likely victory of the prime minister in the presidential election and the military presence in the country of his ally, Angola, including its part in security sector reform (SSR). Both caused the military (Forças Armadas da Guiné-Bissau, FAGB) to fear what might be in store for it under a Gomes Júnior presidency.
The coup that suspended the constitutional order and broke off the second round of the presidential election (scheduled for 29 April) was not a mere reflex of an isolated minority of narco-military against a reformist civilian government. Rather, it demonstrated that the tense relations between civilian and military elites that have marred progress since independence in 1974 remain unresolved and that these in turn feed into broader grievances around issues of citizenship, entitlements, the rural/urban divide, regional inequalities and the mounting sense of historical marginalisation felt by the Balanta ethnic group that depends on its majority in the army to champion its cause.
Controversy rages over the role opposition leaders may have played. Both Serifo Nhamadjo, a rival within Gomes Júnior's Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) and political heir to the deceased president, Malam Bacai Sanhá, and Kumba Yalá, a former president whose Partido para a Renovação Social (PRS) is rooted in the Balanta community, have influence in the military. But the coup was also stimulated by the inability of the electoral process to deliver uncontroversial results. Nhamadjo and Yalá, as well as Henrique Rosa, a former transition president, rejected the March first round results, claiming registration flaws and voting fraud.
The coup also confirmed that Gomes Júnior's divisive style made him many enemies among politicians as well as soldiers. The legitimacy he gained by improving the lives of ordinary citizens was weakened by opposition accusations of nepotism and that he was implicated in not yet credibly investigated political killings in 2009. While he denied the accusations, many citizens put their lives on the line in his defence during the April 2010 military turmoil but failed to do so two years later.
The events likewise raise questions about why international efforts to help the tiny, poor, aid-dependent country have so persistently failed to bring real change. After the European Union (EU) pulled out as a result of the April 2010 troubles, and in the absence of other major international patrons, Angola did much to produce stability, but it has not been able to stimulate transformation or build and maintain consensus at the national and international level on shaping the future. It allowed itself to become an object of suspicion in the country and locked in jurisdictional fights with some key ECOWAS member states, which weakened its credibility, acceptability and efficiency.
Guinea-Bissau is unlikely to receive substantially more attention in the near future for several reasons: the international community's preoccupation with other, much bloodier situations; the capacity of the transitional authorities to maintain domestic order so far and play the dialogue game; and the willingness of ECOWAS to engage with them. The CPLP's tough stance - seeking a stabilisation force and completion of the presidential election - has encouraged Gomes Júnior and the PAIGC to refuse all compromise and made ECOWAS the military's favourite with which to broker a deal.
The regional organisation has obtained two significant concessions: preservation of the parliament and release from detention of Gomes Júnior, who left the country two weeks after the coup. The price has been ECOWAS support for a one-year transition, to end with new elections. Nhamadjo took over as transitional president, and Rui Duarte Barros, a PRS associate, became prime minister, formed a cabinet and presented his transition program on 21 July. ECOWAS deployed a 629-man strong police and army contingent (ECOWAS mission in Bissau, ECOMIB) to help with security sector reform, support the transition and facilitate the departure of the Angolan military mission, which was completed peacefully on 9 June.
Transitional structures are now in place, and new elections have been set for April 2013. But the transition remains unsteady. The new authorities are a mix of technocrats and opposition politicians of varied stripes, and a new sharing of spoils is under way the impact of which on state capacity is yet unclear. THE PAIGC remains in control of the parliament and hostile to the transition authorities, while politicians backing the transition are trying to keep Gomes Júnior at bay through their accusations. The military has formally retreated from public life with the dissolution of the junta in May but remains influential. Factionalism persists within it, and rumours of a new coup circulate endlessly. The withdrawal of much international assistance and disruption of the cashew nut export sector herald rough times for the transition authorities.
But though there are limits to the transition as engineered by ECOWAS, it is the only game in town at this point. The more radical demands Gomes Júnior and the PAIGC are making with encouragement from Angola and Portugal could make the transition a riskier exercise. Tempting as it may be for some to hold back in the not unrealistic hope it will collapse, it is more prudent to work through ECOWAS and in the present framework.
In their quest for a negotiated settlement, ECOWAS and its key member states have allowed themselves to be perceived internationally as letting the junta get away with too much and doing away with elective democracy, all in order to neutralise Angolan influence. The bulk of the international community has nevertheless been pragmatic in accepting the regional organisation's leadership - it is the player with the ear of the military and the transitional government - but uneasiness persists in diplomatic circles over its handling of the situation. This makes it difficult for the transitional government to gain international recognition and recover suspended aid, without which it will be hard to mobilise resources for a successful transition and necessary reforms.
ECOWAS and several of its member countries have legitimate interests in Guinea-Bissau, as well as leverage over the new authorities. That leverage can and should be used to work out a peaceful solution. However, ECOWAS, which has put a good deal of its prestige on the line, should learn from Angola's experience: it must not act in isolation from the rest of the international community and become party to the complex conflicts that have divided Guinea-Bissau. It should instead help the transitional government realise and then do what is needed to rebuild international good-will: demonstrate its sincerity about reform. There would be a much better chance for this to happen if especially ECOWAS and CPLP would put aside their turf wars and develop a common strategy. The CPLP and its member countries should show greater flexibility, and the African Union (AU) should help facilitate discussions between the two organisations.
On international coordination
To the international partners of Guinea-Bissau, in particular CPLP and its member states:
1. Support the lead of ECOWAS, while helping it to establish clear benchmarks for progress on the transition roadmap that the transition authorities are to prepare; and tie renewal of international development assistance and investment to achievement of those benchmarks.
To the African Union (AU):
2. Support, through the AU Special Representative in Bissau, efforts to achieve better coordination between international partners, particularly ECOWAS and CPLP.
To ECOWAS and its member states, in particular Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria and Senegal:
3. Elaborate, on the basis of consultations, particularly with CPLP and the transition authorities, a mandate for the ECOWAS mission in Bissau (ECOMIB) and seek UN Security Council approval of that mandate.
On the transition
To the transition authorities:
4. Elaborate, in line with the 21 July transition program and on the basis of consultations with the PAIGC majority in the assembly and with ECOWAS and other international partners, a detailed and inclusive transition roadmap that includes the following elements:
a) election of a new speaker of the assembly and a partial reshuffle of the government to make room in the transitional institutions for the various groups within PAIGC;
b) free, fair and transparent presidential and legislative elections no later than May 2013, and a guarantee that Carlos Gomes Júnior can participate;
c) adequate resources and legal framework for the electoral commission (Commissão Nacional de Eleições, CNE) to revise the electoral roll and create a biometric electoral register;
d) guarantees of full freedom for the media, public and private, including during the electoral campaign and beyond;
e) renewal of open dialogue between the armed forces, civilian authorities and the general public over the position of the military in Guinean society;
f) launch of security sector reform (SSR), beginning with the quick-start program for the Special Pension Fund, to which ECOWAS has pledged funding;
g) replacement of informal, erratic and potentially criminal income arrangements within the armed forces (FAGB) by decent wages paid through a transparent biometric payment system; and
h) request for an international commission of inquiry into the assassinations of key political and military figures not covered by the 2007 amnesty law.
To the international partners of Guinea-Bissau:
5. Support the CNE's ability to exercise electoral oversight and help civil society groups to create networks of national electoral observers, to include independent monitoring of the media.
6. Plan for a credible armed protection component to protect leading politicians, including Carlos Gomes Júnior, who wish to contest presidential and legislative elections.
7. Confirm and make available the money previously pledged for the Special Pension Fund.
To the UN Security Council:
8. Authorise an international commission to investigate the assassinations of key political and military figures not covered by the 2007 amnesty law.
On social and economic development
To the transition authorities:
9. Give priority to securing development assistance to reduce the inequalities between the capital and the rest of the country.