Guinea Bissau: Coups Become the Norm in Guinea-Bissau

Photo: Marc-André Boisvert/IRIN
A polling station during the 2008 elections.

Lisbon — Chronic instability, extreme poverty, drug trafficking and corruption are the tragic lot of Guinea-Bissau, which this year commemorates four decades of independence from Portugal.

Since independence, declared in September 1973 and recognised by Lisbon a year later, this African country of 1.5 million people has known few periods of peace, and it is one of the world's poorest nations, with a per capita GDP of 485 dollars, putting it in 178th place.

Its instability has been particularly the result of a series of coups instigated by "armed forces that are forever in transition between one coup and the next, constantly suspending the constitution," professor Kafft Costa the moderator of a conference on the future of Guinea-Bissau held in Lisbon on Thursday Jan. 17, told IPS.

The seminar "Guinea-Bissau: The multidimensional crossroads" was attended by political and academic leaders, students and business members of the Guinean diaspora living in Portugal because of instability created by the most recent coup in April 2012, which prevented the government democratically elected a month earlier from taking office.

At that time Guinean strongman general Antonio Indjai appointed Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo as president, and Rui Duarte de Barros as prime minister, for a so-called transition period.

General Indjai accused Portugal of "taking advantage of the crisis with intent to re-colonise Guinea-Bissau." His statements were dismissed by Portuguese Foreign Minister Paulo Portas, who countered that the coupmongers serve the interests of the drug traffickers, who are rife in the country.

"All the information available in Portugal relates the Apr. 12 coup in Guinea-Bissau to drug trafficking," Portas said.

Guinea-Bissau's transformation into Africa's first narcostate is a major concern for forums involved in its institutional crisis, such as the United Nations, the African Union (AU), the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

But in spite of condemnations from the U.N., AU, CPLP and the European Union, the Indjai regime remains in power and analysts suggest that this situation has Nigeria's blessing.

According to Costa, the main problem is the influential role played by Nigeria in ECOWAS, which was lukewarm in its expressions of regret about the overthrow of democracy that prevented completion of the second round of presidential elections in which former prime minister Carlos Gomes Júnior had been the clear first round winner.

"This has to do with the duplicity of some countries in ECOWAS that put their own national interests ahead of those of Guinea-Bissau or the sub-region, and Nigeria is the major geostrategic player in the area," he said.

A huge oil producer, Nigeria's actions are shaped by its open competition for influence with Angola, another exporter of crude.

"Nigeria is upset by Angola's strong presence in Guinea-Bissau, and this has prompted its attitude to Luanda's growing influence in an area where Nigerians are not willing to make concessions," said Kafft Costa, a Guinean researcher and full professor who teaches in Lisbon.

The appointment this month of East Timor's former president José Ramos-Horta as the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy to mediate in Guinea-Bissau was termed "very positive" by Kafft Costa. "It will facilitate dialogue and save some time that would be lost in going over work already done," he said.

A person enjoying great prestige in Portuguese-speaking African countries, "Ramos-Horta also has important qualifications as one of his country's independence leaders, a foreign minister and head of state, as well as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate" in 1996, said the seminar coordinator.

In spite of optimism that democracy will be reestablished in his country, Kafft Costa deplores the regime's ineffective denunciations. denunciations of the regime.

He said this was not only due to Nigeria's passivity, but also to "international organisations, with the exception of the CPLP, and many countries, using the old prescription of issuing vehement condemnations and then doing absolutely nothing.

"What have they done in this case? What were the results of the statements of condemnation? Nothing. Except for the CPLP, which was left all alone, there were no visible practical results for restoring democracy in Guinea-Bissau," he said.

Brazil, the country comprising over two-thirds of the total Portuguese-speaking population of the CPLP, also holds this view, couched in more diplomatic and measured terms.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota used the platform of the ministerial meeting of the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone (ZOPACAS), held in Montevideo on Tuesday Jan. 15, to remind colleagues that the situation in Guinea-Bissau is among the greatest challenges facing the zone.

Patriota, the diplomatic chief of the sixth largest global economy, said "we cannot remain indifferent" to the situation of conflict in a country with "very close (cultural and historic) ties to Brazil".

He acknowledged that the efforts of the U.N. Security Council, ECOWAS, AU and CPLP have not led to a satisfactory consensus for a solution to the problem, "which is intrinsically harmful to Guinea-Bissau."

Meanwhile a report published on Wednesday Jan. 16 by Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO, added to repudiation of the Indjai regime by classifying Guinea-Bissau, along with another 46 countries, as "not free".

The only countries listed as worse off than Guinea-Bissau in this respect were Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Equatorial Guinea and the territories of Tibet (China) and Western Sahara (Morocco).

At the seminar in Lisbon, aimed at an audience made up of the Guinean diaspora, "where I see a lot of brains that are here because they had to leave Guinea-Bissau," professor Eduardo Costa Dias said "what we have experienced in this period is a normalisation of abnormality."

In any other part of the world, "violence, military uprisings, coups and ethnic conflicts are, in principle, abnormal, but in Guinea-Bissau they have become normal," said Costa Dias, a Guinean expert on African affairs at the Classical University of Lisbon.

The reason, he said, is that in Guinea-Bissau the armed forces "were born directly out of guerrilla detachments (that fought the Portuguese colonial army between 1961 and 1974), whose commanders became officers."

In Angola, in contrast, which also experienced an anti-colonial war against Portugal, "the army was built from the ground up by the Cubans," who participated in the country's 1975-2002 civil war.

Costa Dias lamented that "democratic values have been lost in Guinea-Bissau, and military coups are not even called coups any more, but 'uprisings'," instigated by armed forces "that do not have a chain of command, but a kind of archipelago of charismatic military leaders."

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