20 May 2014

Guinea Bissau: Time for a Fresh Start - Guinea Bissau's Impressive Elections

Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN
Rice farmers preparing a field in central Guinea-Bissau.

Guinea Bissau's recent elections hold the promise of bringing to an end a long period of instability. The country's imperative tasks are now to build an inclusive government, to reign in its military and to re-engage with the international community.

Guinea Bissau catches headlines for coups and the drugs trade, but around 78 per cent of Guinea Bissau's voters voted in a second round of inclusive and peaceful presidential elections on 18 May. Last month, 89 per cent of voters elected a new parliament.

The election of José Mario Vaz as president and Domingos Simoes Pereira as prime minister is an opportunity for Guinea Bissau to move on from instability and economic stagnation.

A high turn-out for these elections demonstrates the determination of the electorate to end the decades-long instability that included a coup d'état in 2012 that ushered in a caretaker government which proved unpopular and ineffective over the last 25 months.

An inclusive government, not necessarily a power-sharing one

President Mario Vaz and Prime Minister Domingos Simoes Pereira were elected with the support of the PAIGC (the party of liberation from the Portuguese).

Although the PAIGC is the clear winner it needs to avoid being triumphalist. To tackle the multiple challenges it has inherited, the new government will need to be inclusive, drawing from across Bissau society, including from faith groups, the youth and ethnic groups such as the Balantas, who feel that there is political discrimination against them and in these elections have mainly backed the losing candidates.

The need for an inclusive government does not mean a power-sharing agreement. The ruling party and opposition should be kept distinct. In this fragile context the political parties and the National Assembly need to be strengthened.

An inclusive approach where ruling and opposition parties coexist within the existing political institutions offers the best hope of cementing the fragile gains made at the polls and enabling a government more able to effectively deliver on its development policies.

Striking a balance between the military's impunity and immunity

A particularly thorny issue remains the military, which has played a destabilizing role in Bissau politics over the recent past.

Parts of it have also become associated with transnational organized crime. In recent weeks there have been national and international calls for the military to accept the election results. This is not enough, as the military will need to be assured that they will not become subject to a political witch-hunt.

The military has been accused of leading coups, human rights violations and involvement in activities such as illegal fishing and narco-trafficking.

The army chief, Antonio Indjai, is wanted by the US Department of Justice for alleged facilitation of cocaine trafficking between Colombia, Europe and the US. Indjai fears the transition of power and could still destabilize the country.

It is rumoured that he has armed groups of young militias under his command that could be deployed to ferment violence and instability.

Some sort of political compromise will need to be hammered out. The military will need to provide guarantees that they will not continue to intervene in domestic politics or maintain their links with organized crime.

This is no easy task and only a government with a robust national mandate backed by regional and international support for security sector reform stands a chance of success.

A softening of the US capture mandate on Antonio Indjai might be needed, maybe by signalling through diplomatic channels that he will not be actively pursued as long as he remains in Bissau.

International community's role

The international community's support for the election process has been exemplary, mainly through the involvement of high-ranking African diplomats, including former presidents Amos Sawyer of Liberia, Antonio Mascarenhas Monteiro of Cape Verde and, leading the AU mission, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique. These eminent persons provided mediation and conflict prevention in addition to observation.

The next step for the international community is to engage in a coordinated way with the new government. Issues to be addressed include renegotiation of debt relief, reform of the security sector, resumption of aid and overall support for building state capacity.

There is a clear urgency with which these needs must be met, which would be best served through a coordinated and clearly assigned effort by all the relevant regional and international bodies. Ownership of these efforts must, however, lie with the new Guinea Bissau government.

Despite international efforts already being thinly stretched across the region and an understandable fatigue with previous false starts in Bissau this opportunity is one which cannot be missed.

The alternative would risk fragile Guinea Bissau being once more marginalized and brittle, open to renewed penetration by transnational organized crime and posing again a threat to regional and international peace and security.

The exceptionally high election turnout is an unequivocal plea for a fresh start which the international community should not ignore.

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