Former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior addressing the sixty-fourth session of the UN General Assembly in 2009
On April 12, 2012, members of a “Military Command” deposed interim president Raimundo Pereira and Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior of Guinea Bissau. Although both men were released on April 25, the military has retained control of the country and democratic rule has yet to be reinstated.
The response from the international community has been unequivocal.The UN, the United States, the African Union and ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) have condemned the coup, and each has undertaken various unsuccessful strategies to persuade the military to step aside.
Uneasy balance before the coup
The coup is part of a larger trend of political instability in the country – since independence in 1973 no political leader has carried a full term. The think tank, International Crisis Group, attributes this to underdeveloped political institutions which rely heavily on military support and a corrupt system of patronage.
Following the unlawful usurpation of the office of the Chief of Staff on April 1, 2010, by the Deputy Chief of Staff António Indjai, the country experienced a period of relative calm that International Crisis Group suggested was due to uneasy unofficial political compromise on several key contentious political issues. Competing factions within the main political party, PAIGC, represented by Malam Bacai Sandhà, the president, and Carlos Gomes, the prime minister, appeared to have put aside their differences to form a united political front. Most importantly, after Aprl 2010, a pragmatic political compromise was struck between Indjai, the head of the military and the country’s president. However, International Crisis Group has suggested that this period of stability was merely a self-interested ploy to ensure the government continued to receive much needed international aid rather than a genuine commitment to cooperation.
The presence of the Angolan technical military mission MISSANG acted as an additional stabilising influence within Guinea- Bissau. The technical support mission, MISSANG, was undertaken in order to curtail the influence of the Guinean military in the country’s political institutions and aid in the implementation of security sector reforms. Although the mission did not initially garner universal support, it was ultimately accepted by both the government and the military as a compromise in the context of a broader debate concerning international involvement in the country. In spite of this, the military remained skeptical of the impartiality of MISSANG. This lack of trust on the part of the Guinean army ultimately contributed to Angola’s decision to end the MISSANG mission just two days before the coup in Guinea-Bissau.
The delicate political equilibrium was further disturbed by the death of President Sandhà on January 9, 2012, and the appointment of interim president Raimundo Pereira. Two rounds of Presidential elections were slated to follow in March and April. After receiving 49% of the vote in the first round in March, Gomes Júnior appeared poised to win the runoff elections on 29 April. However, due to the coup on April 12, the second round of elections were not held.
The coup and the issue of security sector reform
In a statement released shortly after the coup, the members of the military cited Gomes Júnior’s backing of security sector reform as justification for their actions. Specifically, the Military Command claimed the coup was executed in order to stop a pact between Gomes Júnior and Angola to “annihilate Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces”. The army has since denied any desire to establish military rule in the country.
Given the historic tension between military and political elites in Guinea-Bissau, security sector reform has been a highly contested point between these two groups. According to International Crisis Group, similar security reforms have formed part of the political debate since 2006. There has been general agreement within the international community that Guinea-Bisseau’s military suffers from several defects – it consumes a disproportionate amount of state resources, nepotism is widespread, it has a disproportionate amount of high-ranking officers, and has demonstrated a lack of respect for democratic processes. Consequently, the majority of international aid the country receives has been dependent on promises of security sector reform. It is for this reason that both Sandhà and Gomes Júnior chose to supported changes to the country’s military .
Three overlapping issues cause particular concern over the reform of the armed forces. Historically, the army has acted as a link between marginalized rural citizens and governmental institutions. There is also an ethnic dynamic present – for example, the army is commonly viewed as an institution of the Balente, an ethnic group within the country. Thus security sector reform, which aims to increase education levels of officers and diminish the importance of the military, is seen as both an ethnic and class threat by the Balente.
The implementation of security reform has also been further complicated by participation of army personnel in the regional drug trade. Due to the status and financial benefits derived from the trafficking of illegal narcotics, many in the military strongly resist any reform which may incumber their unlawful commercial activity and threaten their immunity from legal prosecution. Therefore, security sector reform is viewed by many in the army may as a serious political attack on their members.
Response to the coup and the current status
Despite claiming not to have participated in the coup, Reuters reported that the official military command has taken control of the government in place of the coup members who named themselves as “Military Command.” Although coup members originally claimed to have placed General Indjai in custody as well as the prime minister and the president, international consensus is that he is behind the coup. One ECOWAS diplomat involved with the negotiations told Reuters, “The junta delegation was repeatedly calling Indjai during the talks to get guidance on what to do. It was very frustrating, but it made clear who was in charge.”
The international community has called for a return to democracy, and has condemned the actions of the putschists. The AU has temporarily suspended Guinea Bissau’s membership, and along with theECOWAS, has engaged in targeted sanctions against the leaders. The UN has issued a travel ban on the leaders of the coup, and the World Bank and African Development Bank have suspended millions of dollars of aid.
The “Military Command” has announced a plan for the creation of a National Transitional Council and concurrent political and legislative elections in two years. The UN, as well as the main political partyPAIGC, which retains a 2/3 majority in the former government, rejected the creation of the National Transitional Council, calling instead for the return of democratically elected officials to power. However, on May 16 ECOWAS backed the candidate suggested by the military rulers for president, to the chagrin of the PAIGC. Gomes Júnior has refused to support any negotiations with the new leaders, and requests a return to power, accusing ECOWAS of legitimating the new leaders by working with them.
On May 17, ECOWAS troops arrived in order to assist with the political transition in Guinea-Bisseau.
Impacts on citizens
Response to the events has generally been varied. Overall, Reuters reports that citizens have expressed little surprise over the political turmoil and its impact, including the suspension of media channels and military roadblocks throughout Bissau.
However, opinions specifically about the coup, and reactions to it, do vary. IRIN, a humanitarian news and analysis service related to the UN, reports that though the educated middle class is more highly in favor of the return of Gomes Junior, many prioritize stability over strict adherence to democracy. IRIN quotes Younossa Seydi, a 30 year old mechanic, who told them“Guineans have to prioritize dialogue to find a solution…If Carlos Gomes Júnior comes back, there will be a war, so it is better he stays away for a long time. PAIGC has to demonstrate flexibility and accept dialogue.” However, other citizens think that civilian rule must be reinstateded, like 20 year old Kemo Djassi , who told Reuters “We’re not going to accept instability, the military must restore power to civilians and go back to the barracks.”
Fear of war has driven many citizens to flee Bissau for the interior of the country. In addition, food security has also been undermined, with the World Food Program noting the “gradual deterioration of citizens’ food security.” IRIN also reports closure of schools, weakened access to hospitals, and termination of the epidemic disease warning system