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Army ouster a big step backward for Guinea-Bissau

By on April 10, 2010

A sudden shift of power in the leadership of Guinea-Bissau’s military has taken efforts to stabilise the West African state back to square one and underlines the threat it poses to regional security.

The April 1 ouster of the military chief by a rival faction of the army and brief detention of the prime minister dashed a quiet mood of progress that had been building after elections last year to replace a slain former leader went smoothly.

All sides from President Malam Bacai Sanha down played down the incident as an internal row within the powerful but unruly military rather than a failed coup d’etat.

But analysts said it was a blow to international efforts to bring order to a nation, whose role as a transit point for Latin American cocaine headed for Europe is perceived as a growing threat to West Africa’s fragile stability.

“Where does this leave the country? It is back to square one,” said International Crisis Group analyst Mohamed Jalloh.

“The military has overwhelmed the political institutions, which are not left to function by themselves. When there is blockage, (the military) gets involved.”

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior was facing a rebellion within his own party and survived a vote of no confidence in parliament a week before he was seized by soldiers.

The incident is the most serious since the twin assassination last year of late President Joao Bernado Vieira and his army chief by renegade soldiers.


New armed forces chief General Antonio Injai has apologised for arresting and threatening to kill the prime minister and his supporters. Sanha has given his prime minister full backing.

But Jalloh said the international community needed to move beyond piecemeal solutions and push for structural change to end the cycles of mutinies, coups and instability that have dogged the nation since independence from Portugal in 1974.

“We need to create an atmosphere that (dialogue) can take place in. (But) until the military (problem) is resolved, I don’t see how this can take place,” a Western diplomat said.

Some factions of the military are associated with Gomes Junior’s PAIGC party, while others, including leading members of the Balanta ethnic group, are seen to back the rival PRS.

Sanha has weaker connections with the soldiers and, as a result, diplomats say he will need strong international backing.

“We no longer have anyone to talk to in the army. The current situation is very complicated in terms of cooperation,” said Spanish General Juan Sebastian Verastegui, who is in charge of the European Union’s security sector reform programme.

The United Nations, European Union, West Africa’s ECOWAS and Western nations are pushing for wide-sweeping reforms.

“We need a bold step. We need to start with a national conference that defines the parameters of the state, and the military,” Jalloh added.

Currently, these lines remain blurred due to the legacy of the military’s role in the independence struggle, which soldiers feel has given them the right to intervene in politics.

As a result, no president has completed his term in power.

This jostling for power has been exacerbated by the multi-billion dollar trade in Latin American cocaine.

High-level corruption has long been blamed for blockages in the fight against drugs and the U.S. government this week labelled two military officers as international drug kingpins.


A protest by hundreds of people, who took to the streets to demonstrate against the military’s actions, offered a sign that Guinea-Bissau’s population is sick of military meddling.

The official economy relies on cashew nut exports, though the country has unexploited bauxite, phosphate and oil deposits.

Military reform has been on the table for over a decade, and civilian leaders have repeatedly complained that soldiers have made the country impossible to govern.

Donors want the military reduced to around 3,000 men, down from an official number of 4,500, which military officers say is actually closer to 11,000 as ranks were swelled by veterans from the independence struggle re-enlisting during a 1998-99 war.

But in a job-scarce nation where the military has long provided incomes for many, slashing ranks has proved tricky — despite the fact the government is seeking just 32 million euros in aid to pension off much of its swollen officer corps.

Donors are expected to be unwilling to commit any funding while the military still calls the shots and diplomats fear regional instability could grow if Guinea-Bissau’s drugs economy infects nearby states like Guinea, Gambia and Senegal.

“It is already a threat to the region but it could get a lot worse,” the senior Western diplomat said.


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