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Oct 28, 2012 | Commentary

Since the death of the incumbent President Malam Bacai Sanhá on January 9 2012, the small African nation of Guinea-Bissau has been in turmoil. In accordance with the constitution, elections began following the president’s death, with Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior winning the first round. However, on April 12 ahead of the second round, elements of the Guinea-Bissauan armed forces staged a coup arresting Gomes Junior (now in exile in Portugal), in addition to seizing other government assets including state media outlets.

While exact details are hard to determine, the Guinea-Bissauan armed forces have cited the uncovering of a secret plot with Angola as the reason for the coup.  However, as Gomes Junior was widely expected to win the second round of elections, many point to his intent to push through a military reform package as the primary reason.

In either case, attempts to reform the armed forces of Guinea-Bissau are not new and have been similarly resisted in the past. In 2008, the EU launched its security sector reform program ‘EU SSR Guinea-Bissau’ under the CSDP.  The primary objective of the mission was to operationalize key elements of the National SSR Strategy, which among other things contained plans for downsizing and restructuring the Guinea-Bissau armed forces.  However, in 2010 following a military coup, which later saw the nomination of the coups’ mastermind, General Antonio Indjai, to the position of Chief of the Defence Staff, the EU suspended the mission.

In the past three years alone, there have been at least six major political assassinations and three attempted coups.  Furthermore, since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974, no president has ever completed a full term in office.  As Western donors have become increasingly frustrated with the coup-prone state, regional partner and fellow Lusophone country Angola has been increasing cooperation, including the cancellation of a $39 million dollar debt.  Since early 2011, under MISSANG, Angola has also been assisting Guinea-Bissau in modernizing and reforming its military, which included the presence of over 200 Angolan military trainers. However, this process was largely resisted by the Guinea-Bissauan military, and eventually became the rallying point for the latest coup.

Since the April coup, however, there has been some evidence progress towards stability is being made.  On July 21, the transitional government in a deal brokered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), established a four point plan including:

  • Preparing for and conducting presidential and legislative elections in April 2013
  • Strengthening the rule of law, including combating impunity and reforming the justice sector
  • Combating organised crime, corruption and drug trafficking
  • Embarking on security sector reform process.

The military has also since formally returned to the barracks, and the elected parliament has also been reinstated, although somewhat sidelined under the current transitional government.  ECOWAS has also deployed a 629-strong police and military contingent (ECOMIB) replacing the Angolan military mission (MISSANG), which completely withdrew in June.  ECOMIB is intended to assist in security sector reform and help steer the country through the transition to civilian rule following the April 2013 elections.  In addition, ECOWAS has also announced a $28.5 million loan to Guinea-Bissau to be used for security sector reforms.

In spite of this progress, many observers remain sceptical and note that the Guinea-Bissauan armed forces have made it clear that they will never accept a true reform process or civilian control.  Furthermore, the African state in recent years has also become a key trafficking hub for narcotics destined for Europe.  In July of this year, the director of the UN agency on drugs and crime, Yuri Fedotov, reported to the UN Security Council his concerns over “the connections between elements of the military forces and illicit drug trafficking” adding “there is a prevailing culture of impunity hindering effective law enforcement activities.”

On one hand, despite repeated charges of corruption and interventions in the political realm, the military still holds a great deal of popular legitimacy which is closely tied to its role in ousting the Portuguese.  On the other hand, it also appears to be the chief obstacle to reform which has left the national of approximately 1.6 million without any sense of political stability.  Thus, while the progress made by ECOWAS in recent months has been welcomed by the international community, restoring constitutional order heading towards the 2013 elections is far from a done deal.


Jonathan Blackham is a Research Intern at the SSR Resource Centre.