Guinea-Bissau: Small Country, Big Hopes

By Abdel Rahman Fadl
Independent Researcher — Chad

Elections have been deemed free and fair by observers from the ECOWAS. (Reuters)
Guinea Bissau: Small Country, Big Hopes

Guinea-Bissau, a small West African country on the Atlantic coast, shares borders with Senegal to its north, and Guinea to its south. The 1.5 million-population has been struggling in their path towards democracy for a long period of time.

The ethnically diverse country and one of the poorest in the world might be finally there as new general and presidential elections are underway. The country is looking forward towards a process of rebuilding its organizations after the 2012 coup, to move beyond continuous failures it has been through since independence.

In the late 1950s, Amilcar Cabral, in collaboration with other fighters, founded the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which had independence from the Portuguese colonialism as its goal.

Despite achieving that goal in 1974, Guinea-Bissau — formerly called Portuguese Guinea during the colonization — was dragged into the vicious circle of disappointed post-colonial dreams.

The Vicious Cycle

The future of Guinea-Bissau is hotly debated now, given lack of security, especially on its Atlantic shores. Economically, it needs comprehensive development to improve its citizens’ welfare, and politically, it needs to consolidate its revived democracy.

Guinea-Bissau’s independence came in 1974 after a long war of liberation waged by Amilcar Cabral’s PAIGC in the face of Salazar’s Portuguese Estado Novo regime. The Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown in Lisbon in a Socialist coup which ended with a one-sided declaration of independence in 1973 and Cabral’s own assassination.

Amilcar’s brother, Luis Cabral, then became the president of the new republic, ruling for six years before the first coup took place in 1980, led by General João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira.

Vieira’s military regime consolidated its rule throughout 14 years by organizing flawed parliamentary elections, until a more multi-party system, enshrined in constitutional changes in 1991, resulted in the 1994 direct presidential elections. Vieira also emerged victorious, yet with a slight margin after a second round. After the multi-party system, political tension increased in the 1990s, which lead to a brief civil war between 1998 and 1999 that ended with ousting Vieira. In 1999, opposition leader Kumba Yala from the Party of Social Renewal (PRS) became the president.

After four years of stability, another coup took place lead by General Veríssimo Correia Seabra, supported by politician and businessman Henrique Rosa, leading to the 2005 elections, which brought Vieira back to power. In 2009, Vieira was assassinated by a group of soldiers, leading to another election, which was won by Malam Bacai Sanhá.

Unjustifiable Coup

More than one third of the Guinea-Bissau population are Muslims, tenth Christians, and about two-thirds practice traditional African religions. (Photo extracted from Google Maps)

After Sanhá’s death from health problems in 2012, an election was held in March of the same year leading to a second round between Carlos Gomes Júnior (PAIGC) and Kumba Yala. However, few weeks before the second round was held, a coup took place in April 2012 putting Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo in power as an interim president, and postponing elections for no less than two years.

Guinea-Bissau is not an exception in Africa. Many African countries have been through this cycle of coups spearheaded by military elites, and political groups dominating the political scene based on none other than their record of resistance against colonialism.

Compared to other African countries, Guinea-Bissau never witnessed a civil war for its economic resources, as Sierra Leone did in 1997, neither has it been through any Rwanda-like religious or ethnic strife destroying its society.

The country suffers mainly from a failed state, albeit much less worse than the Somali case, due to several coups, the long unquestionable legitimacy of PAIGC after its role in liberation, and failure in consolidating a real multi-party system in the 1990s.

Given the unjustifiable 2012 coup that aborted an election already underway, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union suspended Guinea-Bissau’s membership until democracy is restored. Interim authorities announced elections shall take place in November 2013, yet postponed it again, leading to an increased African and international pressure that lead to fixing its final date at April 2014.

2014 Hope?

At last, general and presidential elections took place on April 13th, with the PAIGC getting 47.3 percent of the vote in the People’s Assembly, followed by PRS with 31.1 percent. A second round for the presidential elections will be held on May 18th, after Jose Mario Vaz and Nuno Gomes Nabiam won 40.9 percent and 25.1 percent respectively. The elections have been deemed free and fair by observers from the ECOWAS.

The future of Guinea-Bissau is hotly debated now, given lack of security, especially on its Atlantic shores that are crucial for drug trafficking between Latin America and Europe.

Economically, the country needs comprehensive development to improve its citizens’ welfare; politically, it needs to consolidate its revived democracy and seal itself against the comeback of coups. Coming out of this failed-state quagmire and realizing the hopes that have been suspended for 40 years, is the hope everyone is looking up to, just as Cabral had been.

First published Apr. 25, 2014
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Abdel Rahman Fadl is a Researcher from Chad, specialized in International Relations.

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