Reform of Guinea-Bissau’s military at the crossroads

Symbolic burning of arms following Guinea-Bissau’s civil war.Symbolic burning of arms following Guinea-Bissau’s civil war: Reform of the country's military remains vital for achieving political stability.
Photograph: UNIOGBIS

Guinea-Bissau does not make international headlines very often, and when it does, the news is usually pessimistic: turbulence within the small West African country’s army, repeated coups and killings, and growing problems of drug trafficking.

Reflecting the frustrations of international donor institutions, the European Union (EU) has just announced that by 30 September it will pull out a small mission that it originally sent to Guinea-Bissau in June 2008 to support reforms of the security sector. For the moment, that will leave the United Nations alone in assisting reforms of the army, police and judiciary in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Antero Lopes, chief of security sector reform (SSR) at the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS), strongly believes that that challenge cannot be abandoned, despite the enormous difficulties. “Unresolved problems of security sector reform could hinder the stability of the country,” he told Africa Renewal.

The UN may not long remain alone in this, judging by the government’s recent announcement that it favours the presence of a “stabilization mission” to help forestall further armed confrontations (of which there have been a number since the devastating civil war of 1998-99). Such a mission, says Soares Sambu, spokesman for the National Defence Council, would include members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries.

The government’s announcement is in line with a 22 July statement by the president of the UN Security Council inviting the authorities in Bissau and the international community “to cooperate with ECOWAS with a view to establishing a mechanism for ensuring the safety of state civilian institutions.” But it remains to be seen if the country’s powerful army will accede to such a mission.

Mutinies and assassinations

In addition to the civil war of the late 1990s, there have been many political upheavals since Guinea-Bissau gained independence from Portugal in 1974, following a prolonged anti-colonial insurgency. Only last year, João Bernardo Vieira, then the president, and army chief-of-staff Baptista Tame Na Wai were assassinated within a few hours of each other. The exact circumstances surrounding their deaths have yet to be determined.

In April, the successor chief-of-staff, José Zamora Induta, was in turn ousted in a mutiny led by his then-deputy, António N’djai, and has been in detention ever since. On 24 June, President Malam Bacai Sanha appointed Mr. N’djai as the newest chief-of-staff. That appointment was criticized by ECOWAS, AU, EU, US and others as condoning violations of the rule of law, and prompted the EU’s decision to withdraw its SSR support mission.

“These recent developments,” Joseph Mutaboba, the UN Secretary-General’s representative in Guinea-Bissau, told the Security Council in July, “are an indication that civilian authorities in Guinea-Bissau are yet to exercise full control over the armed forces.”

“Guinea-Bissau is sick of its army, which has run the country de facto since independence,” comments Teresa Lima of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Portuguese desk in London. According to Radio France Internationale reporter Laurent Correau, “an incestuous relationship prevails between the politicians and the army.” Mr. Correau believes that the long-standing ties between the main political party — the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) — and the military have enabled the latter to impose its agenda for decades.

“The armed forces there do not confine themselves to the defence of the territory,” Mr. Correau argues. “They also take part in all aspects of political life. Their pre-eminence in this country is disproportionate, problematic and abnormal.”

In recent years, Guinea-Bissau has become a hub for cocaine smuggled from South America to Europe. To many observers the problems within the military reflect the growing influence of drug trafficking and transnational organized crime within various state institutions, and several leading officers are suspected of involvement in the drug trade. Africa Renewal has been told that high-ranking officers will not accept a foreign mission in Guinea-Bissau unless they are given assurances that its mandate will be very limited.

According to an EU tally, there are 4,458 military personnel, of whom a disproportionate 1,800 are high-ranking officers. But the real total may reach 10,000 if the veterans of the war of independence are included, reports Agence France Presse correspondent Allen Yero Embalo. Many veterans still live in the barracks, refusing to retire.

Reform ‘from bottom to top’

The biggest dilemma is how to carry out reforms in a country where the civilian authorities answer to the generals. According to Samuel Gahigi, the chief political officer at UNIOGBIS, the UN believes it is possible “to run small-scale projects designed to improve the daily life and the working conditions of the military, the police and the judiciary. It is actually an approach that goes from bottom to top instead of focusing exclusively on high-ranking officers.” And to those who would abandon reform efforts, he responds: “By leaving Guinea-Bissau to its fate, we would take the risk of letting a situation degenerate further, with a potential spillover effect for the stability of the sub-region.”

Adds Mr. Lopes, the UNIOGBIS security reform chief, improving the sector “should be addressed in a comprehensive fashion, and not by looking at who has been appointed and who has not.” While he recognizes that state institutions remain fragile, he is convinced there is political support for reforms if they are based on “national ownership.” One recent initiative, Mr. Lopes notes, is a new “police station model” in Bairro Militar, part of the government’s SSR programme. With a community police component, he says, officers also become “social actors.”

The UN is currently raising the importance of taking a more holistic approach to SSR with ECOWAS, AU, EU and others. “They could invest in rebuilding state institutions,” says Mr. Gahigi, “but also help to address in a more efficient way the challenge of transnational organized crime and drug trafficking.”

— Africa Renewal online

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