Guinea-Bissau crisis averted - but for how long?

2015-09-23

With the appointment of Carlos Correia as the new prime minister, the political crisis that shook Guinea-Bissau for more than a month came to an end.

Correia was sworn in on 17 September, following a mediation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the mediation aimed to solve the crisis of confidence between President José Mário Vaz and his former prime minister, Domingos Simões Pereira. 

On 12 August 2015, the president dissolved the government following growing disagreement within the executive. Eight days later, he appointed Baciro Djá as prime minister. The move was rejected not only by the National Popular Assembly, but also by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) – who wanted to see Pereira reappointed.

The PAIGC is the majority party in the National Popular Assembly, with 57 deputies out of 102. In its judgment delivered on 8 September, the Supreme Court declared Djá’s appointment to be unconstitutional, leading to his resignation on the same day.

The new prime minister, Carlos Correia, is also the first vice president of the PAIGC. This war-of-liberation veteran, who is 82 years old, held the post twice before in the 1990s. His appointment has, for the moment, helped to defuse tensions. But it does not solve the root causes of the recurring crises in the country.

Guinea-Bissau has often seen tension between the president and the prime minister

It is precisely to avoid such crises that ECOWAS recommended the revision of the constitution at its extraordinary summit, held on 12 September in Dakar, Senegal.

Guinea-Bissau is no stranger to this kind of tension between the president and the prime minister. These rivalries have historically led to either the dismissal of the prime minister, or to a coup. The phenomenon can be traced back to 14 November 1980, when then prime minister João Bernardo Vieira launched a coup against the first president of the country, Luiz Cabral.

More recently, tensions between former president Kumba Yalà and prime minister Alamara Nhasse led to Nhasse’s resignation and the dissolution of Parliament in November 2002. In 2005, tensions between Vieira and Carlos Gomes Junior ended in the removal of the latter. In 2009, disagreement between them also led to a coup.

There are two main factors hampering institutions in Guinea-Bissau. The first is continued leadership struggles within political parties, especially the PAIGC. Indeed, the current crisis appears to be the result of an inter-party dispute between Vaz and Pereira. These tensions date back to the February 2014 Congress, where the party president and candidates for the parliamentary and presidential elections were elected.

The congress was also meant to review the party's constitution – especially Article 40, which states that the party president will automatically become the candidate for the legislative elections, as well as the post of prime minister. After a fierce struggle, Pereira was elected president of the party, and as such became the party’s candidate for the prime ministership. Vaz was chosen to run as the candidate for the presidential election, with the support of Pereira’s internal opponents.

As party president of the PAIGC and the country’s prime minister, the balance of power favours Pereira, who has the support of his party. PAIGC's commitment to renewing Pereira after his removal is illustrated by the many statements challenging the earlier appointment of Baciro Djá. This makes Vaz – despite being president of the country – look like a simple militant, reluctant to comply with the decisions of the party. Pereira’s removal can also be seen as an attempt by Vaz to assert himself in a context where he is not in a position of strength.

A change of system alone will not end recurring political crises in Guinea-Bissau

The second structural factor that fuels the recurring crises can be linked to the dynamics intrinsic to the political regime. Since the constitutional revision of 1993, Guinea-Bissau has opted for a semi-presidential system based on the Portuguese model. This combines elements of the presidential system (where the head of state is elected via universal suffrage) as well as the parliamentary system (where government is accountable to Parliament and the president). In a country where institutions rely on the agendas of the political elite, this type of political organisation often becomes a source of instability between the president and prime minister.

In the majority of West African countries, the president holds most of the power and appoints the prime minister. In Guinea-Bissau, however, the head of government is chosen by the majority party in the National Assembly, to which the president then becomes accountable. The prime minister, on the other hand, leads the country's politics and only has to provide information to the president.

This means that the prime minister holds most of the executive power, while the president’s powers are largely symbolic. Article 68 of the constitution, however, gives him the power to dismiss the head of government or to dissolve the National Assembly in case of crisis. In Guinea-Bissau, the National Assembly has been dissolved only once – under the presidency of Kumba Yalà, in November 2002.

This structure of executive power is also a source of tension in other countries that have the same type of political framework. In São Tomé and Príncipe, for example, a standoff that pitted President Manuel Pinto da Costa against his Prime Minister, Patrice Troavoada, led the country into crisis in 2012. In Guinea-Bissau, however, these tensions have often been resolved by the intervention of the army.

The revision of the constitution recommended by ECOWAS at the recent extraordinary summit in Dakar is, in that sense, relevant. It is now up to the special committee on constitutional reform, which was established in February, to propose a plan to prevent future crises in the executive.

The judgment of the Court, which clearly identifies the respective roles within the executive provides a good base for the commission. A revised draft constitution is meant to be developed within a year. It must then be open to public consultation before being adopted by the National Popular Assembly.

However, a change of system alone will not be enough to end the political crises in Guinea-Bissau. Reforms on security, defence, justice, public service and economic and social development are also essential. However, these will only succeed if there is sufficient political will to outweigh selfish and partisan interests. The country will also need the support of ECOWAS and international actors.

Paulin Maurice Toupane, Junior Researcher, and Cheikh Dieng, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis, ISS Dakar

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