The political impasse in Guinea-Bissau was once again on the agenda of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit held on 31 July in Lomé. Since the regional body’s February decision to slap sanctions on those impeding the political process, major developments have occurred.
Aristides Gomes was appointed prime minister on 16 April. This was followed by the reopening of the National Assembly on 19 April, the nomination on 24 April of a new representative government and the vote of the state budget by members of parliament in June.
Attention is now being shifted to the 18 November legislative elections. But elections alone won’t guarantee lasting stability in the country unless major weaknesses in the institutional architecture of the state are addressed. Important aspects of the constitution, the law on political parties, the electoral legal framework, the justice system and the defence and security sectors need to be revised or reformed.
ECOWAS leaders welcomed the significant progress made in resolving the crisis and lifted sanctions imposed on some of Guinea-Bissau’s political figures. But they expressed concern at the ‘slow pace of implementation of the timetable for the legislative elections’.
However, ECOWAS should also have been worried about the lack of progress on defining the principles that would guide reforms. The October 2016 Conakry Agreement provides a clear roadmap to resolve the crisis. Following the prime minister’s appointment and the nomination of a representative government, the government was meant to ‘organise and adopt, through the organisation of a round table national dialogue, a stability pact’ aimed at outlining guiding principles on the reforms need for stability to Guinea-Bissau.
Neither the July ECOWAS summit communiqué, nor that from the April extraordinary ECOWAS summit, mentions the Conakry Agreement or the stability pact. This ommission reflects either a change in the strategy or insufficient follow-up of ECOWAS decision-making processes involving Guinea-Bissau.
Regarding the constitution, after the 2014 elections, the National People’s Assembly set up an ad hoc committee on constitutional reform. Little progress was made before the committee found itself paralysed by the 2015 political crisis.
The current basic law lacks clarity and precision in a number of important areas. The country needs a constitution designed to prevent political deadlocks, promote effective institutions and make the state more efficient and fair in its delivery of services to the people.
Since its transition to a multi-party system in 1991, Guinea-Bissau has held five legislative and presidential elections. Significant progress was made in improving electoral legislation before the last presidential and parliamentary elections of 2014, but obvious deficiencies remain.
The electoral framework should be reviewed to improve the transparency and integrity of elections, clarify and strengthen the powers of the National Electoral Commission and fix inconsistencies between constitutional provisions and electoral laws.
The legislation that regulates political parties in Guinea-Bissau dates back to 1991. The reforms should strengthen the regulation of political activity; reaffirm political parties’ commitment to the democratic process; promote gender equality regarding political positions; specify, organise and control public party funding; and make legislation an effective tool for changing political practices.
Over the past four decades, the country has borne the brunt of score-settling between the political and military elites. Conflicts include the 1998-99 civil war, recurrent military coups and political assassinations. Victims have rarely, if ever, received justice. This promotes revenge and feeds the cycle of violence. An absence of formal justice mechanisms has resulted in individual settlements or conflict resolution methods implemented by traditional authorities.
An ambitious new Justice Reform Programme (2015-19) has been prepared, but has been blocked by the political crisis and differences between the executive (Ministry of Justice) and the judiciary (Supreme Court of Justice). Consensus is needed for the implementation of this essential reform in order to set up an independent justice system that’s accessible to ordinary people.
Defence and security reforms in Guinea-Bissau have been a recurring topic for nearly two decades. Despite regional and international actors working with the state on the reforms, obstacles remain. The underlying causes of these obstacles must be analysed before technical solutions are proposed that don’t address fundamental political, economic and social problems.
The ECOWAS communiqué’s silence on the Conakry Agreement could deprive the regional body and other supporters of the political process (the European Union, African Union, United Nations and Community of Portuguese Language Countries) of the power to move the political process forward and guarantee long-term stability in Guinea-Bissau.
However there is still time before the 18 November elections for stakeholders to agree on how to make the reform process irreversible. Regional and internal actors must be consistent in the sequential implementation of the institutional reforms. A process that focuses only on the polls, with no post-electoral guarantees on reforms needed for Guinea-Bissau’s long-term stability, risks setting the country up for its next institutional crisis.
Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, Office Director, Aissatou Kanté, Junior Researcher and Paulin Maurice Toupane, Researcher, ISS Dakar
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