Stand-off following presidential elections in Guinea-Bissau

More than two months after the second round of the presidential elections Guinea-Bissau is sinking into a post-electoral deadlock.

More than two months after the second round of the presidential elections held on 29 December 2019, Guinea-Bissau is sinking into a post-electoral deadlock fraught with unforeseeable consequences.

This new post-election crisis in Guinea-Bissau exposes the lack of interest that certain national players have in the country’s stability, the incoherence and lack of coordination of the international community, and the need to reconsider the stabilisation process.

This new post-election crisis in Guinea-Bissau exposes the lack of interest that certain national players have in the country’s stability

Umaro Sissoco Embaló, declared the winner of the elections by the National Electoral Commission (CNE), has organised his own inauguration, while the Supreme Court has still not passed a definitive judgement on the appeal lodged by former prime minister Domingos Simoes Pereira. Embaló took office and installed a new government led by Nuno Gomes Nabiam, after having dismissed that of Prime Minister Aristides Gomes. Embaló is supported by his predecessor, former president José Mario Vaz, and by the military hierarchy.

The lack of good will and the failure of political and institutional stakeholders in Guinea-Bissau to look beyond their own short-term interests, as well as the muted reaction by international actors involved in stabilising the country, have opened the door to military interference. The return of certain figures from the army to the political game is a threat to the stability of the country and the region and calls for better-coordinated action by the international community.

Difficult reconciliation

The antagonism between the key players in the post-election crisis is so profound that it is necessary at this stage to coordinate mediation efforts. The post-election crisis currently sweeping through Guinea-Bissau is an extension of the August 2015 crisis, triggered by the sacking of Pereira as prime minister by then president Vaz. Pereira is also president of the powerful African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) and thus the crisis revolves around control of the PAIGC and political power in Guinea-Bissau.

In the end, Pereira has kept the upper hand and the dissident group – supporters of Vaz – were expelled from the PAIGC. They then created the Movement for Democratic Change – G15 (MADEM-G15) in 2018.

The mediation efforts led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), resulting in the Conakry Agreement of 14 October 2016, failed to ease tensions between these two factions.

The resulting institutional paralysis has led international stakeholders to favour elections as a solution to the crisis. This is to the detriment of national dialogue and the implementation of priority reforms (revision of the Constitution and electoral laws) before the elections.

At the end of the legislative elections of March 2019, tensions were exacerbated, particularly around the nomination of the office-bearers of the National People’s Assembly. Embaló became the candidate of the MADEM and opposed Pereira in the December 2019 elections.

It is in this context of profound antagonism that the presidential elections were held. These elections were thus held at a time when the future of the leaders of the PAIGC and MADEM, as well as their support among the army and civil society, was at stake, so foreshadowing the situation the country finds itself in today.

The ambivalence of ECOWAS member states

Since the coup d’état in April 2012, ECOWAS has been the key player in the stabilisation process in Guinea-Bissau. It almost single-handedly succeeded in putting in place a political transition and, as part of that effort, sent a diplomatic and military mission tasked with ensuring the security of institutions and supporting the country in the reform of the defence and security sector. After the start of the crisis in 2015, ECOWAS also initiated mediation proceedings that resulted in the signing of the Conakry Agreement.

ECOWAS has been the key player in the stabilisation process in Guinea-Bissau

Yet, the organisation’s lack of coherence in managing the post-election crisis and the absence of coordination with international stakeholders involved have weakened its position.

Indeed, by ‘acknowledging the definitive results of the second round’ and congratulating Embaló in its 22 January statement, even though the electoral dispute had not yet been clarified by the Supreme Court, ECOWAS seemed to be pressuring the Supreme Court.

This not only weakened the country's highest jurisdiction, which also serves as the Constitutional Court, but also made the management of the electoral dispute more difficult. The controversy that followed regarding the role of the court and the CNE in electoral processes has not allowed these two bodies to accomplish their mission without interference.

ECOWAS’s contradictory positions in managing the electoral dispute – an ongoing process – also revealed the profound divisions within the regional organisation, where the agenda of certain states seems to be prioritised above the regional agenda.

ECOWAS’s contradictory positions in managing the electoral dispute revealed the profound divisions within the organisation

While the commission considers the investiture of Embaló as taking place ‘beyond legal and constitutional frameworks’, his presidency has been recognised by Senegal, Nigeria and Niger. This situation created unease within both ECOWAS and the international community, which refuses to endorse this ‘power grab’ that seems to bring certain military players back into power, i.e. those who are under United Nations sanctions and suspected of being implicated in drug trafficking.

Army at the centre of the political game

The army has often played a determining political role in Guinea-Bissau. It is responsible for several coups, the last one being in April 2012. Since then it has not interfered in the country’s politics. The Chief of Staff of the armed forces, Biagui Nantam, appointed in 2014, repeatedly stated that soldiers would henceforth remain ‘outside of political quarrels’. However the current position of the military hierarchy regarding Embaló undermines this neutrality and suggests there is an attempt by some factions of the army to influence politics.

The return to politics of certain military figures is a major risk to the long-term stability of Guinea-Bissau

The return to politics of certain military figures with controversial reputations is a major risk to the long-term stability of both Guinea-Bissau and the region. It not only threatens the civil–military balance, vital for the proper functioning of institutions, but could also enable military figures suspected of involvement in drug trafficking to control state apparatus.

Grab this opportunity

This crisis needs to be analysed against the backdrop of the recurrent political upheaval in Guinea-Bissau. The conflicts between the main political stakeholders, their civilian supporters and the army are a major contributor to the country's instability. Because of the attitude of the political and military classes, a large part of the population is paying the price for these repeated crises.

The continuation of the crisis and the state paralysis since 2015 have allowed the military to enter the political stage. The impact of this should not be underestimated. It is necessary to send a firm message to the country's political and military figures and highlight as clearly as possible their responsibility in the worsening of the crisis. It is also important to avoid giving the impression that the situation could improve without constructive national dialogue.

In addition, it is essential to return to constitutional order. To do this, an expanded high-level AU mission should go to Guinea-Bissau as soon as possible to try to create conditions that will normalise the situation, which could have unpredictable consequences given the profile of the figures involved and their personal interests. It is in the interest of the regional and international community to harmonise their positions to prevent Guinea-Bissau from becoming another hotbed of violence in an already unstable region.

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