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Upheaval in Guinea-Bissau

Johannes Beck/al
October 23, 2012

Guinea-Bissau's security forces are hunting for gunmen who attacked an air force base in a foiled coup attempt over the weekend that the government in Bissau has blamed on Portugal. The attack left seven dead.

Copyright: DW/Braima Darame
Image: DW

It looks as if Guinea-Bissau is succumbing to coups on a half-yearly basis. No other country has been hit by so many coups and counter-coups as this tiny west African country which lies south of Senegal.

The latest coup was staged on Sunday morning (21.10.12) when a military unit attacked the Bissalanca air force base located near Guinea-Bissau's capital, Bissau, killing seven people.

The last failed coup attempt was staged on Christmas Day in 2011, which is less that a year ago. It was followed by a succesful coup in April in which the democratically elected government of prime minister Carlos Gomes Júnior was ousted. The legitimate admistration was replaced first by a military council and then by a transitional government.

Guine-Bissau's Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior. Copyright: DWNélio dos Santos
Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior was ousted by a coup in April this yearImage: DW

Paulo Gorjão is a political analyst at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security. He says army reform is essential if a sustainable soution to Guinea-Bissau's chronic instability is to be found.

"Power does emanate from the civilian government in Guiena-Bissau. It is in the hands of the military and it has been that way since independence," he explained.

Conflict between military and civilians

Since the coup in April of this year at the very latest, it has been clear that the military will never tolerate a civilian authority ruling over them. Prime Minster Carlos Júnior had just won the first round of the presidential elections and was widely tipped to win the second round. Had he won, he would have had a mandate to push through military reform package.

Military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Dabana na Walna at a press conference at Amura Fort in Bissau, 20 April 2012. EPA/ANDRE KOSTERS
Top military positions are in the hands of the older generationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Efforts to reform Guinea-Bissau's military are nothing new. After a European Union mission had tried and failed, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior decided to bring in Angolan soldiers to train his armed forces. But that was too much for the local military: they staged a coup against Carlos Gomes Júnior
cancelled the second round of the presidential elections and installed their own transitional government.

"It's mainly the older generation of soldiers who are fighting against military reform. They fought in the independence war against Portugal and now hold key positions in the army. They know than a military reform would force them into retiremente."

Air force without fighters

One illustration of the urgency of military reform is the continued existence of an air force in which not one single war plane is operational.

Former Presidential Palace in Bissau.
There is long-standing antagonism between civilian rulers and the military in Guinea BissauImage: DW/Ferro de Gouveia

A few days after this most recent coup attempt, life in Guinea-Bissau has returned to normal, almost as if some sort of tradition was involved. If you walk though the capital Bissau, it is difficult to imagine that this peaceful city could harbor so much violence.

Recent coups

President Nino Vieira and army leader Tagme Na Waie were assassinated by soldiers in 2009. To this day no one has been put on trial in connection with their deaths. According to the French news agency AFP, the chief suspect in Sunday's failed coup, Pansau N'Tchama, is alleged to have been responsible for the killing of Nino Veira.

In April 2010, former military leader Zamora Induta was detained and Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior was temporarily arrested and tortured by the army. Guinea Bissau has neither demoted nor dismissed the soldiers who were responsible, nor has it tried or convicted them.

A group of soldiers in Guinea Bissau. Copyright: DW/Braima Darame 21.10.2012, Bissau, Guinea-Bissau
UN officials are worried by links between Guinea-Bissau's military and the drugs tradeImage: DW

Instead, the leader of the rebellion, Antonio Indjai, was promoted and became the new head of army. This has evidently encouraged him to attempt further coups. Indjaj is regarded as the leader of the successful coup in April 2012.

Drug trafficking hub

It is not only the military who enjoy Impunity in Guinea Bissau. The same also applies to Latin American drug traffickers who are believed to be in cahoots with local soldiers and politicians.

In July of this year, the director of the UN agency on drugs and crime, UNODC, Yuri Fedotov reported to the UN Security Council that drug trafficking in West Africa has substantially increased. He voiced concern about lawlessness in Guinea Bissau.

"There are fears over the connections between elements of the military forces and illicit drug trafficking. There is a prevailing culture of impunity hindering effective law enforcement activities," he said.

Ethnic tensions are another of Guinea-Bissau's worries. This is why for years the dominance of the Balanta ethnic group has been regarded by some as an issue. Although they represent just a quarter of the population, they occupy the majority of the key positions in the military.