The small West African nation of Guinea-Bissau could soon appoint its sixth prime minister since August 2015. What is behind this political farce? The key to understanding Guinea-Bissau’s current crisis lies in a power struggle between its current president and the political elite.
Guinea-Bissau achieved independence in 1973 under the leadership of Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). In 1980, its first president Luís Cabral was deposed by his prime minister João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira in a bloodless coup. The constitution was subsequently suspended, with a military junta holding power until 1994, when multi-party politics was introduced. A military uprising in 1998 precipitated a year-long civil war. The 2000s were tempered by coups, instability and intermittent violence.
In May 2014, civilian rule returned to Guinea Bissau. José Mário Vaz – known as Jomav – was elected president, bringing hope that the country would finally experience peace and stability. Unfortunately tensions quickly arose between Jomav and his prime minister, Domingos Simões Pereira.
According to Guinea-Bissau’s constitution, the president is head of state and the prime minister leads the government. However, the latter must command a majority in parliament, and thus has to be appointed with the support of the largest party in the National People’s Assembly.
Although both Jomav and Domingos are members of the PAIGC, the largest party in the legislature, it soon became apparent they had different ideas of how to manage the country. Amongst other things, Jomav allegedly disagreed with the prime minister over the use of aid money and Domingos’s selections for ministerial positions. Despite attempts by the regional economic community, ECOWAS, to broker a resolution, Domingos was summarily relieved of his position by Jomav in August 2015. This prompted a backlash from the PAIGC, regional neighbours and former colonial power Portugal, all of whom feared further instability. Jomav refused to budge, maintaining that a breakdown of trust between himself and his prime minister made a working relationship impossible.
Jomav duly nominated another PAIGC member, Baciro Djá, as prime minister. Domingos and the PAIGC deemed this nomination unconstitutional, a view shared by numerous civil society organisations. The Supreme Court ruled in the PAIGC’s favour since Baciro was appointed without consulting parliament.
The PAIGC unanimously proposed that octogenarian Carlos Correia, prime minister three times previously, should replace Baciro Djá; and ECOWAS tasked former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, with convincing Jomav to accept the nomination of Correia. Jomav agreed to work with Correia, but soon they too disagreed over selections for ministerial posts. In May 2016, after eight months of Correia’s premiership, Jomav recalled Baciro Djá with the support of the opposition party Partido para a Renovação Social (PRS). Once again Baciro was rejected by the PAIGC.
At this point the international community started to lose patience. ECOWAS intervened again with the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, brokering a truce in neighbouring Guinea-Conakry. Jomav, the PAIGC and the two main opposition parties, PRS and União para a Mudança (UM), were all included in the negotiations. Three names were put forward for a new prime minister: João Fadia, Augusto Olivais, and Umaro Sissoco.
As part of an agreement signed in October 2016, Jomav dismissed Baciro and on 18 November appointed Sissoco, a former presidential adviser, as prime minister – the country’s fifth in eighteen months. This was not the choice that the PAIGC either expected or wanted. They and the UM immediately refused to participate in the new government. Both parties declared that the appointment of Sissoco violated the Conakry agreement and claim that Augusto Olivais was the candidate accepted by all in the October negotiations. In the face of accusations that he was deliberately prolonging the political crisis, Jomav responded that he chose Sissoco for being neutral.
Although President Sirleaf has expressed support for the president’s choice, discussions between the main protagonists will resume at an ECOWAS summit on 17 December. Matters became still more complicated when, on 13 December, Sissoco selected a cabinet which the PAIGC rejected. It is entirely possible that before the end of the year Guinea-Bissau will find itself with yet another prime minister.
At the time of the presidential election in 2014 there was widespread hope that Guinea-Bissau might emerge from its state of paralysis. Instead, there has been little or no progress. While political elites squabble amongst themselves in the confines of parliament and international hotels, the people of Guinea-Bissau remain hostages to a political crisis that has exhausted the country. For almost 18 years, they have endured protracted conflict and rampant corruption that have exacerbated poverty and facilitated narco-trafficking. Young people in particular are growing impatient, with groups like “Basora di Povo” – akin to Burkina Faso’s Balai Citoyen – calling for the current leaders to quit altogether.
The military has so far remained silent about the politicians’ internecine antics, but its inaction cannot be taken for granted in a country that since independence has not seen an elected leader complete his term. One thing is for certain – that unless a durable solution is forthcoming from the ECOWAS summit, it is ordinary Bissau Guineans who will continue to suffer most.