The Current “State” of Guinea-Bissau

Yesterday saw a short-lived coup attempt in Guinea-Bissau, a small West African state that has been wracked by chronic political instability since it obtained its independence from Portugal in 1973.

On Thursday morning, military officers briefly detained the country’s Prime Minister, Carlos Gomes Jr., some members of the cabinet as well as the country’s military chief, Gen. Zamora Induta. The officers began to play military music on national radio, as a way to spread the news about the coup. Within hours, though, President Malam Bacai Sanha announced that the situation was under control.

The coup leader, Antonio Indjai, who was until yesterday the army chief’s deputy, proclaimed himself the new army chief. When civilians began to protest the coup by taking to the streets, Indjai said: “If the people continue to go out into the streets to show their support for Carlos Gomes Jr., then I will kill Carlos Gomes Jr. […] or I will send someone to kill him.”

Confusingly, he also claimed that “military institutions remain, and will remain, submissive to political power.” I wonder how confident the people of Guinea-Bissau feel that the situation is indeed “under control…”

In less than four decades, there have been four military coups in Guinea-Bissau, and leadership transitions have rarely occurred without blood being spilled.

Guinea-Bissau’s stability has also been challenged by the increasing levels of illegal trafficking occurring within its borders. South American drug smugglers have been taking advantage of Guinea-Bissau’s 100 or so small, uncontrolled islands as a transit point for shipping drugs to Europe – so much so that the country has earned the unfortunate nickname of “Africa’s first narco-state.”

A 2008 report by the International Crisis Group put it in no uncertain terms: “Guinea-Bissau needs a state.”

Only 13 months ago, President João Bernardo Vieira and the head of the country’s military, Gen. Tagme Na Waie, were assassinated by military leaders, and a junta temporarily ruled the country until elections in July 2009. Yesterday’s aborted coup, however imperfect, emphasizes the incredibly tenuous situation in Guinea-Bissau.

And while some commentators were relieved to see the coup fail, and the government managing to retain control, I can’t help but wonder how much longer the country and its people can bear this state of affairs. While the European Union, ECOWAS, the African Union and the UN have all “condemned” the coup and asked for the maintenance of constitutional order in Guinea-Bissau, I only see further proof that the international community is extremely ill-equipped for dealing with these types of challenges to political stability.

The perpetrators of recent coups in Guinea and Niger – which resulted in the two countries’ suspension from regional institutions, and the application of sanctions – have essentially been comforted by the notion that might makes right.

In West Africa, it seems, the international community has lowered its expectations to the point where undemocratic transitions in leadership are becoming acceptable. As long as “democratic elections” are promised, it appears that anything goes.