A Big Vote for Tiny Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau holds the unfortunate distinction of never having a president complete a full five year term. That can change starting this weekend as the country holds its first election since a military coup in 2012. After a fair amount of domestic turmoil and delay, the elections offer the small West African country a chance at much needed political stability.

As the International Crisis Group points out elections are not occurring now due to a change in institutional strength or strong political will, but because Guinea-Bissau’s turbulent political climate led to most traditional donors and the IMF withdrawing from the country. While new donors and investors from China, Brazil and Angola have attempted to fill the void, the government is still on the verge of bankruptcy. A successful election is needed not only to transition back to democracy, but to also regain donor confidence for an essential cash injection. However even if the election is peaceful and all the candidates accept the results, inauguration of a new president represents only the first step towards putting the country on the right path.

One key element of Guinea-Bissau’s problems is the deep involvement of security forces in national politics. No president complete their five year constitutional term since the first multi-party elections were held in 1994. Limited periods of stability have come mainly through military dictatorship where the top leadership profited from turning the country into a hub in the South Atlantic drug and arms trafficking trade while ordinary citizens suffered from widespread human rights abuses and economic deprivation.

Following the 2012 coup, Guinea-Bissau became Africa’s first narco-state as the entire drug trafficking infrastructure passed to the military as a means to consolidate their control over the political structure of the nation. Along the way, the military developed ties with numerous extremist groups in the region, including Al Qaeda affiliates, which threaten security not just in Guinea-Bissau but throughout West and Central Africa. Disentangling the military from the political scene as well as from the drug and arms trade is necessary for an actual democratic transition but it will not be easy to establish the rule of law and effective governance when it has been lacking for so long.

Yet despite the apparent obstacles, there are reasons to be optimistic. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which will be one of the international organizations to monitor the polls, has already highlighted the successful preparation for the election where an estimated 95% of eligible voters have registered to participate despite limited funding and infrastructure. So far there has been no indications of election-related violence in the lead up to the vote. Acting interim President Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo is not standing in the election and has already said he would accept the results regardless of who is elected.

These are positive developments, but merely represent the first of many needed steps. And that is where the country is likely to run into trouble. Even as several international organizations and Western countries prepare to monitor the elections, there is little international interest in one of Africa’s smallest and poorest states. On a continent undergoing a major resource and land rush, the foundation of Guinea-Bissau’s legitimate economy – cashew and ground nuts – don’t have much international appeal. Even if Sunday’s election and the likely second-round presidential election occur without incident, Bissau-Guineans need strong support if they are to fully transition to an effective civilian government. As we have seen elsewhere, there is plenty of attention when elections come around but such attention usually wanes as soon as the results are declared. If Guinea-Bissau has any chance of breaking the cycle of instability that has seen two coups, an attempted coup, a civil war and a presidential assassination all in the last 20 years, sustained attention and assistance from the international community will be essential.