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In Tiny Guinea-Bissau, Ruthless Politics and Cool Refrain


Bissau port
Men working in Bissau's port in Guinea-Bissau, a West African country of extreme poverty and large drug flows from South America to Europe. JOE PENNEY

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — Guinea-Bissau’s presidential election on March 18 and the shooting of the country’s former military intelligence that evening caught the world’s attention briefly, as rumors of a coup festered. So far, that has not happened. Since then, more prominent West African nations have snagged international attention: the presidential election run-off in Senegal, in which Macky Sall beat the incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade; and the military coup in Mali weeks before its presidential election on April 29.

Yet Guinea-Bissau is not done with its election, which was held to replace Malam Bacai Sanhá, a diabetic who died on Jan. 9, 2012, in Paris. A run-off has been set for April 22 because Carlos Gomes Jr., a former prime minister with the ruling party, did not win a full victory, more than 50 percent of the vote, against his main opponent, Kumba Yala.

In Guinea-Bissau, no president has completed his term since the first multiparty elections began in 1994, and coups and assassinations have played big roles in the political theater since the country’s independence from Portugal in 1974. It is hardly a surprise that Yala, who was overthrown as president in 2003, said he would boycott the run-off, contending the ruling party rigged the polls.

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Gomes, a controversial figure whose father fought for the Portuguese colonizers during the independence struggle, is accused of running drugs and bypassing the Constitution to run for president while being prime minister, a post he resigned temporarily to appease critics.

A deluge of setbacks

The United Nations may be the biggest international presence in Guinea-Bissau now, and the Security Council heard a briefing on March 28 by the UN’s special envoy in the country, Joseph Mutaboba. He cited the “challenging” political and security environment and the need to move ahead on reforming the police and military as well as tackling drug trafficking and organized crime.

“The death of President Sanhá, who was a moderating force with considerable influence on the country’s fractious political and military actors, has been a blow to peace-building plans and programs in Guinea-Bissau,” Mutaboba, who runs the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office there, said. The election, he added, has been an “unanticipated severe disruption” for the country, since it had been focusing on legislative voting in 2012, before Sanhá died.

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“The immediate impact of the early elections should not be underestimated,” Mutaboba said. “The government has been severely constrained since January: firstly, because the powers of the interim president are constitutionally circumscribed; and secondly, the candidacy of the prime minister and involvement of other office holders in the campaign have further significantly affected government business.”

The killing of the ex-military intelligence chief, Col. Samba Djalo, by uniformed men occurred in the capital, Bissau, just after polls closed. Reuters reported that Djalo had been involved in past coups, and no one has been arrested for his death.

Carlos Gomes Jr.
Carlos Gomes Jr. in his office on March 20, 2012. JOE PENNEY

The shooting led the former head of the country’s military, Gen. Jose Zamora Induta, to flee to the European Union’s compound in Bissau, seemingly fearing for his life. Rumors flew that Gomes spent the night at the UN offices in Bissau, too, which the UN denied. Gomes took refuge at the UN in 2007, when he was under arrest by the government.

Yet the country’s election was peaceful, with international and regional observers present. The day after the shooting, business carried on as usual in the capital, as if this deeply poor nation of 1.6 million had witnessed much worse than the fatal blow of a military chief at a restaurant near his home.

Given that Guinea-Bissau, whose biggest home-grown export is cashews, has become a drug trafficking route for South American cocaine shipments worth $1 billion a year, the UN says, it may be accustomed to ignoring such goings-on. When air strips are carved out in the countryside for drug drops or the country’s archipelago is used as illegal transit points, ordinary people have learned to look away.

The mandate for the UN’s integrated peace-building office in Bissau has been extended to Feb. 28, 2013, when it could be renewed. The UN’s political mission and development agencies recently signed a five-year development assistance agreement with the government, operating with a projected budget of $200 million. The UN Peacebuilding Fund also gave $10 million to Guinea-Bissau to enhance its security sector and defense reform work, of which $2.8 million is marked for a special pension fund for the military and other security personnel.

The fund has paid for a new police station, which opened in September in Bissau and is the first such formal entity for the country in decades. A total of 12 stations are to be developed in the next two years, the UN says.

Moreover, the fund will go to building two regional courts and a judicial training center; addressing drug and human trafficking problems; and reintegrating former military and police personnel. Additional UN money is being spent on creating jobs, national reconciliation and improving women’s working conditions.

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Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.

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