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A West African Coup’s Potential Ripple Effects


Guinea-Bissau army
Guinea-Bissau military police guard the streets of the capital before the presidential election in March 2012. JOE PENNEY.

DAKAR, Senegal — The fate of Guinea-Bissau hangs on precariously as regional and international bodies involved in resolving the country’s post-coup crisis, which forestalled a presidential run-off vote, disagree about pace and tactics. The complications from the coup and another recent government overthrow, in Mali, have created unease throughout West Africa, possibly the last place on earth where countries still succumb to rogue actions by military personnel and other violent threats to the rule of law.

The potential for a domino effect in the region cannot be overlooked, one analyst said. Two other countries in the area are recovering from horrific civil wars (Liberia and Sierra Leone); Ivory Coast suffered through a hijacked presidential election; Guinea’s president, Alpha Condé, survived an assassination hit last year while introducing security sector reform; and Nigeria is under almost daily attack by radical militants.

On the other hand, Ghana is considered progressive and Senegal carried out a presidential vote without tremendous strife. A UN Security Council trip to Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone on May 21 should provide more insight into its handling of the current problems.

The coups only hurt the region.”There is little doubt that the military throughout Africa are looking in other African countries, checking out how much coupists can get away with,” said Vincent Foucher, a senior analyst in Dakar, Senegal, with the International Crisis Group. That makes it more essential, he said in an e-mail to PassBlue, that a solution does not suggest a “junta victory.”

Despite condemnation from the Security Council soon after the April 12 coup and negotiations so far, “no results have yet been achieved that can help the people of Guinea-Bissau return to constitutional normality,” Georges Chikoti, an Angolan foreign minister who runs the Community of Portuguese-Language Countries (CPLP), said at a May 7 UN briefing.

Even the purpose of the UN Peacebuilding Commission, which has a mandate in Guinea-Bissau to prevent conflicts, has been questioned. Sean Harder, a media program officer with the Stanley Foundation, wrote in a newsletter that some experts wonder whether the commission’s agenda in the country was a “wise investment of resources.” (The commission chairwoman of the Guinea-Bissau program is the Brazilian ambassador to the UN, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, whose country is also on the Security Council.)

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The UN briefing reviewed an update on Guinea-Bissau, a Portuguese-speaking country where people earn about $17 a month. Those who spoke described the nation as a free-falling state, where many government officials and others remain jailed or in hiding; the price of cashews, the main export, is dropping; freedom of speech and assembly are curtailed; and public funds and government offices are pillaged by the military.

Since the briefing, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), led by Nigeria, has applied some short-term fixes to the crisis as the group also troubleshoots in Mali, a larger country with insurgencies overrunning half its territory.

Carlos Gomes
Carlos Gomes Jr., the presidential front-runner, at at his home in Bissau, the capital, before the first round of elections. His house was attacked by heavy weapons the night of the coup on April 12, 2012. JOE PENNEY

Ecowas said it was organizing a Nigerian-Burkina Faso peacekeeping force to send to Guinea-Bissau and announced the choice of an interim president, Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, ruling out for now the reinstatement of the two ousted political leaders, Carlos Gomes Jr., the presidential front-runner, and the interim president, Raimundo Pereira. (Ecowas arranged their release and safe haven in Ivory Coast.)

Naming an interim president is one source of friction among the negotiators, who besides Ecowas include the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union and the CPLP. Some contend it validates the junta and that Gomes should not be excluded from discussions.

Meanwhile, the Security Council said it may consider imposing sanctions against people involved in the coup if the situation is not resolved, though no deadline was set. Sanctions against the junta leaders — travel bans and asset freezes — have been imposed by Ecowas, the European Union and the CPLP.

Guinea-Bissau, abutting the Atlantic Ocean, has just 1.6 million people; besides a history of coups, it is more recently known as a transit hub for South American cocaine trafficking to Western and Central Europe. Yet the country has such potential minerals as bauxite, diamond, gold, heavy minerals, oil and phosphate rock.

At the UN briefing, Chikoti, the Angolan, said the drug trafficking was a major motivation for the coup. Another international official in the capital, Bissau, said during the first presidential vote, in March, that the coup occurred to distract people from a big drug shipment.

But cocaine seizures have been made in other sites on the West Africa coast, and in Guinea-Bissau it is “just one more prize and one more resource in a complex political game that has a deeper history,” Foucher said. The history of the relationship between the military and the civilians and the country’s ruling party (known as the PAIGC) and democratization also play a part. Moreover, the military is dominated by the Balanta ethnic group, so reforming the armed forces instills distrust in that community toward the government.

The country’s politicians and military, however, use the cocaine accusations “to get at one another, because it is the ultimate scarlet letter in the eyes of the international community,” Foucher noted. Recent reports suggest that the junta, or those within the junta, have been arranging new cocaine deliveries to finance the coup and “foot the wage bill of the armed forces,” Foucher added.

The coup occurred weeks shy of the April 29 run-off election between Gomes, a former prime minister, and Kumba Yala, a once-deposed president. On the day of the first election in March, an ex-military intelligence official was shot dead near his home, sowing valid suspicions that a coup would ensue.

Yet the UN, which is invested in security-sector reform in the country as well as a transnational crime partnership, seemed to have been taken aback by the junta’s move on April 12.

The Security Council Report, an independent information source, said that  a possible  coup was raised on April 5 by Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo, president of the Ecowas commission. He  wrote a letter to the UN secretary-general about “disturbing developments that could jeopardise” the run-off vote.

His letter cited the “mounting suspicion and tension” between Guinea-Bissau’s military and the Angolan Technical Military Assistance Mission in the country, providing help stabilization support but not entirely welcomed by Guinean army officers. (The team is still in the country.)

In addition, Gomes’s winning position was a cause of concern for some military members, who feared that if he became president, he would carry out reforming the armed forces, which are considered bloated and aging and said to participate in the drug trade.

Guinea-Bissau interim president
Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, center, in Bissau. He has been named interim president. JOE PENNEY

Gomes also wrote to the UN secretary-general, on April 9, asking the Security Council to consider sending a peacekeeping force “to be charged with extensive powers aimed at the maintenance of political stability in the country.” But the Security Council did not know about the two letters until after the coup, because the secretary-general apparently forwarded the letters on April 23, the Security Council Report said.

Since then, the UN  integrated peace-building mission in the country advised the Security Council to send “training and protection units” and a peacekeeping or stabilization force. But one diplomat on the council told PassBlue that installing a full-fledged mission was remote.

While aggressive outside intervention is unlikely soon and sanctions have a dubious effect, Foucher said, it will take a “united international community to make it clear to the junta that they have little wriggling space.” Tensions between Ecowas and the CPLP do not help, as Ecowas feels that Angola is trespassing and should leave the region.

The squabbling among the parties also erodes credibility with the junta. As Foucher said, “International coordination is a priority,” and it should be the role of the UN and the African Union, he added, to manage the transitions to democracy.

“Given the tension between Ecowas and CPLP and the relative lack of interest and commitment of other players, it is not surprising that the UN have been having a hard time building a solid consensus and get things on the move,” he said. “A real pity in such a tiny, aid-dependent workable country.”

Reporting was contributed by Dulcie Leimbach in New York.

Additional resources

A Museum to Honor the Che Guevara of Guinea-Bissau

Timbuktu Treasures at Risk

In Tiny Guinea-Bissau, Ruthless Politics and Cool Refrain

Leaving Liberia, a ‘Fragile State’


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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A West African Coup’s Potential Ripple Effects
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9 years ago

Now I know who the brainy one is, I’ll keep loinokg for your posts.

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