Avoiding a Mess in Guinea-Bissau Could Help the Rest of West Africa

A former colonial-era government building on the island of Bolama, Guinea-Bissau's first capital.
A colonial-era government building, long abandoned, rotting away on the island of Bolama, where Guinea-Bissau's first capital was located. It is now on the mainland. JOE PENNEY

Guinea-Bissau’s woes never end. Now the United Nations, which has a peace-building support mission in the capital, Bissau, might need to restart its work there since the head of the office has left.

Joseph Mutaboba, a 63-year-old Rwandan diplomat who has been the special envoy since February 2009, was tasked with preventing conflicts through the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office. He briefed the UN Security Council on the status of Guinea-Bissau on Dec. 11 as he wound up his tenure in the small West African country.

But even that moment became fraught, as the Security Council was deeply distracted by news from another West African nation: the Malian prime minister’s resignation by gunpoint from military leaders.

Mutaboba’s own departure from Guinea-Bissau was also abrupt, though the UN says his term was coming to a close anyway. Agence France-Presse reported on Dec. 6 that he quit his post after the military had been increasing its “security operations” in the capital, and that he was deemed sympathetic to the ousted leaders from an April coup, now in exile. The UN says a successor search is under way to replace Mutaboba, while papers in Bissau suggest that José Ramos-Horta, the former president of East Timor and a Nobel peace prize winner, may be a contender.

Now on holiday overseas, Mutaboba conceded in a phone interview with PassBlue that the Guinea-Bissau job had not been easy.

“I lasted nearly four years, no predecessor before me lasted more than 24 months,” he said. “The environment is not good — the climate is too hot and humid — and shifting opportunistic alliances among the military, politicians and civil society” leave the population consistently forgotten.

Mutaboba added that “international partners are busy fire-fighting and end up with only cosmetic changes to an already rotten situation.”

A fact-finding mission by representatives from the UN, the African Union, the European Union, Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States), and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (an intergovernmental group known as CPLP) is being conducted in Guinea-Bissau this week.

Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies at Fordham University

Since the April 12 coup, the country of 1.6 million continues to endure in its own special way. The junta forced Carlos Gomes Jr., a former prime minister, and the interim president, Raimundo Pereira, to flee the country. The ensuing “transitional government,” as the UN originally called it in a report, has not been recognized by the European Union, so it is withholding development aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars. (The UN lately called the transitional government a “de facto government.”)

These days, Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo is leading Guinea-Bissau, having been appointed by Ecowas, which stepped in to manage the country with a peacekeeping force after the coup.

The European aid had paid schoolteachers’ salaries, which dried up since the coup. As a result, teachers went on strike from September to November and children remained out of school. The teachers have returned to work since then and are being paid but not for arrears.

Guinea-Bissau is also feeling the crunch of a reduced demand for its main export, cashews, leaving farmers with tons of crops on their hands because of a glutted global market, although Mutaboba had blamed the coup on the problem. Cholera outbreaks are rising.

Yet the nation has vast natural resources just waiting to be tapped and managed properly. The World Bank says Guinea-Bissau has plenty of arable land and productive rainfall, rich mineral deposits, exotic biodiversity and fishing and tourism potential. But its ancient political and military violence, brewing since its independence from Portugal in 1973, as well as drug trafficking, has put good governance aside.

Tensions among military and politicians are invariably at play, as Mutaboba suggested. His sudden departure from the UN office may have reflected squabbling between António Indjai, the military chief, and Gomes Jr., who had been favored to win the presidential election run-off last spring. But the coup prevented the run-off from happening. Gomes is exiled in Portugal, and Indjai is subject to a travel-ban sanction from the Security Council, although he may have traveled to the Ivory Coast this fall.

The transitional government faced fresh violence in October – a shootout at a military barracks near Bissau, killing six people.

But the drug trafficking creates the “biggest headache,” Mutaboba said, and it seems to be intensifying since the coup, with drops day and night by sea and air with ever-changing routes.

Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies at Fordham University

Mutaboba said that he had tried to impress the Security Council to look at the sources, the transits and the destinations of the trafficking. The drugs originate in Latin America — Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, primarily – route through Guinea-Bissau and other West African nations and land in Europe, the media has reported.

Indeed, “very weak law enforcement capacity” in the country, a UN report said, provides organized criminal groups “with an avenue for the unchallenged use of the territory as a transit point for international drug trafficking.”

Allegedly, the report adds, this “happens with the support of members of the defence and security forces, as well as members of the political elite.”

Presidential elections are scheduled to occur by May 2013, but with Europe withholding aid, Guinea-Bissau cannot foot the bill alone or with just UN help. Even if financial conditions were met, it is not clear how elections would change the political dynamic. Although Parliament has begun meeting again, the military is adamant that it will not accept Gomes if he wins the presidency.

“I don’t think it will be possible to resolve these problems with elections,” Nhamadjo told a reporter in Bissau last month.

Although Guinea-Bissau’s situation may not be as threatening to West African stability as Mali‘s, where a coup upset national politics and jihadists dominate the north with weapons and Sharia law, there are indications that Guinea-Bissau’s “international marginalisation has made a number of actors even keener and more dependent on shipping drugs through,” Vincent Foucher, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit entity that monitors national breakdowns, said in an e-mail to PassBlue.

He added that in a West Africa, “with countries in uneasy transitions or messy politics nearby (Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, the situation in both northern and southern Mali, the Casamance conflict in southern Senegal), maybe one more mess could be usefully avoided, because we do know that situations can connect.”

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Dulcie Leimbach

Dulcie Leimbach

Dulcie Leimbach was a fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY from 2012 to 2017. She is the founder of PassBlue, for which she edits and writes, covering primarily the United Nations, West Africa, peacekeeping operations and women's issues. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal) as well as from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio and Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA, where she edited its flagship magazine, The InterDependent, and migrated it online in 2010. She was also the senior editor of UNA's annual book, "A Global Agenda: Issues Before the UN." She has also worked as an editorial consultant to various UN agencies.

Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Colorado, graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver before she worked in New York at Esquire magazine and Adweek. In between, she was a Wall Street foreign-exchange dealer. Leimbach has been a fellow at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and was a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She grew up mostly in Oyster Bay and Huntington, Long Island, where her family moved a dozen times, ending up in Santa Barbara, Calif. Her first exposure to the UN was at age 8, on a summer Sunday visit with her mother and sisters, where she was awed by the gift shop. Leimbach now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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