Guinea-Bissau seeks way out of coup-prone poverty

With its red-tiled roof and pink facade holed by rockets and bullets, Guinea-Bissau’s ruined presidential palace is a monument to the fratricidal conflict that has kept this tiny West African state crushed by poverty.

The palace, built under Portuguese colonial rule, was attacked and looted during a 1998-1999 civil war which killed more than 2 000 people, ravaged the riverside capital and led to the ousting of President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira.

“This ruin is a national disgrace, you can’t take pictures of that,” said a flustered official, sweating in a suit and clutching a cellphone.

Vieira, who ruled for nearly 20 years after seizing power in a 1980 coup, returned as president through 2005 elections. His country remains among the poorest in the world more than three decades after it won independence from Portugal.

In the crumbling capital Bissau, apart from some Chinese-built novelties, most of the public buildings are decaying and dirt-streaked shadows of their former colonial splendour, bereft of equipment and sparsely furnished.

Generators growl across the city as power outages are almost permanent. Outside the capital, some roads marked as main routes on maps turn out to be rutted, mud-choked obstacle courses.

The economy is groaning under a foreign debt of nearly $1-billion and most of the 1,4-million population eke out a living by farming or fishing.
Cashew nuts are the main export crop, but price and policy problems have crippled the harvest this year.

“As there is no money, there is instability and as there is instability, there is no money,” said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be named.

Prodded by foreign donors, Vieira’s government has drafted major reforms aimed at shedding Guinea-Bissau’s image as a poor, corrupt and coup-prone state where ethnic rivalries, money and the muzzle of a gun speak louder than laws or the constitution.

A reform package with a price tag of $400-million will be presented to a meeting of foreign donors in Geneva on November 7-8.

Coup-mongering military

The core of this is a $184-million plan to slim down and modernise Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces and security services.

It aims to transform them from coup-mongering political meddlers into modern, professional soldiers and police.

“We want to construct the basis of a democratic state of law ... this will only be possible with a reconciled Guinea-Bissau,” Defence Minister Helder Proenca Tavares told Reuters.

Diplomats and political commentators say reshaping the military is the key to ending chronic instability.

“If there is no reform of the armed forces, we can’t stabilise this country,” said Agnelo Regalla, owner and director of Radio Bombolom FM, a popular private station. He says the military is riven by factional and ethnic rivalries.

Most senior officers, including the current armed forces chief of staff, General Batista Tagme Na Wai, have been implicated in one or more of the rash of military uprisings or plots which have scarred the post-independence years.

Na Wai was appointed after mutinous soldiers protesting over unpaid wages killed a previous armed forces chief in 2004.

The security reform, a draft copy of which was seen by Reuters, aims to sharply reduce Guinea-Bissau’s bloated, fractious armed forces from 9 000 to around 3 500. More than $70-million will go towards paying off and retraining ex-combatants.

In the proposed slimmed-down army, only 30% would be full-time professional soldiers. The rest will be conscripts, to be recruited through a reactivated national military service.

Some commentators questioned whether the military was ready to disengage from national politics. “Some may worry that once they don’t have arms in their hands, they may be the target of persecution or revenge,” said Regalla.

Drugs threat

The security overhaul is also aimed at tackling what experts see as a growing threat to Guinea-Bissau’s poorly protected sovereignty from international organised crime gangs trafficking mostly drugs, but also arms and illegal migrants.

“Guinea-Bissau is a particularly weak country because of its structural deficiencies in terms of law enforcement,” Antonio Mazzitelli, representative for West and Central Africa of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said.

These weaknesses include an air force without planes, a navy short of functioning ships and a police force lacking vehicles, radios and computers. There is no proper prison in the country.

UN experts say this, combined with a jagged geography of twisting river deltas, mangrove-lined creeks and remote islets, have turned Guinea-Bissau into a transit point for drugs, especially cocaine, smuggled out of Latin America.

Some call this trans-Atlantic drugs route into Europe, often via Portugal, the “Portuguese connection”.

“I think it has less to do with language and more with 5 000km of unguarded coastline. Every creek, every piece of mangrove is a hiding place,” said the Western diplomat.

“There are zones, islands where the power of the state doesn’t exist,” said broadcaster Regalla.

The most vulnerable area is the Bijagos archipelago, a jigsaw of islands off the mainland, where isolated fishing camps and bush airstrips can be used for smuggling narcotics. - Reuters

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