Guinea-Bissau: Briefing and Consultations on electoral preparations and UNIOGBIS strategic assessment
Tomorrow (21 December), the Security Council expects a briefing from Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Taye-Brook Zerihoun and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC)’s chair of its Guinea-Bissau configuration, Ambassador Mauro Vieira (Brazil). The session is expected to update members on progress towards organising legislative elections. The Council is also expected to consider the Secretary-General’s special report (S/2018/1086) on a strategic assessment on the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS), which proposes an exit plan for the mission over the next two years. Côte d’Ivoire, as penholder, has proposed issuing a press statement that would express deep concern over electoral preparations.
Legislative elections were scheduled for 18 November, but have been postponed for the second time this year. The delay had been attributed to delays in the delivery of biometric voter registration kits being provided by Nigeria and Timor Leste, a number of which were never delivered. But, as suggested in the Secretary-General’s 16 August report on Guinea-Bissau, there are concerns about the government’s commitment to timely elections, especially on the part of President José Mário Vaz, who is believed to want to conduct the legislative elections simultaneously with the presidential election in May 2019. After the failure to adhere to the 18 November date, Vaz said that he would not announce a new date until after the voter registration was completed.
The situation deteriorated earlier this month. After a slow start initially, the voter census had become more efficient by mid-November, reaching nearly ninety percent of estimated voters. However, on 6 December, the Prosecutor General’s Office suspended the process in order to investigate allegations of irregularities by the main opposition party, the Party for Social Renewal, which is close to President Vaz, and several smaller parties. The evening before, police detained three Nigerian technicians providing support to election administration officials at the Technical Support Office for the Electoral Process (GTAPE) in Bissau, and began controlling entry to the GTAPE headquarters. Representatives in Bissau from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the AU, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), the UN and the EU called for responsibility and restraint.
On 12 December, an ECOWAS mission led by Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama went to Bissau. In a communiqué on the mission, ECOWAS said that the elections should be held during January 2019. The restrictions on the GTAPE office were lifted, and voter registration was able to resume. President Vaz also said that he would set the date for the election before this weekend’s 22 December summit of ECOWAS heads of state and government.
Zerihoun may elaborate on these developments, and the risk of Guinea-Bissau’s political crisis deepening if elections are not held promptly. In accordance with the constitution, legislative elections should happen before the end of the year. On 17 December, the government, led by Prime Minister Aristides Gomes, announced that voter registration would end on 19 December. Gomes also proposed holding legislative elections on 17 February, 24 February or 10 March during a meeting with political parties. Today, Vaz issued a decree setting 10 March for the legislative elections. Council members are likely to express disappointment in the authorities’ failure to keep to the electoral timetable. Some members are expected to be highly critical of today’s decision by Vaz. Some may also warn against delays that would lead to holding legislative elections together with the presidential election. Members are likely to recall that the Conakry Agreement, brokered in 2016 by ECOWAS, remains the framework for resolving the more than three-year long political and institutional crisis. The agreement involves other provisions that should occur before the presidential election, including adopting a stability pact and reviewing the constitution to address underlying causes of the crisis.
During the briefing, Zerihoun is also likely to present the Secretary-General’s special report on the strategic assessment of UNIOGBIS. The assessment, conducted from 28 September to 4 October, was led by an independent senior expert, supported by representatives across the Secretariat and the UN system. UNIOGBIS and its predecessor mission, the UN Peacebuilding Support Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNOGBIS), have been present in the country since 1999 in the wake of Guinea-Bissau’s 11-month civil war. The report highlights that the mission’s ability to implement its mandate has been hindered by a lack of national leadership and political will.
The assessment proposes a phased reconfiguration, and then exit plan, for UNIOGBIS. According to the report, UNIOGBIS should continue in its current role through mid-2019 to support upcoming elections. The assessment found that its presence has been valued by interlocutors on the ground, who assert that in the current politically-sensitive electoral cycle, the joint presence of UNIOGBIS and ECOMIB (the 500-person military force deployed by ECOWAS) “is critically needed”. During the second half of 2019, UNIOGBIS should start to streamline its good offices and develop a transition plan. The third phase would include the transfer of tasks to the UN country team, the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) and international partners, with the mission exiting no later than 31 December 2020. UNOWAS has already been directed by the Secretary-General to increase its engagement in Guinea-Bissau, and after UNIOGBIS leaves, could ensure that ECOWAS and the international community remain attentive to Guinea-Bissau’s implementation of ongoing reforms and issues of drug trafficking.
Members may exchange views on the proposals, which will feed into UNIOGBIS’ mandate renewal next February. Generally, members seem supportive of the recommendations. Some may point to drawing lessons learned from the recent transition of the UN Mission in Liberia. This includes the role that the PBC can play in fostering national ownership of a transition plan, not ending a mission too soon upon the completion of elections, and taking more time to develop a peacebuilding plan to ensure its inclusivity, in contrast to the three months given to prepare Liberia’s peacebuilding plan. Some members may express different views on the proposed timelines, or may find it more appropriate to set the reconfiguration phases and withdrawal based on benchmarks, rather than fixed dates, considering that the country may not meet the current electoral calendar.
The strategic assessment comes after the US sought only a six-month extension of UNIOGBIS this past February, questioning the impact of the longstanding mission and the seeming lack of will from political leaders to overcome the country’s chronic political instability. The Council ultimately approved a one-year extension.
Ambassador Vieira is likely to call on political stakeholders to sustain their commitment to the Conakry Agreement and for the government to avoid further delays in holding legislative elections. On the drawdown of UNIOGBIS, Vieira is likely to reiterate that the PBC should be included in the transition.
Vieira may also highlight the deterioration in the socio-economic situation. This was flagged during a PBC meeting on 10 December with the Special Representative and head of UNIOGBIS José Viegas Filho and representatives of the World Bank. A poor cashew export for 2018 reduced government revenues by thirty percent, and Guinea-Bissau has seen a wave of public sector strikes, including a teachers’ strike since 1 October over salary arrears that has kept schools closed. Vieira may encourage the international community to provide budgetary support, and for the government to ensure transparent use of international assistance.