Dispatches from the Field: Council Mission to Guinea-Bissau
Security Council members visited Guinea-Bissau from 15 to 16 February, following the mission’s first stop in Côte d’Ivoire. The Guinea-Bissau leg was organised as a conflict prevention initiative, just weeks before legislative elections scheduled for 10 March—which were delayed twice in 2018 as part of a protracted political crisis—and the presidential election required later this year. Members arrived amidst an increasingly tense and polarised environment, including student protests one week earlier in Bissau, where roads had been blocked and political parties’ offices were reportedly attacked. Students had been protesting the closure of schools since the start of the school year in October, calling on the government to pay salary arrears of teachers who are on strike. Additionally, the visit was undertaken as the Council is scheduled to renew the mandate of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) on 28 February, and as a part of this process, consider the Secretary-General’s plan to reconfigure and then withdraw the mission by the end of December 2020.
Council members had a full agenda during the visit, co-led by Equatorial Guinea, this month’s Council president, and Côte d’Ivoire. They met Friday night with Prime Minister Aristides Gomes, had a working dinner with the diplomatic corps and received a briefing at UNIOGBIS headquarters from Deputy Special Representative and Resident Coordinator David McLachlan-Karr. Yesterday, which coincided with the official start of campaigning for the legislative elections, meetings were held with the Group of Five for Guinea-Bissau (the AU, the Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS], the EU, the Community for Portuguese Language Countries [CPLP] and the UN); the National Assembly president; leaders of political parties in parliament; the National Electoral Commission (CNE); the Vice President of the Supreme Court of Justice; political parties not in parliament; civil society and religious organisations; the UN Country Team; and to conclude the visit, President José Mário Vaz.
In the meeting with Prime Minister Aristides Gomes, Ambassador Anatolio Ndong Mba of Equatorial Guinea, as Council president, said that Council members had come to Guinea-Bissau to support and encourage the holding of free and fair legislative elections on 10 March, followed by presidential elections. It was a message delivered over the course of the visit that also stressed the importance of the upcoming elections to advance institutional reforms. Gomes described the government’s efforts to make sure the electoral process would be transparent and the outcomes credible, which members seemed to appreciate. He noted two important instruments signed the day before: a stability pact and a code of conduct for the elections. The stability pact sets out reforms, as outlined in the ECOWAS-brokered Conakry agreement in 2016, that political parties commit to support after the legislative elections and the formation of a new government.
Gomes outlined various challenges for the elections. These included difficulties such as financing, which he indicated was due to donors not fulfilling commitments. He also said that there were political actors that do not want the elections held, and who were manipulating social unrest by agitating the public unions and had triggered violence by infiltrating last week’s student protests. Gomes added that the government was facing pressure trying to manage social grievances and maintain a consensual electoral process.
Members heard similar assessments of attempts to obstruct the elections during meetings with the international community, political parties and civil society. Several of these interlocutors said that this involved top levels of government, however, and indicated, without mentioning him by name, that this includes President Vaz, who has previously proposed combining the legislative elections with the presidential election. One representative of the Group of Five to Guinea-Bissau highlighted that those worried about losing their role in the current inclusive government or the legislature had economic incentives to postpone the elections, since elected office is a main opportunity for income. This representative added that the desperation that this worry can cause could lead to targeted violence.
The leader of Guinea-Bissau’s second largest political party, the Party for Social Renewal (PRS), stressed concerns about irregularities in the electoral process, a position echoed by several political parties not in the government as well as civil society groups. In particular, they took aim at discrepancies in the voter census, as only 735,000 voters (or 40,000 fewer voters than in the 2014 elections) had been registered. Gomes and the CNE president explained that ECOWAS was auditing the voter registration. After this is completed, the Technical Support Office for the Electoral Process (GTAPE) would rectify any anomalies identified.
During their meetings, Council members sought to clarify Gomes’ claims about funding shortages for the elections. The UN and the CNE confirmed that donors had provided $2 million beyond the $7.7 million UNDP basket fund set up for the elections. They maintained that the government was not covering expenditures for which it was responsible. As discussed in the UN country team meeting, and raised in other meetings, after 3.5 years, the political crisis was having an adverse impact on the economy, manifested in budgetary pressures on the government from a decline in states revenues.
Several government interlocutors raised concerns about security during the elections in the absence of an interior minister, a position that had been vacant the past three months; Vaz reportedly appointed someone to the post on the day of the Council’s arrival. During the visit, the presence of the ECOWAS Mission in Guinea-Bissau, the 600-person military force, was very visible. At the Group of Five meeting, the ECOWAS representative noted that the mission was expensive and may withdraw in September.
Another issue raised during the visit was the constitutional review called for in the Conakry agreement to clarify the powers of the president and prime minister. Representatives of the Group of Five cautioned that the priority should be on undertaking the legislative and presidential elections, as the sides have very different ideas for this review, with Vaz wanting to set up a presidential system.
It was frequently noted that Guinea-Bissau’s problems historically have not been with holding elections, but afterwards, when it comes to governing. Related to this were discussions that highlighted the weakness of Guinea-Bissau’s institutions. In this regard, many Bissau-Guinean interlocutors stressed the need for the UN to continue to support Guinea-Bissau. Cipriano Cassamá, the head of the National Assembly, said that a UN configuration should continue to assist in addressing issues such as drug trafficking, trafficking in children and corruption. Civil society representatives, while expressing appreciation for the international community’s support over the years, made strong calls for the mission (or a continued UN presence) to help Guinea-Bissau conduct reforms, which they said were still possible to achieve. A representative of the UN country team stressed that more integrated discussion with UNIOGBIS was critical to prepare for any transition.
Among other issues, there was some discussion of the role of the military, which it was emphasized had consistently kept away from political disputes since the restoration of constitutional order in 2014. One representative of the Group of Five stressed that security sector reform depended on donors continuing to finance a pension fund. There were calls from some civil society organisations and from President Vaz, during his meeting with Council members, to lift the travel ban sanctions that the Council has maintained on 10 military officials involved in the April 2012 coup. Several interlocutors said sanctions should be applied to those causing further electoral delays.
The Council’s final meeting was with President Vaz at the presidential palace. At the start of the meeting, Ambassador Kacou Leon Adom of Côte d’Ivoire reiterated that the purpose of the Council visit was to help support Guinea-Bissau out of its political crisis, and the importance of legislative elections being held on 10 March and presidential elections thereafter. Vaz assured Council members that the elections will take place on 10 March. He did not indicate when the presidential election might be held, as he preferred to focus on the legislative elections and reform programme. Towards the end of the meeting, Council president Ambassador Ndong Mba made a final appeal, referring to the opportunity for Vaz to set the country on the path of peace and stability by holding the elections. Vaz responded that the country no longer suffered from war, beatings and arbitrary detentions, and this was his legacy.
On 20 February, the Council will hold a briefing on the visiting mission to Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea-Bissau.
* The penultimate paragraph of the story was edited on 19 February for clarity.