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Guinea-Bissau crisis: President dissolves parliament, dismisses government

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Picture: @USEmbalo / X Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoko Embalo. On December 4, Embalo dissolved the National People’s Assembly citing an alleged coup attempt. The move followed just months after a coalition led by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) won a decisive majority in the elections.

By Tanupriya Singh

A political crisis in Guinea-Bissau has escalated over the past month, after President Umaro Sissoco Embalo declared the country’s parliament dissolved, citing an “attempted coup”. While elected deputies were denied access to the National People’s Assembly (NPA), Embalo has since dismissed and replaced the prime minister and named a new Cabinet.

The move follows just a few months after the Inclusive Alliance Platform-Terra Ranka (PAI-Terra Ranka) led by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), founded by Marxist anti-colonial revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, secured a majority of 54 out of the 102 parliamentary seats in the legislative elections held in June.

The victory empowered the PAIGC-led coalition to form the government, whose members Embalo has now replaced with candidates of his own choosing across key ministries, in the absence of a popular, and even constitutional, mandate.

On December 1, it was reported that two people had been killed in overnight clashes between alleged members of the National Guard, a force under the command of the interior ministry, and members of the presidential guard.

On November 30, the Economy and Finance Minister Souleiman Seidi and the Secretary of State for the Treasury Antonio Monteiro were summoned and questioned by the judicial police in relation to the withdrawal of a sum of US$ 10 million from the state accounts. The two officials were detained under orders from the state prosecutor, who is appointed by the president.

A few hours later, men dressed in the uniform of the National Guard’s Rapid Intervention Brigade stormed the facility and transferred Seidi and Monteiro to the force’s headquarters. Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, Imani Umoja, a member of the central committee of the PAIGC, said the National Guard had not been sent by the interior minister or the government.

Seidi and Monteiro were subsequently placed under detention again following confrontations between the presidential guard and the National Guard. According to Umoja, the fighting took place in the vicinity of the residence of the president of the NPA, Domingos Simões Pereira, who at the time was the acting president of the Republic given that Embalo was in the UAE for COP28.

Pereira was not informed of the armed operation. Meanwhile, a note was circulated on social media supposedly written by Pereira, calling on PAIGC militants and the population to support the National Guard. The NPA president did not write the alleged note.

On December 4, Embalo dissolved the parliament, calling it a “space for political guerrilla warfare and conspiracy”. The action was condemned by the PAIGC as an “institutional coup d’état”, and a violation of the country’s Constitution, specifically Article 94 stipulates that the NPA “may not be dissolved in the 12 months after an election, in the final six months of a presidential mandate, or during martial law or state of emergency”.

The presidential decree stated that the date for holding the next legislative elections would be “set in due time” by the provisions of the Constitution.

Embalo proceeded to take control of the ministries of interior and defence, and unilaterally appoint commanders of the National Guard. While Embalo had initially dismissed Prime Minister Geraldo Martins, he was re-appointed to the office before being dismissed again, and finally replaced by Rui Duarte de Barros.

The PAIGC has declared that it will not accept the new government formed by Embalo, which has “aimed to call to power people and political formations that the people categorically rejected in the legislative elections”.

Delays, irregularities leading up to the 2023 elections

The polls in June were held over a year after Embalo dissolved the parliament and the government in 2022, accusing lawmakers of turning the assembly into a space for “political guerrilla and conspiracy”. The PAIGC, which had won the parliamentary elections in 2019 with 47 seats, had formed a coalition government at the time.

Embalo proceeded to put in place a “Presidential initiative” government led by the MADEM-G15 party which had backed him during the presidential election run-off held in December 2019.

The results of that election had been marred by allegations of fraud. While the National Elections Commission (CNE) had declared Embalo as the winner with nearly 54 percent of the vote, Periera, who was the PAIGC’s candidate for president, had flagged several issues including that votes in certain areas had allegedly surpassed the number of enrolled voters.

On January 24, following a legal challenge brought by Pereira, the Supreme Court of Justice (STJ), ordered the CNE to conduct an audit of the votes cast in the run-off.

However, Umoja stated that not only did this process not take place, the president of the STJ fled the country. On February 27, Embalo organised a “symbolic inauguration” at a hotel in the capital of Bissau and appointed himself president. Also in attendance were the ambassadors of neighbouring Senegal and the Gambia. The prime minister at the time, Aristides Gomes, had condemned the action as a coup, adding that soldiers had prevented him from entering the ministry.

Emablo’s “symbolic inauguration” took place even though the president of the Republic must be sworn into office in a plenary session of the NPA.

“Embalo had made public statements saying that he was going to get rid of the PAIGC. In Cape Verde, he called upon the people to get rid of the African Party of Independence of Cape Verde (PAICB),” Umoja said.

After the dissolution of parliament in May of last year, the country would have to hold elections within three months, that is, by August. However, Embalo announced that the polls would take place in December. Umoja stated that no preparations were made to actually hold the elections, which were ultimately postponed to June 2023.

In the meantime, several attempts were made to prevent the PAIGC from holding its Congress, a necessary step for it to be able contest in the elections. “When the party finally held its congress, armed elements were sent in to try and scare us…Not only that, at the end of the congress, the decisions made have to be submitted to the court for an official judicial note to be made, even this process was delayed for a long time.”

The elections were also overseen by a CNE whose four-year-term had expired by April. The electoral body is elected by a permanent commission which includes the president as well as deputies of the NPA. “The expired CNE conducted the voter registration process which had several irregularities. People with voter registration cards, when they went to the polls, found out that their names were not on the voting lists,” Umoja said.

“Despite all this, the forces that had backed Embalo only received about 24 percent of the vote and this was quite a shock for them. In the lead up to the elections, the president had even made statements declaring that he would resign if the PAI-Terra Ranka was able to send more than 25 deputies to parliament.”

Embalo had also stated during the electoral campaign that he would not appoint Pereira as prime minister if he won the legislative elections.

While the election was held on June 4, it was not until June 12 that the final results were declared. It was only by the end of July that the NPA was formally inaugurated and August 13 for the new government.

The majority secured by the PAIGC-led PAI-Terra Ranka’s victory also put a stop to Embalo’s push for a constitutional reform that would have ended Guinea-Bissau’s semi-presidential system of government.

From austerity to inclusive development

At the crux of the hostile actions against the PAIGC, Umoja explained, lay the party’s socialist roots and the socio-economic agenda it was seeking to advance. Post the dissolution of parliament in 2022, “the government bowed down to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank”. “Over 1,000 health workers were laid off despite the fact that there are still areas in the country that do not have health centres and we have a shortage of doctors, nurses, and technicians. Even in the education sector, 3,400 teachers were laid off.”

As part of an agreement secured with the IMF in 2022, the government under Embalo had agreed to implement a hiring freeze in the public sector as well as constraints on the wage bill.

“Our policy has been to increase the number of health workers in Guinea-Bissau,” Umoja said. “We have a good relationship with Cuba, so we have medical schools throughout our country, and we also have a lot of our youth being trained in Venezuela, China, and other countries.

“We have also worked to make schooling free from age six up to the sixth grade. While hospitals used to be free, this changed under the structural adjustment programs which impose user fees on the public, we are still in the process of removing that starting with pregnant mothers and the elderly. At the national level as of now, patients do not have to pay for operations, consultancy or medicines while they are in the hospital.”

In November, the Cabinet announced the reinstatement of teachers and health workers who had been suspended by the government in September 2022.

With a population of approximately two million people, Guinea-Bissau is ranked among the poorest countries in the world. According to UN estimates, 64.4 percent of the population lives in multidimensional poverty, evaluated in terms of health, education, and standard of living. Nearly 70 percent of the population is unable to afford a nutritious diet on a daily basis.

In this context, the PAI-Terra Ranka government made the reduction of the prices of bread, rice, and fish as part of its emergency programme, to be implemented within its first 100 days in office.

Agriculture accounts for 45 percent of the country’s GDP, employing about 80 percent of the labour force. Within the sector, the production of a single crop, cashew, accounts for over 90 percent of Guinea-Bissau’s earnings from exports. As such, one of the priorities of the government has also been to ensure that the farmers get a good price for their produce, Umoja said, after a period of two years of low prices.

Importantly, he added that prior to the political crisis in 2022, the government had had a “struggle” with the IMF, wherein it refused a loan offer of US$ 22 million from the fund. Instead, the government held a roundtable meeting with development partners in which they were able to secure funding commitments up to US$ 1.5 billion.

In terms of infrastructural development, Umoja added that the government had made an agreement with Angola to extend US$ 500 million in credit for Bissau to develop its deep-water port and a railroad that would pass through Senegal to Mali. This is important in a situation where major ports in the region have been privatised, he noted.

“The majority of Mali’s imports come through Senegal. If we were to build our railroad and port, with a capacity to have four ships, each with a capacity to transport 240,000 square tonnes of goods, anchored at the same time, coupled with modern equipment that could speed up the loading and unloading process, it would be much cheaper for countries in the region to get their imports through Guinea-Bissau.”

Umoja explained: “This would mean that the economic situation would change not only in Guinea-Bissau but have a broader impact on the region as well and this is the red line, that we must not have the right to develop our own port unless we do it with the imperialist powers. If we wanted to make a deal with France, they would have approved it right away, but they also would have gotten most of the income from the port.”

Ecowas and changing dynamics in the region

On December 6, the Mediation and Security Council of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) held a meeting in Abuja, Nigeria. Among the recommendations made by the body to the meeting of the heads of state that was to be held shortly after, was to encourage “strong commitment and collaboration between President Embalo and the government led by Geraldo Martins” and restoration of the NPA.

It also called for steps for the gradual withdrawal of the Ecowas’ stabilisation mission (SSMGB) from the country.

These explicit recommendations were ultimately diluted, if not excluded, from the final communique of the summit of the heads of state. Not only that, the mandate of the SSMGB was renewed for one more year.

The SSMGB was deployed to Guinea-Bissau following what Embalo called a “coup attempt” in February 2022. However, doubts had remained as to whether what had happened was in fact a coup, with Pereira calling for an investigation. “They said at the time that about 20 people had been involved in the coup and heavy arms had been used. Videos from the government palace showed people shooting bazookas in the air, there were no bullet holes on the buildings…Two days later a radio station was attacked after which Ecowas authorised the mission.

“When Embalo was imposed upon the country, he knew that the people’s revolutionary forces were not with him,” Umoja said. “At the time, he even attempted to bring in soldiers from Senegal. Ultimately, under the plan to deploy the Ecowas stabilisation mission, at least 500 out of the 700 soldiers sent to Guinea-Bissau were from Senegal.”

Despite being deployed for the purposes of stabilisation, Umoja added that Ecowas forces did not take any action when the STJ’s headquarters were surrounded by armed men from the Security and Defence Force in early November. The Court’s president, José Pedro Sambú, was also confined to his house and subsequently resigned. Following this, the STJ began to make changes in the Magistrate Council, as well as the regional and sectoral courts, Umoja said.

Meanwhile, when fighting broke out on November 30, not only was Pereira not informed of the armed operation at the National Guard headquarters, members of the stabilisation mission who were supposed to stay with were reportedly also told to leave, he added.

Embalo’s ties with Senegalese president Macky Sall must be viewed in the context of growing public unrest in West Africa, particularly in French-speaking countries, against French colonialism and local elites deemed to have close ties with Paris, including in Senegal. Sall has held close ties with France. In 2022, French president Emmanuel Macron visited Guinea-Bissau to boost cooperation between the two countries.

Guinea-Bissau and Senegal are among countries in the region, alongside Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, who use the neocolonial CFA Franc currency.

“Macky Sall is the big brother of Embalo,” Umoja said, adding that the latter was derisively also referred to as “petit Macron” or “little Macron”. Senegal and Guinea-Bissau were also among countries who expressed support for the proposed Ecowas armed intervention in Niger, which was also backed by France.

In 2021, Embalo unilaterally signed the Joint Zone Exploration Agreement with Senegal, without the government’s knowledge. The deal which included provisions for resource-sharing would see Guinea-Bissau retain 30 percent of benefits from future hydrocarbon exploration in the common economic zone shared by the two countries while Senegal would have a share of 70 percent.

While Embalo denied the existence of the agreement, it was brought before Parliament and declared null and void.

French companies have historically enjoyed disproportionate control over the exploitation of natural resources in former colonies, including in Senegal. Umoja added that there were concerns over the control of exploitation of the resources of Guinea-Bissau, particularly petroleum which has not been commercially exploited yet.

During Embalo’s visit to France last week, President Emmanuel Macron called upon him to “quickly form a new government”.

While parliament is effectively unable to function in Guinea-Bissau, the country is also gearing up to hold presidential elections in 2024. “Despite all the cheating and the abuses of power, Embalo and his allies were still only able to secure 24 percent of the vote. And they know that with a PAI-Terra Ranka government they will not be able to carry out such abuses, which is why they are trying these drastic measures,” Umoja said.

“But this will not stand, the people are determined.” The PAIGC has also joined hands with progressive forces in the region to form the anti-imperialist West Africa Peoples’ Organisation.

Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch and is based in Delhi

This article was published on Peoples Dispatch