You must enable JavaScript to view this site.
This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Review our legal notice and privacy policy for more details.
Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Guinea-Bissau > Guinea-Bissau: In Need of a State

Guinea-Bissau: In Need of a State

Africa Report N°142 2 Jul 2008


Guinea-Bissau needs a state. Its political and administrative structures are insufficient to guarantee control of its territory, assure minimum public services or counter-balance the army’s dominance. This core weakness has been at the root of recurrent political crises, coups d’etat and the proliferation of criminal networks. Despite advancing little in 35 years of independence, Guinea-Bissau appears to have gained new momentum thanks to the signing of a Stability Pact by the three most important political parties in March 2007. Nevertheless, there is real risk of it becoming a narco-state and a political and administrative no-man’s-land, attractive to trafficking and terrorist networks in the Maghreb. The international community should urgently support the government’s efforts to consolidate democracy, reform the security sector and construct viable state structures.

In Portuguese Guinea the colonial power never built the political, administrative or bureaucratic systems capable of establishing the foundations from which a true post-colonial state could emerge. Salazar’s Portugal refused to grant independence, forcing Guinea-Bissau to fight for self-rule – the only country in the region to gain independence through armed force. No leader since 1974 has tried to establish the necessary structures for a functioning democratic state. Consequently, the country’s infrastructure, bureaucracy, administration, political institutions and human- and social-development indexes remain largely unaltered since the first years of independence.

The first coup d’etat after six years of independence, was a direct result of nepotism and a client-based power structure created by the sole political party. This remained the model of reference for future leaders. The first, Bernardo Joao Vieira, kept power for almost twenty years by incorporating the army into his survival strategy. After his fall and civil war (1998-1999), the transition to democratic rule finally broke down due to the army’s influence. Vieira’s elected successor, Kumba Yala, also relied heavily on the army, until it overthrew him in 2003. Vieira’s return secured the army’s political control. Presently, the movement towards greater reform and democracy, fuelled by the Stability Pact and promoted by the government of Martinho Ndafa Cabi, faces the same military resistance and is hampered by the continued absence of functioning political and administrative institutions.

The creation of a democratic state is increasingly urgent as the risk of criminalisation is growing. Cocaine trafficking from Latin America has increased tremendously in recent years, and the country has become a pivotal transit point in the route to European markets. Hundreds of kilograms of the drug are estimated to pass through each week. Revenue from the illicit trade has already corrupted military leaders and political personalities, threatening the democratic process.  

Fundamental changes to the way in which the country is run are required. Above all, army reform is needed most urgently to free the political system from military interference. The stakes are considerable both for the country and the West African region, already touched by repeated political crises (Guinea) and drawn-out peace-consolidation processes (Sierra Leone, Liberia).

The international community has taken tentative steps to lend its assistance. A program of reforms addressing major security sector and public administration challenges was adopted in 2007 and, at the request of the prime minister, the country was added to the agenda of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commision (PBC). However, for these steps to have tangible results for the people of Guinea-Bissau, foreign partners must galvanise their efforts and seize this real opportunity for success.

Dakar/Brussels, 2 July 2008

This page in: