“Government instability in Guinea-Bissau has left economic and social institutions perilously weak. As a result, Guinea-Bissau remains a low-income country, with a nearly 70% poverty rate in 2010, a meagre GDP per capita of USD573, and an annual growth rate in decline.”
Since its handover to civilian rule in 2014, Guinea-Bissau has undergone no less than five changes in government; and no prime minister has lasted more than a few consecutive months. Domingos Simões Pereira was prime minister from mid-2014 till August 2015, after which Baciro Djá took over for a mere two months from August till September 2015. This was followed by Carlos Correia from September 2015 until May 2016; Baciro Djá then returned from May 2016 till November 2016. Since November 2016, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, remains the current prime minister.
These constant changes in the prime minister are the most visible sign of Guinea-Bissau’s governmental instability. Often negative, one of the consequences are that this level of instability signals, to both domestic and international audiences, that political institutions may not be capable of carrying out significant tasks, given their short terms in office. At the more structural level, government instability in Guinea-Bissau has left economic and social institutions perilously weak. As a result, Guinea-Bissau remains a low-income country, with a nearly 70% poverty rate in 2010, a meagre GDP per capita of USD573, and an annual growth rate in decline.
With the military now politically neutralized, the old presidential politics, based on increasing both the real and symbolic powers of the president, has become the dominant, if not the only, game in town.
Despite the seemingly constant re-arrangements to Guinea-Bissau’s government, there has remained an overwhelming continuity in the institution of the country’s presidency. Since the country’s independence in 1974, the president has wielded both a de facto and de jure status as the significant political player over which no other power centres, except the military, have had any control. Indeed, it is the outsized strength of the presidency in Guinea-Bissau that largely explains the instability that accompanies those institutions of government whose powers have been made almost redundant, and grossly dependent on what the president favours. Unfortunately, it is the people of Guinea-Bissau who are losing out the most.
Revolutionary History and the Creation of Crony Presidentialism
Guinea-Bissau was the first sub-Saharan African state to gain its national independence as the direct outcome of an armed liberation struggle. In January 1973, Guinea-Bissau began an intense anti-colonial military campaign against the rather archaic, and ultra-colonialist, regime of Portugal’s António Salazar. Just a few months later, in September 1973, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cabo Verde (PAIGC) unilaterally declared the country’s independence. In the few months that followed, more than eighty foreign states and international organizations recognised Guinea-Bissau as an independent state.
In a sense, Guinea-Bissau proved to be the ending of the Portuguese Empire. Guinea-Bissau’s liberation struggle eventually led to the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon, and to the subsequent collapse of five hundred years of Portuguese presence in Africa. For Guinea-Bissau, the impact was also revolutionary. At a time when Afro-pessimism had begun to emerge in the mid 1970s, many Africans saw Guinea-Bissau as paving a new post-colonial way for Africa’s prosperity; but this was not to be.
control of the state has become a merely economic enterprise for the political class.
Following national independence, the gap widened between the political discourse espoused by the PAIGC and its political practice. Despite its socialist leanings, the PAIGC simply reinvented itself and the political elite as the new dominant class. As part of the generation that fought for independence in Guinea-Bissau, director Flora Gomes’ film provides insightful understanding of the disillusionment this ideological betrayal generated in the post-revolutionary life of many Bissau-Guineans.
The November 14, 1980 coup d’état was the ultimate consequence of the internal power struggles that had been going on within the PAIGC. The coup was led by then prime minister and war veteran, Nino Vieira, who feared being out-played by Luiz Cabral—the country’s then president.
By the end of the coup, Vieira would become more like Guinea-Bissau’s supreme leader rather than simply its president. Nino Vieira’s rule was a strong and uncontrollable form of presidentialism, with an ever increasing number of powers being concentrated in his leadership. The Presidential Palace, as such, became the epicenter of politics in Guinea-Bissau.
Since the country’s independence in 1974, the president has wielded both a de facto and de jure status as the significant political player over which no other power centres, except the military, have had any control.
It is not inevitable that a political system in which a president is popularly elected should excessively concentrate powers in the hands of the president, and at the expense of the other branches of government. Indeed, many presidential systems do manage to pull off this balance. In Guinea-Bissau, however, this was not the case. Nino Vieira was not the first to try his hand at this type of unbalanced presidentialism. Luis Cabral, Vieira’s predecessor, also exercised power in a manner that skewed the balance of governmental power in favour of the president’s office. In fact, on November 14, 1980, the coup d’état Vieira staged against Cabral was the result of Cabral’s own machinations that aimed to tilt power in favour of the presidency. It is ironic then that Nino Vieira would be the one to take an already unbalanced presidentialism another step further by extending the president’s de jure and de facto powers.
In the 1980s, politics became a zero-sum game and those perceived as a threat to the president’s power, whether real or imagined, found themselves in precarious positions. The situation was exemplified by Paulo Correia, Vieira’s vice-president, who was executed after being accused of plotting against the president.
the state in Guinea-Bissau now serves an essentially predatory function
Vieira’s presidentialism eventually developed into patrimonial cronyism, and it became difficult to trace the dividing line between the public and private spheres. The state became a source for furnishing the president’s private resources, and loyalty to the president came with material rewards. As a result, the connection between the state and the rest of society became ever smaller.
It was no surprise, then, that multi-party democracy did not reach Guinea-Bissau till some five years after it had touched other states in West Africa. The first multi-party general elections were held in 1994. By then, Vieira had learned from other states where elections had resulted in defeat for the incumbent party. Nino Vieira and the PAIGC easily won the presidential and legislative elections; and a superficial electoral democracy failed to reverse Vieira’s brand of crony presidentialism.
By the end of the 1990s, presidentialism had grown so strong that it could only be challenged by militarism. The power disputes that had, in the past, always existed between the civilian institutions of the presidency, the vice-president’s office and that of the prime minister, had now descended to a situation that faced the president off against the military.
the outsized strength of the presidency in Guinea-Bissau explains the instability that accompanies those institutions of government whose powers have been made almost redundant, and grossly dependent on what the president favours. Unfortunately, it is the people of Guinea-Bissau who are losing out the most.
Given the tense relations between the military and the president, the eruption of a nearly year-long civil war in June 1998 was perhaps inevitable. The war forced Nino Vieira from power and out of the country in 1999. The post-conflict elections of 28th November, 1999 resulted in the electoral demise of the PAIGC and the rise of the socialist politician Kumba Ialá and his political party, the Social Renewal Party (PRS).
Iala’s presidency was comparatively short-lived and was ended by military coup in September 2003. In 2005, Vieira returned home and made a successful bid for president. But old conflicts with the military re-emerged and ultimately cost Vieira his life. Vieira was assassinated by soldiers on March 2, 2009. A few months later, Malam Bacai Sanhá of the PAIGC won newly-held presidential elections. Sanhá died while in power; and again, the military staged another coup d’état in April 2012. Guinea-Bissau remained under military control for another two years.
Guinea-Bissau was eventually returned to civilian-rule in 2014, as political and corruption scandals involving the military forced them back into the barracks. General elections were held in 2014, after which José Mário Vaz, known popularly as Jomav, became the new president and placed the PAIGC back in power. The now well-known crony presidential tendencies that were started by Nino Vieira have also returned.
Explaining Governmental Instability
One of the few real checks to the power of the president had been the military; but with the military now politically neutralized, the old presidential politics, based on increasing both the real and symbolic powers of the president, has become the dominant, if not the only, game in town. As a result, constant changes to the prime-minister have become almost inevitable as those who occupy this office find time and time again that they have very few, if any, powers.
The constant changes to the prime minister and to the members of cabinet in Guinea-Bissau have meant that, on one hand, there is a non-stop political weakening of the prime ministerial office; and on the other, presidential powers are magnified by the same extent to which power is decreased in the other offices of government. The message to the political class is that the president’s office does not accept any other political institutions as equal to itself, and certainly does not accept any authority in the country as superior to its own.
The state in Guinea-Bissau now serves an essentially predatory function; and is little more than a tool that is exploited by the political elite for its own private accumulation of capital—control of the state has become a merely economic enterprise for the political class. Guinea-Bissau’s persistent governmental instability is a reflection not only of this dismal state of affairs, it is further a reflection of the nearly complete disconnection between the state and its people for whom a superficial electoral democracy has yet to produce any real power.
Abel Djassi Amado is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons College, Boston. He is a regular contributor to Political Matter.