Posted on Monday, 23 November 2015 10:00

Guinea-Bissau Country Profile 2015: Change for the better at last?

By The Africa Report

altFormer finance minister José Mário Vaz won a convincing victory in the second round of the presidential polls in May 2014 and now has a serious and long list of priority areas to address.

He has started to reform a military prone to launching coups and will look to improve agricultural production and the country's relations with international donors.

As he is set to take on undisciplined soldiers and their allies in the drug trade, his tenure in office could be a bumpy one.
Vaz took 62% of the vote against his main rival Nuno Gomes Nabiam, who ran as an independent.

Concurrently with the first presidential round on 13 April, the ruling Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) obtained an absolute majority in parliament, taking 55 of 102 seats.

In many ways, winning the presidency was the easier battle: Vaz first had to see off his main rival within the PAIGC, former prime minister Carlos Gomes Júnior, whose certain election as president was thwarted by a coup in April 2012. Vaz has since succeeded in uniting the ruling party.

Weak institutions

Guinea-Bissau's political system has deep and structural problems. The opaque origins of party finance hint at layers of corruption.

Another problem is the extreme weakness of vital national institutions, particularly the judicial system. With his immediate predecessors – and adversaries – out of the way, President Vaz is confident that he is in a good position to address structural issues, even though he is keenly aware that the army is unlikely to give up its prominence and prerogatives without a fight.

With a reputation of being an efficient technocrat, he is trying to relaunch the economy, which contracted by 5% after the coup and by 2% in 2013.

altProduction of cashews, the country's main export, declined steeply during the crisis and smuggling is on the rise due to high government levies. Problems in the agriculture sector have also led to high rates of non-performing loans.

An International Monetary Fund mission visited Bissau in September 2014 and is expected to extend a facility to the government that should enable it to improve fiscal revenue and present a credible budget for 2015.

Signalling his intention to touch the untouchables, Vaz fired army chief of staff General António Indjai on 16 September 2014. General Biague Na N'Tan, Indjai's successor, declared that his priorities are reorganising the army, rendering it subservient to the political process and training new recruits.

Indjai was the instigator of the April 2012 coup and is wanted by the US for charges related to the narcotics trade.

Army reform

The army is top heavy, considers itself the midwife of national independence in 1974 and has frequently interfered in civilian politics. Carving an economic niche for itself, it has been facilitating logistical support for Venezuelan and Colombian drugs barons.

Army reform will deal with recruitment practices which ease relatives of high-ranking officers into its ranks. This results in the domination of the military by one of the country's ethnic groups, the Balanta, who form 27% of the population but constitute three-quarters of the armed forces.

In April 2014, former president Kumba Yala, himself a Balanta whose divisive politics contributed much to Guinea-Bissau's violent polarisation, hinted at dark consequences should his candidate, Nabiam, not win. It was to be his last political stand: on 4 April, Kumba Yala died.

The Economic Community of West African States has congratulated itself on having brought Guinea-Bissau's post-coup transition to an end. Its 750 soldiers helped secure the peaceful elections, bringing the country back into the regional fold.

Relations with Senegal will remain crucial, especially now that the Senegalese government is seeking to end the crisis in the Casamance region, which borders Guinea-Bissau.

Aid to the government from Europe and the US will remain vital in 2015. China, having already completed the construction or reconstruction of a large number of public buildings, is expected to continue providing support to the new government. Angola is set to strengthen its role after temporarily losing ground following the 2012 coup.

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