Guinea-Bissau: ‘They wanted to kill the president,’ says head of state Umaro Sissoco Embaló

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 12:08

Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embaló on 20 January 2022 during the ceremony in honour of Amilcar Cabral. © DR / Guinea-Bissau Presidency

On the evening of 1 February, Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embaló stated that the situation was now under control. However, the precise course of events remains uncertain, as does the identity of the men who tried to overthrow the government.

After a tense and confusing day, Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embaló told us that he was safe and that “the situation was under control.” Explaining that he had moved into the presidential palace in the early evening of 1 February, he added that the heavy shooting had lasted five hours, that it was “the work of isolated elements” and that there had been serious injuries and “many deaths.”

In a statement to the Guinea-Bissau press, which he also made that same evening, he said: “The assailants could have spoken to me before these bloody events.” Surrounded by the prime minister, the deputy prime minister and the minister of justice, Embaló serenely thanked the defence and security forces for having defeated the coup and denounced “a prepared and organised act.”

Translation: I am fine, Alhamdoulillah. The situation is under government control. I wish to express my gratitude to the people of Guinea Bissau and all the people outside our country who were concerned about my government and me. Long live the Republic and may God watch over Guinea Bissau.

Instead of clearly identifying the perpetrators of this coup attempt, which was immediately condemned by the international community, he attributed it to the “decisions [he has] made, especially [with regard to] fighting against drug trafficking and corruption.”

He also said: “This is not just a coup attempt because they also wanted to kill the president of the Republic and the whole cabinet.”

Heavy gunfire throughout the afternoon

According to various accounts, gunmen entered the government palace complex – which houses the various ministries on the outskirts of Bissau, the capital, near the airport – in the early afternoon of 1 February. An extraordinary council of ministers was due to be held there in the presence of the President and prime minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam. Some witnesses described the men as military personnel, others as civilians.

Heavy gunfire was heard for much of the afternoon. Heavily armed men surrounded the compound, although it was not clear whether they were mutineers or forces loyal to the government. What happened next inside the palace remains unclear, as does the identity of the perpetrators of the coup. Furthermore, no reliable death toll has yet been given.

Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, immediately called on Tuesday for an end to the fighting in Bissau and “full respect for the country’s democratic institutions.” Ecowas also condemned, in a statement published on social media, what it considers an “attempted coup” and asked the military to “return to their barracks.” The African Union said it was following the situation “with great concern.”

Four putsches and a string of coup attempts

These events come less than a week after a ministerial reshuffle took place on 24 January in which Albert Malu, the secretary of state for public order, was dismissed. He was at the forefront of the conflict between the government and the President over an Airbus A340 that had come from Banjul with presidential approval. The prime minister had initially said that the plane was carrying suspicious cargo and had entered the country illegally, but later retracted his statement.

Since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974, Guinea-Bissau has experienced four putsches (the last in 2012), a string of attempted coups and a succession of governments.

In 2014, although it was making attempts to return to constitutional order, the country was experiencing repeated turmoil, but without violence. The country suffers from endemic corruption, as it has long been considered a hub for cocaine trafficking between Latin America and Europe, and the armed forces play a prominent role.

Embaló, who was elected at the very end of 2019 in an election whose outcome is still being contested by the Parti Africain pour l’Indépendence de la Guinée et du Cap-Vert (PAIGC), is himself a former general, who succeeded José Mario Vaz.

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