Solving the crisis is another story. Aristides Gomes
Two years, eight months and six prime ministers after the start of Guinea-Bissau’s latest political deadlock, veteran politician Aristides Gomes’ appointment as prime minister was hailed as a breakthrough. In April, Gomes brought together the country’s main parties to form a government. His days are already numbered, and he is due to step down in November after organising the next round of legislative elections. Six months in office will, by his admission, be too short to solve many of the issues holding the country back.
The road ahead is steep. There is the political crisis that has gripped the country since 2015 due to infighting between President José Mário Vaz and his political party, the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). Regular power and water cuts have sent young people protesting onto the streets of Bissau. The government has increased the price of cashews, the country’s main export, discouraging buyers and leaving producers with tonnes of unsold nuts. In addition, the country was dubbed a narco-state – a transit point for cocaine going from South America to Europe – several years ago and has struggled to shake off the mantle.
Gomes says his absolute priority will be to organise elections, which are set to take place on 18 November. For a figure meant to reconcile old foes and push the country forward, Gomes is uncharacteristically cynical about the prospect of reconciliation. “Elections are great, and we’ll do everything to make them happen on time,” he tells The Africa Report, “but solving the crisis, that’s another story.”
Gomes’ predecessors struggled to get the support of both President Vaz and the PAIGC, which has been marred by divisions. Former prime minister Domingos Simões Pereira heads the PAIGC wing that has been quarreling with Vaz and vetoed the nomination of Augusto Antonio Artur da Silva in February. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been mediating the Guinea-Bissau conflict and came up with the Conakry Accord in 2016 as a roadmap out of the political stalemate. ECOWAS imposed a round of travel and other sanctions on some of Vaz’s supporters after this last attempt to select a premier who did not have the backing of a wide political consensus.
Gomes’ 40-year political career mirrors the country’s troubled quest for stability since independence: at 17, he left school before graduating and joined the PAIGC, enrolling in the army to fight for national liberation. He went on to be a member of parliament, party leader and a minister in several governments. In 2005, President João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira chose him as his prime minister in a controversial appointment after Gomes defected from the ruling party. Gomes formed his own party, the Partido Republicano para a Independência e Desenvolvimento, three years later.
During Gomes’ political career, Guinea-Bissau witnessed military coups, a civil war and assassinations at the highest level of government. When President Vieira was murdered in his home in 2009 in an apparent revenge killing just hours after a bomb killed an army chief, Gomes left the country and settled in France. Guinea-Bissau’s semi-presidential system, in which the president and the prime minister have overlapping duties, means that continued political instability is likely.
Race against time
The elections planned for November come with their own set of challenges. Voter registration is supposed to start in June, but a lack of funding has so far prevented the buying of the necessary equipment. The government has provided some funds for the effort, but expected international funding is still lacking. “We have to work fast,” Gomes says. It is a race against time: the rainy season also starts in June, making travel difficult in remote parts of the country.
No matter the result of the November legislative vote and the presidential race due in 2019, divisions will run deep due to the high stakes. “What is dividing us is that we live in a poor country where the state creates jobs and there is no strong civil society. So people do politics to try and make a living,” Gomes explains.
Gomes says he is up against the expectation that a high-level political post comes with opportunities for personal enrichment. “The fact that the main political parties are sharing government positions does not discourage predation,” he adds. “The struggle for government positions revolves around ministries with a lot of funding, ministries in charge of public enterprises, development projects. This is a source of conflict and instability.”
Like many of his fellow politicians, Gomes is a member of the generation of 60-year-olds who have a firm grip on the country’s affairs. He says he is convinced his various stints in government give him unparalleled insights into Guinea-Bissau’s problems, while his short mandate allows him the bold moves required to begin to solve them.
“You can’t fight corruption efficiently in six months,” Gomes confirms, but he is trying to slow it down nonetheless. He also holds the post of minister of the economy and finances, and froze the spending of all public companies days after taking office in a move designed to return to “financial morality”. State-owned companies are now required to manage their accounts jointly with the treasury. “The aim is political stability,” the 63-year-old prime minister says.
Fresh start stalled
During the political crisis, parliament did not meet for almost three years. Since 2015, not a single school year has been completed, and social services such as education and health are collapsing. The government abandoned the Terra Ranka – meaning “fresh start” in Creole – development plan due to political in-fighting after a donor conference in 2015.
Experts say drug trafficking has significantly decreased since the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s arrest of former navy chief José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto. But the country is not equipped to fight international smugglers. In three months in 2018, the authorities seized more cocaine than in the whole of 2017, but most seizures have been small and at the airport. The bulk of the trade is still said to pass through the Bissagos islands, reaching the mainland in small boats. There is only one drug-testing laboratory in the country and no force patrolling the waters to fight drug trafficking.
Tackling those gargantuan challenges will mostly be left to Gomes’ successor. While planning to stay involved with the PAIGC, which he has spent most of his career with, the former researcher and professor is not considering running for election – at least not imminently: “I’ve been away from active politics for a decade. For now, I think I’ll stick to that.”
Photo: Aristides Gomes, Prime minister, Guinea-Bissau – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
From the July-August 2018 print edition