Dr Elisabete Azevedo-Harman
Former Chatham House Expert

Guineans should have cast ballots on 24 November, but elections have once again been postponed until 16 March 2014. This is an opportune moment for the international community to engage with Guinea-Bissau.

Seventeen months have passed since the last coup and thankfully elections in Guinea-Bissau look likely in March 2014. The most recent postponement was partially justified, purportedly due to a lack of funding, which now seems to have been resolved with contributions from Nigeria and East Timor.

This tiny West African country rarely attracts international attention, except as a transit route for drug trafficking between Latin America, the United States and Europe.

Yet it is this relative international indifference that has contributed to the country becoming an attractive hub for transnational organized crime, including narcotics and people trafficking and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, as state institutions have been hollowed out. Many now really exist in name only.

A cycle of elections followed by coups since the first multiparty elections in 1994 has earned the country a poor reputation and there is little patience for its turbulent domestic politics.

Time for sustained international engagement

If fragile Guinea-Bissau’s descent into state failure is to be checked, this is the time for the international community to step up to the plate. Elections are only one part of a wider framework of support required, as part of state-building and security reform.

The international community was badly divided over how to respond after the latest coup in April 2012. A key disagreement was between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP). Nigeria led the ECOWAS strategy and Angola played the lead CPLP role – resulting at times in rivalry.

Guinea-Bissau’s conflicting leaders manipulated this division to their advantage, resulting in a civil transitional government that was a tactical pawn used by both sides in their politicking.

All international players need to be cautious to avoid becoming too deeply embroiled in local elite Bissau political games and learn from past mistakes.

Significance of military and security sector reform

Guinea-Bissau obtained independence in 1974 after a bloody anti-colonial war that ended with the Portuguese military limited to the towns. The Bissau military has therefore always enjoyed special recognition and popular affection.

In 1998, the Guinea-Bissau army defeated troops from Senegal and Guinea (Conakry), who had been called on for assistance by then-President João Bernardo Vieira. The population reacted against the presence of the foreign forces and welcomed the success of their army, enhancing the military’s standing, and putting them above reproach, without need for reform.

However, respect for the military has significantly declined in recent years. And the Bissau military is now facing the worst crisis in its history, with allegations that key officials are involved in international organized crime. The military is perceived as a major contributor to Bissau’s current crisis and is widely feared and hated. In April 2012, youths demonstrated against the military, shouting slogans such as ‘Go away thieves’.

It is this, as well as other opportunities and positives, such as the absence of any ethnicity-based conflict among the diverse population, upon which the international community must now capitalize.

Although the military has clearly been part of the problem, it will need to play an important role in supporting the electoral process and its results, and in the rebuilding of Guinea-Bissau. After the March 2014 elections, lessons from past failed attempts to reform the military will need to be applied in much needed security sector reform, including cutting the size of the military.

Guinea-Bissau is not yet a failed state. Though its institutions are eroded, elections provide an opportune moment for the international community to thoughtfully engage, applying learning and experience. Lack of action would only mean a far more costly and complex intervention down the line.