GUINEA-BISSAU: Military reform more important than ever

Friday, March 6, 2009

Reforming Guinea-Bissau’s army and police units is now more pressing than ever to avoid instability say UN officials and government representatives.

“There are two paramount issues that the new government must now take forward: to hold elections in 60 days, and to go ahead with security sector reform,” said Vladimir Montero, spokesperson for the UN Peace Building support office.

Interim President Raimundo Pereira, sworn in on 2 March, agreed to pursue security sector reform at a 4 March meeting with regional foreign affairs ministers, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Executive Secretary of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) and UN Special Representative to the Secretary General, Joseph Mutaboba, according to Montero.

Reform initiatives involve streamlining and modernising the country’s army, police units, air force, navy and judiciary, with support from the European Union and the UN Peace Building Support Office (UNOGBIS). Central to the reform process is cutting the country’s oversized army in half to 2,500.

Censuses for the army, police and justice sector are the first step, according to Montero, with the army census just completed. To boost morale among police and military forces- prone to strike over wages and work conditions  - UNOGBIS is rehabilitating civilian prisons, and army barracks. Additional plans include the demobilisation and redeployment of war veterans and overhauling the social security system for soldiers and police officers.

"We will continue an open dialogue with the military in order to restore peace and stability in the country," announced Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior following a meeting with Pereira on 5 March.

“If anything this crisis means the UN’s work in Guinea-Bissau must be accelerated…the stability of Guinea-Bissau is vital for the stability of the whole region,” said Giuseppina Mazza, UN resident representative in Bissau.

The government lacks much of the originally budgeted $183 million to carry out needed reforms, according to UNOGBIS.


But Dakar-based political analyst Babacar Justin Ndiaye told IRIN the recent killings of President João Bernardo Vieira and Army Chief of Staff Tagme Na Wai could stymie the reform agenda. “The military reform project will be very difficult now because the army will not want to let go of power. Military forces represent the true centre of decision-making in Guinea-Bissau.”

He added: “Pereira’s ability to take decisions is limited in the run-up to elections, which should take place within 60 days by constitutional rules.”

The military has pledged to respect the constitution, according to a 3 March statement.

Representatives from ECOWAS, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), African Union, and the UN have joined diplomats from around the world in commending the Guinea-Bissauan civilian and military authorities for respecting the country’s constitution.

Delegations from ECOWAS, the CPLP, and ministers from the region have travelled to Guinea Bissau to discuss next steps with government and military authorities.

But according to a commentary on recent events by David Zounmenou, senior researcher with the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, this week’s violence “exposes the precarious socio-political environment in Guinea Bissau with an army fractured around factions, each aligned behind political leaders and prepared to go to the extremes to preserve interests.”

Internal rivalry within the army could reignite armed conflict, Zounmenou wrote.

“The problem with the reform agenda to date is [actors] have applied bureaucratic logic to a political problem,” said Richard Moncrieff, West Africa director of think-tank, International Crisis Group. “This [approach] never got to the heart of the problem. People at the top are prepared to use violence to settle political scores, and until that is sorted out, the rest is just playing around the edges.”

But a high-level UN official who asked to go unnamed told IRIN: “To an extent, the recent events might smooth out the security sector restructuring process, providing new interlocutors who want to facilitate and speed up reform.”