Will There Be a Coup in Guinea-Bissau?

Written by: Cooper Stewart

On the Atlantic coast of West Africa, in a country a little larger than Vermont, a constitutional crisis of leadership is occurring. The crisis has left analysts and experts around the globe apprehensive about the possibility of a coup if the current political tensions do not abate. This is the situation of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in West Africa that the post-colonial era has not treated kindly. It sits amongst the lowest 20 countries for per capita GDP globally and is infamously known as a “narco-state” that serves as an intermediary for drug traffickers moving illicit substances from South America to Europe. But perhaps the most disheartening fact about Guinea-Bissau lies in the political arena, given that 20 coups have occurred or have been attempted since 1976. Guinea-Bissau remains one of the most politically unstable nations in the world, severely hampering its economic growth.

Ironically, Guinea-Bissau’s latest political crisis was born out of one of their greatest political achievements. In December of 2019, underdog presidential candidate Umaro Embalo of the opposition Madem G15 party won the runoff election against the ruling party’s candidate, Domingos Pereira, in an election that was described as “transparent and free” by international observers. This was presumed to be a major step forward for democracy in Guinea-Bissau and correlated with the recent upward trend of the nation. Its GDP per capita, though still low, had more than doubled over the previous two decades.  

Despite this progress, the ruling party that holds a majority of the seats in the nation’s parliament, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), alleged that the election was rife with “fraud and misdeeds” and was therefore illegitimate. Since December, chaos and tensions have reigned, with both sides having inaugurated their presidents. The military has effectively shut down the state-run media while physically intervening in the Supreme Court after the PAIGC launched multiple lawsuits to challenge the election results. Cipriano Cassamaá, the interim president put into place by parliament following the election, withdrew from his office due to death threats. Meanwhile, the military is alleged to have attempted to force current prime minister Aristedes Gomes to accept the appointment of a new prime minister. So far, he has refused to resign from his post to make room for Embalo’s appointment. 

Although tensions are still running high between Embalo and PAIGC, I do not believe that the behavior of Embalo or the military means that a coup is taking place or will take place. Embalo is the undisputed president of Guinea-Bissau’s government because he received the majority of the votes in the election in December, an election that was verified by outside observers to be legitimate. This demonstrates that Embalo’s leadership possesses both internal and external legitimacy. Furthermore, while militaries in many African countries have tended to act in accordance with undemocratic interests, the military of Guinea-Bissau is justifiable in confronting those who are unwilling to accept election results. On the surface, for example, it may appear questionable for the military to occupy the Supreme Court. However, given that they only decided to occupy the Supreme Court after the PAIGC had challenged the election results for the third time to prevent Embalo’s administration from taking office, the action was largely justified in an attempt to prevent PAIGC from delegitimizing the results. In regards to the other measures taken by the military to force out officials who are refusing to leave their cabinet positions, the military’s actions are again justified because they are enforcing the will of the people by taking measures to allow Embalo’s administration to begin its governmental duties. In conclusion, while the military’s actions may cause a stir amongst the international community who believe this could result in a coup in a place where coups have been extremely common, the military is wholly justified in its actions to ensure that a certified democratically elected leader is allowed to govern and that those who would prevent it are removed from their posts.

Guinea-Bissau is not out of the woods yet. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decreed that Embalo’s inauguration was “outside of the law,” and the U.N. has called for “mediation” between the two sides. That said, the situation appears to be deescalating, albeit slowly. Ultimately, the fact that Guinea-Bissau’s military has taken the side of the majority of voters is refreshing and comforting given Guinea-Bissau’s prior political instability.