GUINEA-BISSAU: Cautious optimism ahead of parliamentary poll

Saturday, November 15, 2008

UN and other international observers say they are cautiously optimistic ahead of Guinea-Bissau’s parliamentary elections set for 16 November, while some citizens fear violence in the country long plagued by unrest.

The breakdown of a national stability pact only four months ago -- followed by the dissolution of parliament -- sparked concern that the political situation might be too fragile for elections.

Shola Omoregie, special representative to the UN Secretary General and head of the UN Peacebuilding Support Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNOGBIS), told IRIN he hopes for an orderly vote. “We have appealed to political parties to maintain peace and security and if, after the ballot, the parties have a complaint, to go through the normal channels and not to take the law into their own hands.”

Up to 150 observers from the European Union (EU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA) will monitor the elections, with the national independent electoral commission collating the results.

The EU, UNOGBIS, UN Development Programme and the UK government have helped fund extra police units at polling stations and have run civic education campaigns to encourage people to vote.

A July 2008 report by the International Crisis Group identified several risks to Guinea-Bissau’s stability including the military’s stronghold over politics, a tendency for the individual agendas of the political elite to dictate policy, and the widening net of criminal networks that have turned the country into a drug-trafficking hub.

Corruption concerns

Ex-President Koumba Yala, president of the opposition Party for Social Reform (PRS), has accused President Joao Bernardo Vieira of buying votes in favour of the Republican Party for Independence and Development, led by Vieira's former prime minister, Aristide Gomes.

One election monitor who wished to remain anonymous told IRIN that such assertions could not be substantiated.

Bissau-based journalist, Fernando Nhaga, told IRIN most political parties in recent weeks have issued public statements against the use of drug money to finance electoral campaigns and buy political favour.

Some residents of the capital Bissau hold out little hope for a transparent election. Sira Mane, a housekeeper, told IRIN: “I don’t even know who to choose anymore to lead this country. All the moreso because all of Guinea-Bissau’s politicians are corrupt. The same ones leave power and then come back into power."

Guinea-Bissau ranked in the bottom 20 of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2008 study measuring perceptions of corruption.

Unrest fears

In March 2007 the three leading political parties -- the PRS, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), and the United Social Democratic Party (PUSD) -- signed a power-sharing pact, which many hoped would bring stability. But in July 2008 the PAIGC pulled out of the agreement.

President Vieira dissolved parliament on 5 August replacing Prime Minister Martinho Ndafa Cabi of the PAIGC with Carlos Correia.

Some citizens fear the upcoming elections could lead to violence in the capital.

Marta Lopez, who lives in Bissau, said: “I’m scared that there’ll be more clashes. That’s why I’ve already taken my children to Bula, 30km north of Bissau, just in case.”

In the past elections in Guinea-Bissau have been marred by deadly clashes.

The UN mission's Omoregie said of the 16 November poll: "We’re not worried about violence or tension but we still have to be on the alert.”


Many say whatever the outcome of the parliamentary election, the country needs political compromise. Former agriculture minister, Mamadou Badji, said: “The party which governs the country after the 16 November ballot will have to form another political coalition.”

Journalist Nhaga said the country cannot afford to have political partnerships fail again. “Those in charge must prove they are politically and institutionally mature to avoid another political crisis which will leave this country totally adrift.”

The head of the UN in Guinea-Bissau, Giuseppina Mazza, warned that even if the elections are a success, they are but the first step in a long process. "Elections should not be seen as isolated events…Once elections are over we have to look at what worked and what didn’t, and look towards the presidential elections in 2010. The democratic process is a long-term job.”