Can Guinea-Bissau’s leader keep another coup at bay?

FILE PHOTO: Guinea Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embalo attends a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin following the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, July 29, 2023. Sergei Bobylyov/TASS Host Photo Agency via REUTERS/File photo

On Thursday and Friday, clashes erupted in Bissau between the National Guard and the special forces of the presidential guard. The violence ensued after National Guard soldiers liberated two high-ranking government officials who were under investigation for corruption. The fights resulted in at least two fatalities.

President Umaro Sissoco Embalo, who was in Dubai attending the COP28 climate conference, returned to Bissau on Saturday. He asserted that an attempted coup d’etat had impeded his return.

The Arguments

Embalo, accusing the National Guard of trying to remove him, dissolved the Parliament which was predominantly opposition-controlled on Monday. A presidential decree communicated to the press states that the date for the next legislative elections will be determined at the appropriate time, in accordance with the Constitution.

President Embalo alleges complicity between the National Guard, involved in the clashes with his Guard, and “certain political interests within the state apparatus.” He claims that due to this attempted coup d’état and evidence of political complicity, the normal functioning of the Republic’s institutions has become impossible, confirming a serious political crisis.

National Guard members entered the judicial police premises to extract the Minister of Economy and Finance and the Secretary of State for the Public Treasury, who were being questioned. They later took refuge in a military camp in the capital, Bissau, resisting with arms until Friday morning. The clashes highlight deep political divisions between the presidency, government, and security forces.

In the presidential decree, Embalo criticizes the government’s passivity in response to events, alleging that the National Guard aimed to obstruct investigations into the members of the government. The detained officials were questioned about a ten-million-dollar withdrawal from state coffers, a matter previously discussed in Parliament.

Embalo accuses Parliament of prioritizing the defence of suspected corrupt executive members over upholding the law and exercising its role in controlling the government’s actions. He warned of serious consequences resulting from the unrest on Saturday.

The Facts

The National Guard, under the Ministry of the Interior, reports to the government dominated by the opposition in Parliament. The prosecution, ordering the arrest of the government members, operates under the presidency. It is unclear whether the detainees were legally arrested.

The legislative elections of June 2023 gave an absolute majority to a coalition formed around the historic African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), the president’s old adversary. Embalo, who has led the country since 2020, found himself condemned to cohabitation with the government.

Embalo and the PAIGC have been at odds for a long time. He had dissolved the National Assembly in May 2022 due to persistent differences that could not be resolved with the Parliament, already dominated by the PAIGC. In 2022, he claimed the Parliament had become “a space for political guerrilla warfare and conspiracy”.

Some local politicians accused Embalo of using the unrest to dissolve the Parliament and get rid of PAICG.

The tiny West African country has seen frequent political turmoil, with ten coups or attempted coups since it gained independence from Portugal in 1974. In February 2022, Embalo survived a failed coup and assassination attempt.


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