Rectifying Guinea Bissau’s Image Problem
In the international press the small West African country of Guinea Bissau is variously described as most, if not all of the following: a narco-state (with as many as 30 tons of drugs passing through the country every year); coup-plagued (with at least four military coups since 1998 and six political assassinations in the past 3 years); conflict-ridden (at war for more than half of its’ modern history); and poverty-stricken (with over half the population living in poverty). For the international community that fears the fall-out of these problems, Guinea Bissau appears to be a recurring dystopian nightmare. That is both a pity and a disservice to the people of the country. While there is some truth to all of these claims, this image simplifies complex issues, belies the reality on the ground, and ignores the incredible potential Guinea Bissau has to overcome the legacy of its past.
The government is having trouble controlling drugs passing through the country from South America and the military has continually stepped into the political realm to protect its interests. But while these problems are difficult they are not insurmountable if the right combination of incentives and sanctions is put in place. Contrary to certain perceptions, ECOWAS has previously demonstrated that it can act effectively within the region. In Guinea Bissau, it has now deployed a police and military contingent to support new stability initiatives and is financing security sector reforms. The West African body has also brokered an inclusive pact for a political transition- to which all the key political parties have signed up- and a consensus is now in place across politics and civil society for a return to the constitutional order. Despite its political troubles, Guinea Bissau has demonstrated over the past decade that it is able to hold free and fair presidential and legislative elections, which are now scheduled to take place in early 2014.The violence Guinea-Bissau has suffered recently is not the function of deep fissures, but rather the result of political machinations among a small politico-military elite. Although there have been periods of conflict in the country, there has not been any of the extreme ethnic violence that has plagued other parts of West Africa in the post-independence period. At the same time, after the successful struggle for liberation, a benign relationship with Portugal has allowed Guinea Bissau to move beyond many of the complications other states in the region have with their former colonial powers. The result is an enduring nationalism and a real sense of collective agency among the people who almost universally demonstrate a desire for peace and development.
Incomes are low, but the population is small and the economic potential of the country is phenomenal. Take the Bijagós archipelago for example, the famed transit point for narcotics filled planes from South America. These islands are unique- and a United Nations World Heritage Biosphere Reserve for good reason. They boast incredible biodiversity, from mangrove forests to coastal savannas; and diverse wildlife, from crocodiles to sea turtles to herds of hippopotamus. Sustainable tourism is nascent, but growing. Additionally, Guinea Bissau has some of the most productive land in the world- perfect for crops including cashew nuts, rice and mangoes, and for sustainable forestry. In terms of fisheries, it is estimated that the country has the potential for an annual fish catch of over 300,000 tons a year. All of this is before consideration of natural resources that range from sizeable deposits of oil to bauxite to phosphates; and a vibrant, cosmopolitan cultural heritage.
The recent Bissau Economic Forum- the first conference of its kind held in the capital- brought together national and global politicians- including Presidents and Prime Ministers from around the region- and business representatives from corporates as diverse as Google, Coca-Cola and Orange. With a view to developing a longer-term economic vision for the country, the forum generated an impressive set of recommendations, ideas and potential business opportunities. Recently, investment has been growing, facilitated by a number of reforms including the creation of a new Business Formalization Center which has simplified and streamlined business registration, licensing and administrative procedures.
All this potential does not easily translate into reality of course- but Guinea Bissau has a group of emerging leaders that understand these dynamics and are now coming together to mobilize change. This group has an international perspective, regional connections and national commitment. Many are now returning from the diaspora in Senegal, Portugal and elsewhere with money and ideas. They are poised to lead the young population of the country, who- despite being branded perennially as one of the least educated in the world- are increasingly engaging in business, civil society and governance in new and creative ways. This younger generation wants to connect Guinea Bissau to the Lusophone cultural and economic rise led by Brazil and Angola in the global south; and they want to create opportunities for collective development.
Guinea Bissau will no doubt suffer from instability in the short-term as it strives to reach its longer term goal of a prosperous, secure and inclusive society. As we have seen during transitions elsewhere throughout history, it takes time for a new political and economic class to fully realize their potential and enact meaningful change. But if countries like Guinea Bissau are to transform themselves, we must support them through moving away from fatalistic, self-fulfilling generalizations related to poverty and instability. That does not mean hiding problems or ignoring constraints, but rather highlighting potential solutions and facilitating reforms. This year, Guinea Bissau celebrates the 40th anniversary of the declaration of independence from Portugal. There is no doubt that the next four decades will be very different from the last.
Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab. You can follow him on Twitter @blairglencorse. Janette Yarwood is an anthropologist at the Institute for Defense Analyses.