Guinea-Bissau: a structural soap opera

Daniel Guilherme Alvarenga Rodrigues ● Ragnhild Hoel ● Sondre Kippenes


Index. 2

1. Introduction. 3

2. The setting. 3

2.1 Guinea-Bissau’s thunder war – a regional snapshot of the simple story. 3

2.2 Guinea-Bissau in West Africa – its place in a region of intra-state instabilities. 5

2.3 The evolving involvement of the international community in the conflict 6

3 Analysing political processes. 7

3.1 Levels of analysis. 7

3.2 External dependence at the international level 9

3.3 Localisation at the domestic level 9

3.4 Patrimonialism at the micro-political level 10

4 The role of ethnicity. 12

4.1 The presence of ethnicity in the micro-politics of Guinea-Bissau. 12

4.2 A matter of "Who do you support?” not of “Who are you?”. 13

4.3 The fault lines of ethnicity: assessing fears of Balantization. 14

4.4 Narrating and mapping the diaspora. 16

5 Conclusion. 17

6 References. 18

1. Introduction

Having Guinea-Bissau as a study-object proved itself as both challenging and rewarding. Challenging given the limited amount of former research on the country as well as because of the scope and the aims of our research. Rewarding because we were able to dig deeper into a country holding a set of relations that allows for a better understanding of, not only West Africa, but also of the interactions between neo-patrimonialism, ethnicity, external dependence and conflict.

After going through the initial process of laying out the objectives and structuring the project, we set out to collect and analyse the most relevant sources. Our primary aim has been to investigate the relationship between macro- and micro-level power structures on one hand and the events leading to conflict on the other. The point of departure for our approach was to provide each of us with a holistic understanding of both the country and the conflict. Subsequently each of us was assigned a specific set of sources with different perspectives on patrimonialism, ethnicity and geopolitics. These were firstly pooled together and collectively assessed, secondly streamlined for purposes of our argument, thirdly put down on paper, and finally jointly structured and reassessed.

Our report starts with a macro-scale account of the events surrounding the 1998-1999 civil war in Guinea-Bissau, and an assessment of the country’s position in a regional and international context. From there it progressively zooms in towards a more analytical look at the underlying socio-political relations of relevance to the conflict, of which a weak state, localisation of power, patrimonial networks, and ethnicity are central issues. By doing this we aim not just at putting together a better picture of the place and influence of each actor participating in the events, but most importantly we suggest that underneath the simple story of a fallout between two old friends rests a chronic multi-level structural problem.

2. The setting

2.1 Guinea-Bissau’s thunder war – a regional snapshot of the simple story

Looking at West Africa through the lenses of bordered states makes little sense. A brief introduction to the conceptualization of regionalism can help our starting snapshot of the macro-geopolitics of Guinea-Bissau in general and the narrative of its conflict in particular. In this sense, we find it relevant to look at the increasing importance of regional informal networks and regionalisms emphasized by Bøås (2003) and Bøås et al. (2005). In the case of Guinea-Bissau informal cross-border flows are important both in explaining the background and the trigger causes of the civil war. Guinea-Bissau’s relationship with Senegal is illustrative. Their diplomatic relations have for decades been ridden by tensions resulting from the geographical closeness of Senegal’s internal conflict with the separatist movement of Casamance (UI 2004:15). The separatists, Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) have historical and ethnic ties with Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal had from the inception of its conflict accused Guinea-Bissau of allowing the separatists to use its territory. In 1992 and 1995 Senegal even bombed a few border towns in Guinea-Bissau (UI 2004:15). Meanwhile, informal trading networks remained active and growing between the MFDC and Guinea-Bissau. The extensive illegal trade in cannabis and arms between the two parties is of special importance, as this trade was one of the rents the Guinea-Bissau military informally collected to finance itself (Ostheimer 2001). Problems with the military started growing from the middle of the 1990s onwards, mainly as a result of a change of policy towards Senegal. In 1995, the long-standing president João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira claimed that Guinea-Bissau was to fight the rebellion in Casamance, threatening this lucrative business, in which not only ordinary soldiers, but also high-ranking army officers, were taking part (Uppsala 2006).

This bilateral illegal trade can be seen as the most visible trigger of the war that started in June 1998, since the responsibility of the surreptitious supply of arms to the Casamance rebels was vehemently inculcated by the president on the chief of armed forces, Ansumane Mané. The latter reacted against this dubious accusation and was able to mobilize vast sections of a chronically underpaid army. Vieira had successfully tried to show that he was opposed to the MFDC, and was therefore supported by Senegal during the war. However, it was later discovered that officials very close to Vieira had been involved in the arms trade with the separatists (Uppsala 2006; UI 2004:15). This is the simple story, a fallout between two patrons, a fallout between two strongmen that were quick to activate their patronage and diplomatic networks and take part in what was to become a thunder high-intensity war. The conflict was fairly short, lasting only 11 months, and mostly concentrated in the areas surrounding the capital. At the same time the conflict involved regionalised elite networks, with both sides quickly tapping into an external international pool of potential supporters. Senegal and Guinea quickly responded by sending troops to support Vieira’s government, only three days after the outbreak (Uppsala 2006). Nino Vieira would most likely have succumbed in a blink of an eye was it not for this prompt regional support, since Ansumane Mané, as the chief of armed forces, was able to mobilize around 90% of the military on his side (Ostheimer 2001). Mané and the military junta also got foreign assistance, as the MFDC supported them with hundreds of troops (Uppsala 2006).

The ending of the conflict in April 1999 also had a regional dimension to it, as the Community of Portuguese-speaking countries (CPLP) took the initiative to try and moderate a resolution of the conflict. Further negotiations were done under the auspices of both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as the CPLP. A truce was developed into a ceasefire, and foreign troops were allowed to enter the country in order to supervise the ceasefire. However, when negotiations for a peace agreement started, the rebels demanded that all foreign troops had to be withdrawn, and the government wanted a buffer zone to be established by Senegal at the border. These two preconditions led to the breakdown of the negotiations. On the first of November a peace agreement was finally signed involving the deployment of the ECOWAS ceasefire monitoring group (ECOMOG), which later turned out to be rather unsuccessful (Adebajo 2002; Uppsala 2006). UNGOBIS, a UN-office, was opened in the spring of 1999, with the aim of supporting peace and democracy, improving the relations with the neighbouring countries as well as contributing to the elections (Adebajo 2002; UI 2004:15).

The peace agreement is still holding, and the country has managed not to relapse into conflict. However, the situation is still very unstable, both internally and externally, with renewed tensions within the region. In 2000 border disputes broke out between Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, but in July the same year the presidents agreed to jointly control the borders, and the relationship has consequently improved. However, there were some tensions in 2001 as president Kumba Yalá wanted the MFDC out of the border areas (UI 2004:15). There have also been tensions between Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia, and in May 2002 Yalá accused the Gambia of having supported an attempted coup against him (UI 2004:15). The troubles of the region are still interrelated, and problems in one country could easily influence other states in the area. Thus, achieving internal political stability in Guinea-Bissau is just as important for the neighbouring countries as for the country itself (Ostheimer 2001).

2.2 Guinea-Bissau in West Africa – its place in a region of intra-state instabilities

According to Galtung (1964:2), peace can be conceived of in two different ways, either as negative or as positive. The former differs from the latter in that negative simply implies an absence of war and violence, whereas positive peace involves a sustained integration of states and peoples. Considering this, the sets of inter-state relations in post-independence West Africa constitute an example of negative peace. Factors that could potentially contribute to inter-state conflict, such as artificial boundaries and transnational ethnic groups, are present, but there has hardly been any inter-state conflict in the post-colonial years. In addition, only recently has a rapprochement between France and Nigeria occurred in the region. During a very long period, the region lacked a viable leading hegemonic power able to stimulate economic development and security. Instead France and Nigeria competed for the dominance of the region with varying levels of uneasiness while sponsoring and taking part in economic, security and monetary organizations. Kacowics (1997:367-368) argues that the sustainability of this negative peace stems from common realpolitik policies and norms that have been implemented by the countries in the region. Therefore, the borders, although non-resilient, have been formally respected. In this sense, he suggests that ECOWAS has had an important role in sustaining the international peace, a community that has experienced quite some success in the security and political sectors.

Although this view is open for debate, the fact remains that the economic cooperation remains very low at the official level while informal international trade and migration thrive in ever closer ties across the borders. These close ties, and above all their informality, contribute to the diffusion of internal conflicts into neighbouring regions and bordering states. Transboundary fluxes of refugees, arms, diamonds and mercenaries are consequences of conflict but can also exacerbate underlying tensions. As a result, even though there have not been any open inter-state wars, cross-border conflicts have occurred, Guinea-Bissau being no exception. The fact that the integration is mainly at the informal, instead of at the official level has prevented the region from presenting a set of inter-state relations of positive peace (Kacowics 1997; McGowan 2006:247).

2.3 The evolving involvement of the international community in the conflict

Peace in Guinea-Bissau is important for the whole region, while stability in West Africa is important for the whole international community. Constant problems in West Africa can pose problems for other countries as well, as failed states might create bases for terrorist groups. It is already proven that Al-Qaida was involved in diamond-trading in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The instability in this region is also posing problems to Europe when it comes to illegal migration (McGowan 2005:6-7). In addition, other criminal groupings may also find the region attractive.

The international community is slowly realizing the importance of the region for both regional as well as global stability, and several external actors have been increasingly involved in the area. The UN, ECOWAS, Nigeria and different western states have deployed both peacemaking and peacekeeping missions in West Africa (McGowan 2006:247). Interpol is also increasing its presence in the region, which is regarded vital in order to better control internationally organized crime. An Interpol-office was even inaugurated in Guinea-Bissau in 2006 in the hope that it will improve the security situation in the country, described by Kofi Annan as an “international crossroads for drug trafficking” (Africa Research Bulletin 2006:16732).

When considering the region as a whole however, it becomes clear that the relation of the international community towards Guinea-Bissau has been low-profile and somewhat limited if one compares it to the attention Liberia and Sierra Leone have drawn (Ostheimer 2001). Similarly, the country has received comparatively little attention in academia, which is not easily justified. The fact that Guinea-Bissau is highly dependent on foreign aid greatly influences the country’s foreign policy (UI 2004:14), which is something the international community could, and maybe should, make use of in its relations with the country and the region as a whole if it wants to promote peace and stability. The African Union, for example, who has an official policy of rejecting military coups and military rule, can be an important actor to achieve this, as aid can be withheld from coup-ridden countries (Africa Research Bulletin 2006:16731; McGowan 2006:242).

3 Analysing political processes

3.1 Levels of analysis

The mechanisms driving the political processes in Guinea-Bissau can be analysed at three different levels, the international and the domestic levels, which we may refer to as macro-political, and the micro-political level. These are highly interlinked and to some extent overlapping, cutting across several spheres. The most important aspect, however, is how they relate to the overall picture of the political decision-making processes.

Considering the macro-political levels, the image emerges of a receded state, an entity which relies on the support of external actors while remaining disconnected from its local constituencies. At the international level, in both the economic and the political sphere, the state is heavily dependent on external support in terms of foreign aid and military support from allied states. At the same time, at the domestic level, there is a clear disconnection between the state and society. In the economic sphere, this division manifests itself in the separation between the formal and the informal economies, with the latter playing a major role. Highly distrustful of state institutions, many citizens avoid taking part in the formal economy and paying taxes, believing that this will only benefit political elites and not help developing their local societies. Finally, the state’s possibilities of politically influencing local communities become severely limited. Instead, in what is referred to as the “localisation of rural politics” (Forrest 2001:245) community-based traditional decision-making structures end up playing a predominant role in rural societies whereas official administration is largely marginalised.

The third level of analysis comprises mainly structures and processes taking place between individuals, factions and social networks within both the government and state institutions as well as other parts of society. The main image at this level is that of a system of patrimonialism, a concept alluding to the structure of networks based on personal connections through which resources, political support and loyalty are distributed (Vigh and Whyte 2003:111).

There are mechanisms at work linking the macro-level and the micro-level political processes together, as well as linking these to the actual events leading up to the civil war. On the one hand, a dependency on external actors combined with a duality between centre and periphery allows for the state to be unaccountable to its local constituencies. Forces driving for accountability become weaker in a trend towards a polarization between centres and peripheries (Moore 1998). Political elites may take advantage of their positions and the financial endowments they entail to build networks of personal relationships based on the distribution of resources in return for support and loyalty. Subsequently, as these networks extend, they can be used to further the interests of the patron by engaging them in factional conflicts with other patrons and other networks. On the other hand, there is the possibility of the inverted causality, in that the resources distributed through patrimonial networks are diverted from state resources, thus further weakening state capacity. A highly corrupt state may also instigate distrust in civil society actors, thereby making them avoid interaction with state institutions.

The result is a tendency towards individualized soap opera politics that is in fact underpinned by the possibility of activation of hierarchical and obedient informal structures and a consequent propensity towards conflict. On the surface, the conflict might have erupted as a direct consequence of the declining personal relationship between Mané and Vieira but the dependence on external support, the separation from the local communities and the patrimonial nature of inter-government relations were essential preconditions. Indeed, a vulnerable socio-political system, in which the personalisation of politics and factional conflict were prominent, allowed for a personal conflict between two individuals to escalate into a full-blown civil war.

In essence, patrimonialism welcomes individualistic personal relationships and factions to be vehicles for the transfer and accumulation of decision-making power. It does so at the same time that it lends importance to factionalist struggles and zero-sum tensions because the fate of each individual patron necessarily inflicts consequences for the larger factions and clientelist networks dependent on them. When the state is separated from its local constituencies and the main source of support and legitimacy of the government is external rather than internal, government actors are not restrained by internal constituencies, and they can indulge themselves in factionalist struggles. This mechanism contrasts with situations in which the linkages between state and society are strong. In these cases the state cannot allow itself to disregard the interests of its constituencies, but is instead compelled to having some degree of accountability.

3.2 External dependence at the international level

As we have seen, during the conflict the government of Guinea-Bissau received significant support from other regional states. This factor was critical to Vieira in order for him to remain in office, and thus indicates the importance of external support on behalf of the government. It can also be elucidating to look at external dependence in the economic sphere in terms of the role of aid dependency. A look at the 1990s shows a Guinea-Bissau that is increasingly dependent on foreign aid, with coinciding increased levels of corruption, a typical characteristic of direct fiscal support and aid dependency. Moreover, Guinea-Bissau also had problems serving its debt to the IMF, causing the latter to halt payments to the country during 1990-1994. Aid dependency persisted now in the form of bilateral loans.

All in all, the government’s economic policies generated an increasing division between the state and the people. Most state employees and state-connected traders benefited from the liberalization of the 1990s and from the external funding while the ordinary people in the hinterland were left with their very own parallel relations in the informal market (Forrest 2002:244).

3.3 Localisation at the domestic level

The government has historically been very weak, and this was further exacerbated by the civil war (World Bank 2005:7). Meanwhile, the domestic socio-political situation in Guinea Bissau is marked on the one hand by a weak state with underdeveloped bureaucratic institutions and by fairly strong and autonomous local-level decisionmaking structures on the other. Forrest (2002:238) refers to this process of strengthening local authority at the expense of the government as “localisation”. Localisation is largely a legacy of processes taking place during colonialism and the anti-colonial struggles in which traditional political structures found support in rural communities in opposition to the colonial rule (Forrest 2002:245).

After independence, the government tried to establish a system of community-level administration called village commitees, comités de tabanca. This move however, did not make a sufficient effort to consolidate national administration to improve the linkages between central authorities and civil society. Instead, focus was on factionalised political disputes within government. The result was that local communities retained a high degree of autonomy in a setting where they were more interested in local control than in national level politics, a consequence of different tendencies at play at both the level of local communities and of the central authority. The population itself wanted to pursue political autonomy, which they did not have at the national level. At the same time, the central government did not have the infrastructural resources to keep local bureaucratic control (Forrest 2002:246).

Traditional kingships, which had initially been outlawed after independence, re-emerged as effective decision-making bodies, as the marginalization of official institutions made it impossible for the authorities to wield any actual power in rural areas. The response was an attempt to re-legalize the traditional power structures in order to include them into formal, national administration. But in practice they remained local-level autonomous political actors independent of the state. The result is a situation in which the government enjoys low levels of trust concerning its ability to address issues relevant to the rural population of the country. By contrast, traditional authorities are widely trusted, particularly in rural areas, despite their lack of financial means (Forrest 2002:249; Forrest 2003:221; World Bank 2005:19; 44; World bank 2006:14).

This separation between official authorities and the population is also visible in the economic realm. As in many African countries, the informal economy and its markets are highly important to producers, traders and consumers while official markets are often widely distrusted. In Guinea-Bissau this situation has resulted in a deprivation of state taxes, because the rural agriculture, which has a predominant position, is to a high degree left out of the official economy. Besides, there is a widespread belief that the resources collected will not be used for the benefit of the population. This contributes thus to the increased dependence of the government on external financial support (Forrest 2003:223; World Bank 2006:10).

3.4 Patrimonialism at the micro-political level

The weakness of the government and state institutions at the macro-political level is closely related to the diffusion of patrimonial structures at the micro-political level. As noted, the main function of patrimonial networks is the distribution of political support and loyalty on behalf of the client and the distribution of resources on behalf of the patron through a network of personal relationships (Vigh and Whyte 2003:111). In a situation where the most important economic sector is the informal one, combined with the fragility of the central administration and its disconnection from the larger parts of society, patrimonial structures thrive. When the local constituencies are the main source of resources and legitimacy of the government, they will inevitably influence the actions of the government. However, when the government does not rely on local constituencies for support, it is easier to revert to patrimonialism and factionalism to build a support base.

Within the state, these personal power networks are more influential in de facto distribution of political power than the formal bureaucratic institutions. The consequence is that certain individuals, top-level patrons of patronage networks, and their factions achieve dominant positions in politics based on their ability to gather informal support (Forrest 2002:239; 249). In such a situation of factionalisation of politics combined with a lack of accountability and state dependence on external financial support, centripetal forces concentrate power competition in the government since it constitutes the primary locus for financial resources. When the state controls the resources, there are significant incentives to control the central state positions at any cost (World Bank 2006:9).

A legitimate political system based on effective bureaucracy and institutions is in this way undermined by factionalist struggles for control over state resources and central positions. The aforementioned localisation of rural politics exacerbates this process by further reducing the legitimacy and restraining the influence of central government, making it more externally dependent and less accountable (Forrest 2002:249).

An important point which has great relevance for the Guinean civil war is the fact that such a system implies an inherent instability. In patrimonial networks, resources flow downwards from a few top-of-the-pyramid patrons, on whom the rest of the networks are dependent. If these persons lose their resource bases or positions of power, large amounts of people are negatively and dramatically affected at once. The result is a situation of perpetuated structural insecurity and unpredictability (Vigh and Whyte 2003:148).

In the case of Guinea-Bissau, this system of clientelist networks and the personalisation and factionalisation it entails provides the foundation upon which the process leading up to the civil war took place. A system of patrimonialism entailing personal and factionalist power struggles developed during the postcolonial period and was already in place by the time of the coup d’état in 1980. However, the situation was severely aggravated during the rule of Vieira. The political path of Bissau’s historical titan became increasingly characterised by personalised power, factional conflicts and the repression of regime opponents (Forrest 2002:250). Vieira became alienated from the political opposition and eventually resembled more and more a stalinesque authoritarian ruler out of contact with the population. This development helped cementing the country’s chronic dependence on external support, particularly in economic terms. The introduction of multipartyism that followed actually exacerbated the informalisation of politics and autocratic rule. As a response to the broadening of the challenges to central power, Vieira ended up attempting to strengthen his position (Forrest 2002:254-255).

In a two-sided process of weakening of the state vis-à-vis society and growing factionalism, Vieira was faced with the need to deal with ever increasing perceived threats to his rule. Engaging in micro-level factional disputes with other leaders became the strategy to clinging on to power and keeping his opponents from overthrowing him. However, this strategy eventually backlashed as he tried to oust his old companion Mané from his position as leader of the armed forces (Forrest 2003:221-222).

4 The role of ethnicity

4.1 The presence of ethnicity in the micro-politics of Guinea-Bissau

Ethnicity has for a long time been a “hot topic” for researchers in the conflict studies when looking at causes of conflict, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The case of Guinea-Bissau represents in these terms a truly fascinating object of analysis for the ambiguous role of ethnicity at two levels, firstly in the discourses and empirical daily relations of people and groups in Guinea-Bissau, and secondly in the subsequent academic interpretations of its role within social and political processes. While Vigh and Whyte (2003) find in ethnicity a key underlying factor in explaining patterns of patrimonialism and the mobilization of young militias, others disregard it as unhelpful and as lacking explanatory power for their analysis (Rudebeck 2001). It remains a fact that there has been an outspoken tradition of inter-ethnic unity and cooperation in Guinea-Bissau. Considering this, the conflict remains one of the very few witnessed in Africa that, on a first read, could be fairly well understood without analysing the ethnic composition of the country. A possible easy-read soap opera analysis however does not make it any less enthralling to look at the underlying fluxes of ethnic relations at its micro-political level, particularly looking at its evolution through time.

In terms of ethnicity and religion the first main visible rift is between the Muslim community and those practicing traditional religions. Muslims are mainly Fulani and Mandinga, with strong levels of hierarchization and with highly influential religious leaders. Balante are the most numerous and are organized in more egalitarian ways among themselves. After the coup of 1986 there were growing ethnic tensions, particularly on behalf of some Balante war veterans that felt discriminated. All groups were nevertheless represented among the soldiers who participated in the build up to the civil war with the Balante having an edge (UI 2004:4).

By adopting a constructivist approach to ethnicity, instead of a primordialist one (Eriksen 2002:54), we will look at ethnicity as a fluid social construction. In the case of Guinea-Bissau, and despite some religious and ethnic divergences, this appears evident, with multi-allegiance, conversions and shifts in the identities and belongings of different individuals occurring across ethnic lines over time. In effect, when looking at the development of rural civil society through history, there has always been on the whole vast fluxes of migration parallel with an enduring importance of territory, with people defending their own areas as best they could. As a result, politics was based on the group and the land they possessed. Ethnic groups however were not, and still are not, “static or uniform entities: they were, and are, heterogeneous groupings that commonly incorporate members from different localities through intermarriage and immigration” (Forrest 2003:236). Intermingling between the different ethnicities lead to the formation of new regional and ethnic groups at the same time as some groups declined or were absorbed into others (Forrest 2003:236). The structures of the groups remained nonetheless rather strong, with enduring labels and functions. As Forrest (2003:207) observes, it was always the localities and not the state who decided how to organize politically.

4.2 A matter of "Who do you support?” not of “Who are you?”

The civil war in Guinea-Bissau arose out of a high level political brawl. The top leaders involved ended up, for one reason or another, not overtly fractionalising the conflict along ethnic lines. One of the evidences of this is the fact that Ansumane Mané, the proactive leader of the revolt and a Mandinga, quickly tapped into a military force that was predominantly constituted by Balante. Discontent was basically fomented by a revolt of unhappy, unpaid soldiers, and the revolt broadly supported by a majority of the population. Divisions were non-ethnicized, they were between those “for or against the regime that had ruled the country since independence in 1974” (Rudebeck 2001:29).

So here we are, before a country with only 1.5 million people, comprised of more than 20 ethnic groups, none of them with an obvious prominence over the others. It appears that the ethnic networks of patrimonialism during the war did not assume an explicit role, they were actually activated underneath the surface even if not very successfully. Overall, the conflict was not a conflict about identity, not a conflict where Guineans fought for who they were, but a conflict where Guineans fought for who should rule them. Who they were had been well defined long ago during the anti-colonial struggle and the fluidities of local comités de tabanca. The people of Guinea-Bissau had the common nationalism of pan-Africanism cohabiting with the engraved old narratives of the different ethnic groups but these narratives never assumed office-seeking ambitions for dominance. While ethnicity has an undeniable presence in Guinea Bissau’s daily life and politics the conflict is seen in some writings as having raged across ethnic divisions without even blinking (Rudebeck 2001).

If one looks at the smaller print of the story of the conflict there were a few instances where the ethnicity played a small role in the events and in the strategies of the factions. An example was late in the war, when the conflict was re-ignited by Mané even after the peace deal. Mané justly claimed that Vieira was so desperate as to recur to “recruiting young militia members from the Papel and Bijagos groups” (Ostheimer 2001). Realizing that the military and the majority of the population was taking sides with Mané, Vieira decided to look into his personal ethnic networks for help. The recruitment of Papel-composed government militias followed, albeit not in an overtly full-on ethnicized way as was the case with other factions in other conflicts in the region. Ethnicity, as Vigh and Whyte (2003:54) see it, was an “underlying factor in a consecutive line of conflicts”. The easy explanation of ethnic affiliation to Vieira’s recruitment of the Papel must however be considered in relation with the geographical aspect. Indeed, the frontline of the conflict cut across the heartland of the Papels, a reality that was strategically used by Vieira to argue that the Mané-led junta had ethno-political motives. Vieira thus played the ethnicity card by recruiting Papel militias, to whom the military junta’s shelling posed a very real threat, a threat that could easily be perceived as ethnically motivated aggression. Looking at the micro-strategy of the conflict there was therefore a use of a “narrative of ethnically motivated victimization” (Vigh and Whyte 2003:125) which did not however blow out of proportion as it did in Liberia or Sierra Leone.

Another example of underlying ethnic tensions during the conflict was, as we previously saw, the MFDC, with its historical and ethnic ties to Guinea-Bissau causing tensions between the two countries. Senegal has accused Guinea-Bissau of allowing the movement to operate from their territory while supporting Vieira’s government during the civil war, something that proved unpopular among many Guineans, and adding to fears that the conflict could spread to a regional level (UI 2004:15). Recently, the rebels have been expelled back to Casamance territory but an unresolved conflict such as this can reignite the whole region rather quickly. Also, there is the possibility that Guinea-Bissau’s fragile democratic system can be challenged from within, with some actors using “the MFDC’s military strength to pursue their own political agendas” (Ostheimer 2001).

In conclusion, looking back at the conflict, the tensions were inherent in Guinea-Bissau’s society since independence, particularly from the transition to neo-liberalist capitalism in the 90s. Factionalist struggles which were not evidently related to ethnicity were present. Ethnicity was more often a means of communication and interaction used to build social networks than a primary source of hostilities that fractionalized and exacerbated the conflict. Ethnicity never remained overtly institutionalised or stable, but insistently underlying the “constantly changing political configurations” (Vigh and Whyte 2003:44).

4.3 The fault lines of ethnicity: assessing fears of Balantization

Twenty years of a one-party system has taken its toll in the politics of the country and the ties of ethnicity are essentially ties of subsistence, the patronage of the need. Nino, himself a member of a minority group, has cunningly managed the politics of ethnicity, first by expelling the privileged minority of Cape Verdeans which had been widely influential during Colonial times as well as after independence, and afterwards by making sure that the highly fragmented ethnic groups living in Guinea-Bissau were consistently involved in his personal networks of patronage.

This reality somewhat changed with the coming of multi-partyism in 1994. In the elections that preceded the conflict, Nino tried to play the ethnicity card advising people not to vote for Kumba Yalá because he was a Balanta and would probably rule on a “narrow ethnic basis” (Forrest 2002:253). Yalá, despite losing the elections, did manage to get support from a variety of ethnicities, consolidating the tradition of inter-ethnic cooperation. This tradition is however punctually broken in some cases. For instance, in the Gabú constituency during the 1999 elections a minor party, the National Union for Development and Progress (UNDP), was able to make use of an ethnically homogeneous constituency (Fulani) to mobilize votes and win it from an ethnic platform (Rudebeck 2001:48). At the same time some of these links are not clear, Rudebeck’s (2001:77) study of voting behaviour in Kadjanja shows a clear historical ethnic voting but also how PAIGC was the only party with any kind of connection or link with the village. This connection was actually very tenuous, a son of the village had an obscure connection with a PAIGC partisan and the village had appreciated the fact that PAIGC were the only party bothering to turn up for campaigning purposes. Once again the personalized, patronage connections greatly influence the actions of the hinterland inhabitants, including their voting behaviour. The underlying patrimonial networks in the corridors of power however are still ethnically based. We can look at these networks as being influential if we look at ethnic lines as providers of a foundation for gathering political support through social networks, so although the existence of ethno-politics in Guinea-Bissau is often fully rejected, there was a clear ethnic dimension to the civil war and the post-conflict situation that followed. The patrimonial networks analysed previously for instance constitute a clear illustration of how ethnicity is connected to patrimonial and economical structures. Ethnicity does not have to be understood as “inter-ethnic hatred”, or inter-group hostility, such as was the case with Rwanda. However, “tribalismo” has always been there with its “flows of resources and social obligation that provide a relatively secure foundation on which to build political networks in times of scarcity or instability” (Vigh and Whyte 2003:55).

The situation today is one of great influence by the Balante group, with a visible majority in office and state positions together with a constant preoccupation by those holding power to keep ethnic groups content. Under the rule of Kumba Yalá, for example, Balante were offered the most high-ranking positions (UI 2004:4) but a complex game of ethnic balancing was constantly played. This game extends to the present, resulting in an interethnic balance of power that keeps changing with government instabilities but that is always particularly sensitive to any religious imbalances within the system. The Muslim community especially is always well sought after. Ethnic grievances as a whole have been successfully kept on the low key. Ethnicity is the factor that is perceived by most people as having the least influence on economic inequality, compared to religion, age, gender and geographic location (World Bank 2006:30). The religious factor, also constituting ethnicity, cuts across the different groups but also tends to privilege connections between some of them. How the inter-religious relations are dealt with remains nonetheless a very important issue to take into account for the future.

4.4 Narrating and mapping the diaspora

In terms of migration, Guinea-Bissau with 63% of its GDP depending on agriculture (World Bank 2004) has customarily witnessed normal seasonal flows of migration characteristic of the different crop and production rotations. Looking back at the last decade a clear flow of emigrants from Casamance has moved to the north of the country (Creppy and Wodon 2006:49) adding to the previously described susceptibilities and complexities of the region. The areas with the biggest numbers of emigrants are the north and the east. Understandably, these are the areas most dependent on migrant remittances resulting in a situation whereby most aid agencies have focused their attention in the southern regions whose inhabitants have traditionally been less inclined to emigrate out of Guinea-Bissau. Considering this, internal and regional migration is quite important and is also quite ethnicized. It is apparent according to a World Bank report (Gacitua-Mario et al. 2006:55) that Fulas and Mandingas tend to migrate to foreign countries while Manjacos tend to move to the regional capital or Bissau. The reasons for this are not specified. They might be related to various factors ranging from economic possibilities to migrate, to previously set up interfaces of migration (Carling 2002). This phenomenon in itself could constitute an interesting research topic.

As in other countries, including neighbouring Cape Verde, the diaspora has had an increasingly important role in contributing and sustaining the livelihoods of the sending population while also bringing about a new political economy of dependence that builds on top of the already prevalent patrimonial structures. Emigrants send their periodical remittances both formally and informally and establish themselves as important contributors to the welfare and the supply of infrastructures to the region such as roads and generators (World Bank 2005:44). These autonomised regions and sets of relations extend transnationally to the diaspora, creating a system that is also somewhat independent from the workings of the capital and encompasses a very peculiar dynamic of its own.

5 Conclusion

After looking back at the steps taken along our argument, what previously appeared like disgruntled and disconnected dimensions in the narrative of Guinea-Bissau’s conflict, begin to intersect each other in drawing a complex interrelated system of dynamic actors and forces. Moving beyond the soap opera picture of two former friends falling out because of struggles for power and resources, a complex reality involving interrelating actors and structures on several levels unfolds.

Being a small country dependent on external aid, in both economical and political terms, Guinea-Bissau has always been highly influenced by decision-making on the global and regional level. Events out of control of the central state have been detrimental to the country, which was evident during and after the civil war. However, there is a mutual relationship between the internal and the external factors, as the situation in Guinea-Bissau is important for both the region and the international community as a whole. This is slowly being grasped by the external actors, who gradually are increasing their presence in the country as well as the region.

The dependence on external actors has had serious repercussions in the internal situation, as democracy has been undermined by a lack of need to be accountable to the population following the high importance of foreign aid and the low importance of taxes paid by the public. Hence, the importance of traditional structures of locality-based rural politics have become more salient, underscoring the dichotomy of central and peripheral political actors.

It could quickly be assumed that these power divisions would follow ethnic lines, as has been the case in several other African countries. However, this is not evidently the case in Guinea-Bissau. The countries’ ethnic groups have always been interrelating and intermingling, and are better characterised by cooperation than competition. However, during the power-struggles that have ridden the state, the ethnicity-card has been played, although rather unsuccessfully, showing how ethnic cleavages have had an ambiguous role in the country’s history and present situation.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Alvarenga,

Where can I find updated political situation about Guinea-Bissau?


F. Montbrun.