Guinea-Bissau opposition fears 'dictatorship'

World Sunday 24/March/2024 14:39 PM
By: DW
Guinea-Bissau opposition fears 'dictatorship'

Bissau: Since Umaro Sissoco Embalo became president of Guinea-Bissau three years ago, he has gradually led the West African country into a grave political crisis.

Sissoco, as he is popularly known, has systematically clashed with political opponents, parliament and other state institutions.

It began with a failed coup attempt in 2022, to which he responded with a wave of arrests of opposition figures.

In December 2023, the country saw clashes between members of the National Guard and special forces of the presidential guard, which left two people dead.

Sissoco described the violence as an "attempted coup" after which he dissolved the Bissau-Guinean parliament and dismissed the elected government.

He said that the nation had been plunged into crisis and fresh elections would be held.

Umaro Sissoco Embalo, 51, is a former Brigadier General who belongs to the Madem-G15 party, a splinter group of the former liberation movement and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

Before being elected president, Sissoco served as prime minister between 2016 and 2018.

During the presidential elections in December 2019, he won 54% of the votes against his arch-rival from the PAIGC party, Domingos Simoes Pereira.

Many citizens see freedom and democracy at risk and Guinea-Bissau heading towards dictatorship, but few dare to openly criticize the president.

Former Minister of Justice, Carmelita Pires, is one of the few who speaks out without reservation.

Since Sissoco came to power, she feels reminded of the dark times of the Marxist single-party system that was only replaced by a multi-party system in Guinea-Bissau in 1994.

"Sissoco disregards all principles of our rule of law by consolidating all powers," Pires said.

"As president and self-appointed prime minister, he controls the executive. At the same time, he puts pressure on the judiciary. And after dissolving the parliament, he also conditions the legislative," the lawyer said in a video message to DW.

Carmelita Pires suggested that Sissoco clearly exhibits "dictatorial behavior."

Bubacar Ture, president of the Guinean League for Human Rights, also sees democracy in danger.

"We have a government that was formed solely at the initiative of the President, without the approval of Parliament," said Ture.

"This concentrates too much power in the person of the President. Currently, the rule of law and democracy in Guinea-Bissau are de facto suspended."

In December 2023, Sissoco dissolved the country's parliament, which had been elected just six months earlier — on June 4, 2023.

The elections did not result in a victory for Sissoco's Madem G15 party but for the coalition PAI TERRA RANKA ("Our Country Forward!") led by the PAIGC, with an absolute majority.

However, Sissoco refused to entrust the formation of the government to the chairman of the PAIGC, Pereira.

It was only after a significant delay that he appointed the vice-chairman of the PAIGC, Geraldo Martins, as prime minister. However, the government lasted only a few months.

In December 2023, Sissoco used the arrest of several PAIGC government members suspected of corruption as a pretext to dissolve the parliament and thereby dismiss the PAIGC government.

Sissoco announced that new parliamentary elections will be held later this year, preferably in June. However, according to observers, the conditions for new elections are not met — purely organisationally.

"The National Electoral Commission responsible for organising and conducting elections is legally unable to organize new elections," lawyer Carmelita Pires told DW.

The terms of the commission members, who would have to be appointed by parliament, have long expired. And since parliament has been dissolved, it is practically impossible for the various parties to agree on the composition of a new electoral commission in the medium term.

"Under these circumstances, we will definitely not be able to conduct free, fair, and legal elections in the near future," said Pires.

How does Sissoco respond to accusations of wanting to establish a dictatorship?

"This is typical for Africa: If someone, like me, ensures order and discipline, he is immediately called a dictator. But I am nothing like a dictator! I am a man of the people!" Sissoco said in a video message he spread via Facebook at the end of 2023.

And this week, at a press conference on the sidelines of the weekly cabinet meeting, Sissoco warned political activistsin the country not to insult him or his family. People who defame him would be relentlessly pursued, "even to China," said the president.

Sissoco usually avoids critical journalists. Since taking office, several interview requests from DW have also remained unanswered.

At the same time, Sissoco is trying to polish his image on the international stage.

In July 2022, he assumed the chairmanship of West African bloc ECOWAS for a year and received much praise and respect from heads of state of powerful countries in the region during that time.

Sissoco claimed to have won Senegalese President Macky Sall as a close ally, for example, repeatedly asserting this on social media.

In May 2023, he participated in a mission of six African heads of state who attempted to mediate in Russia's war in Ukraine.

And earlier this month, Sissoco traveled to Israel and the West Bank, where he met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and discussed the possibilities of a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

Sissoco enjoys the role of African peacemaker.

"I have succeeded in repositioning Guinea-Bissau on the world stage. Guinea is a small country in terms of the size of its territory, but I have proven that there are no small states," he told reporters.

Critical observers, like lawyer Pires, see it differently:

She suggested that Guinea-Bissau is at an impasse, and that Sissoco had lost his way and should turn back immediately.

"Guinea-Bissau is on the brink. One step further, and this state will fall into the abyss."