Political turmoil in Guinea-Bissau reached new heights, leaving the West African country on the verge of a military coup in the run-up to a presidential election which will be crucial for the stabilisation of state institutions and the economy. Companies from China and other countries are looking closely at what the likely end of a long political stalemate could mean in terms of business opportunities, including in oil exploration.
Without the backing of any significant political party, the prospects for President José Mário Vaz to go into the second round of the presidential election, and renew his mandate, are slim. Worse for him, his bitter rival for the last four years – PAIGC party leader and former Prime Minister Domingos Simões Pereira, whose firing by Vaz at the beginning of his term kicked off an institutional crisis that continues to this day – will likely win the 24 November elections. The only doubt, among our sources, is whether he will need a second round to become president, or triumph in the first.
The options to derail Simões Pereira’s election, for Vaz and other opponents of the PAIGC leader – including the leadership of the second and third biggest parties – grew scarce after the president plunged the country into turmoil by dissolving the PAIGC-supported government of Prime Minister Aristides Gomes on 28 October.
It was the third government to be dissolved in two years, lasting only five months, installed after Vaz’s term ended 23 June without a government in place. Gomes was in charge of organising the upcoming presidential elections.
Even though the two biggest parties in opposition to PAIGC – PRS and MADEM-G15, Vaz’s former party – combined with the fourth most-voted party (APU-PDGB) to form a new parliamentary majority, the international community was quick to reject such a solution, mostly because it would likely lead to the postponement of the upcoming elections. The three parties now claiming to form a new majority have long opposed the holding of the election.
Guinea-Bissau ended October with two governments: the one led by Aristides Gomes and another, supported by the PAIGC opposition, led by Faustino Imbali, appointed the day after Gomes’ ouster. For a few days, while members of Gomes’ government refused to leave their offices, and supporters of the three opposition parties called for the security forces to intervene in forcing them out, the country teetered on the edge of a military coup.
According to a presidential statement, dated 6 November, Vaz was advised by the Superior Council for National Defence – a body appointed by the president himself – to organise a “combined force” to take over state facilities that members of Gomes’ government refused to abandon. But deep divisions emerged in the Council’s meetings in the previous days, and a stalemate emerged, as the military refused to act upon the Council’s recommendation.
At a rally on 7 November, Vaz voiced disappointment, and said himself the military and the police could not agree on a line of conduct. “I will not allow for an armed conflict to take place between the police and the military,” he added. Not imposing the new government was the way found to avoid conflict, Vaz said.
The international community’s rejection of the president’s actions was not only swift, it was strong as well. According to our sources, even regional countries that have been more balanced in the dispute – and more complacent with Vaz and his supporters – retreated from supporting the most recent move. These included Senegal and Equatorial Guinea, at an emergency meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), held on 8 November, that called for the immediate resignation of Imbali and other government members, under threat of “heavy sanctions.” Imbali submitted his resignation to the president later that day.
ECOWAS led the charge against Vaz, with the support of the African Union, the UN Security Council – which consulted on the matter twice in the last week, most recently on 11 November – and also the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP). ECOWAS has a security force in Bissau, ECOMIB, installed in July 2015.
Western diplomats don’t hide their preference for Simões Pereira, a more youthful politician and former CPLP executive secretary. Most believe he can modernise the country and boost the economy. In the last few years, Guinea-Bissau has become known mostly for drug trafficking. Cartels are widely believed to fund political parties and individual politicians.
Guinea-Bissau’s economy is currently dependent on agriculture, mainly cashew production, the country’s greatest export. The fluctuation of cashew prices in international markets have caused spurts of growth, as well as slowdowns, in the recent past. Attempts to diversify the economy have failed mostly because of persistent instability.
But the fragile country, whose institutions are notoriously weak, is also home to phosphates reserves and has natural conditions for development of ports. Even prospects for oil are positive. So much so that China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the largest Chinese oil and gas group, announced in August that it will enter into exploration operations in the Sinapa (Block 2) and Esperança (Blocks 4A and 5A) areas, offshore, west of the Bijagós archipelago.
The Sinapa oil discovery boasts contingent resources of around 13.4 million barrels of recoverable light oil, while Anchova (Greater Atum) in Block 2 has estimated reserves of 471.7 million barrels – and a high estimate of over 1.5 billion barrels – making it one of the main drilling targets.
Drilling in Greater Atum, the first deepwater exploration well offshore Guinea-Bissau, is set to begin in early 2020.