Press Briefing on Guinea-Bissau

Press Briefing - 20000224
The clean and transparent election that took place in Guinea-Bissau on 16 February was due to the cooperation of the people -- their will had caused the change in the country, Samuel Nana-Sinkam, representative of the Secretary- General and head of the United Nations Peace-Building Support Office in Guinea- Bissau, told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing today.

"I do not think we should let the country down", Mr. Nana-Sinkam continued. He had explained this to the Security Council yesterday, because they were "noted for complacency at junctures such as this". After all that has happened, the country had to be helped. "It is like a baby; if you do not hold it by the hand to help it start walking there is no way you can expect it to become an adult", he stressed.

The current situation in Guinea-Bissau revolved mainly around the second round of Presidential elections, held on 16 February, which was won by Kumba Yala with 72 per cent of the vote, Mr. Nana-Sinkam went on to say. During that election, which was monitored by 60 international observers, the incumbent President, Malam Bacai Sanha, obtained 8 per cent of the vote. After the election, the observers, who remained in the country until there was a final count and the results announced, declared the process fair and transparent.

Mr. Nana-Sinkam said that, for the first time in the history of democracy in Africa, there had been a live television and radio broadcast of a two-hour debate between the incumbent President Sanha and his challenger, Kumba Yala. That debate had also been aired in many African and European countries. In yet another unprecedented development in the history of African democracy, the outgoing President had also agreed to go to the press and the television to concede defeat, express his appreciation for the outcome and congratulate the winner. It was hoped that like practices could be implemented in other African countries.

Based on the present parliamentary structure in Guinea-Bissau, there was currently no possibility of any single party, or even two combined parties, getting a two-thirds majority in Parliament to pass a motion to vote and amend the Constitution or pass an important law, Mr. Nana-Sinkam said. That was contrary to what had existed in the country for the past 25 years, where a single party held 70 seats in the 102 member Parliament. Now the largest party in Parliament had only 38 seats and the second largest 29. The larger parties now had to go and discuss and negotiate with the small parties in the country in order to pass a law, or even amend the Constitution.

That meant that what was being witnessed in the country was a real parliamentary debate, Mr. Nana-Sinkam continued. Also, 40 per cent of the present Parliament were newcomers -- first time parliamentarians. That was very different to what existed before. At the level of government itself, six out of the seven parties were represented in the new Government. That again showed the widely representative nature of the new Government. Also, five of the candidates for the Presidency, including Kumba Yala himself, were members of the new Government.

Mr. Nana-Sinkam said the average age of new members of the Government was mid-forties. Some members were even in their early thirties. There were also only two members of the Government who had been ministers before. In terms of the worries expressed by the international community, the young Government could mean members who had not yet been corrupted and that could signify something that was good for democracy. "We hope that they can pursue their job in that direction", he remarked.

The major challenge facing Guinea-Bissau was that people wanted change. The Constitution that had ruled the country for the past 25 years had not adapted to the kind of change desired by the people. The structure in terms of institutions, such as the judiciary, was no longer suitable to what was being sought in terms of change. All of those factors meant that the next three months would be very crucial for the young Government, in the sense that they would have to work out new institutions and from there prepare a comprehensive and integrated programme that would really reflect the aspirations of the population.

Both the President and the Prime Minister clearly indicated that they intended to do that, continued Mr. Nana-Sinkam. "We expect to see coming out, within the next three months, a clear-cut programme which can be presented to the international community for assistance", he added.

In the meantime, continued Mr. Nana-Sinkam, nothing was assured. The present young Government needed the assistance of the international community to keep things moving. Finally, regarding human rights, "we have been visiting the prisons very regularly", he said. The 378 detainees, who were being held by the military up until June 1999, had been returned to the judicial system. That was a recognition by the military junta of the separation of power between the judiciary, the executive and the legislative. That was also a clear indication from the military that they intended to respect the democratic process that was taking place in the country.

When asked whether the present events in Guinea-Bissau would represent a new guideline for other situations in Africa, the Secretary-General's representative said, "it is our sincere hope that this experience can be copied in other African countries". Guinea-Bissau, a small nation with 1.2 million people, had to be an example of how a real democratic process could be set up. The total change from what existed for 25 years was an illustration of the victory of the population itself.

One correspondent noted that, in Africa, it was not really the people who decided what happened, since their choices were often overtaken. Citing Guinea- Bissau as an example, he said the present change in that country was brought about by the military resisting the kind of changes that the Government wanted to introduce in institutions. How much support could the present Government expect from the old players, such as the military generals, who were going to retire and the politicians who had been there for many years? he asked.

In response, Mr. Nana-Sinkam said Guinea-Bissau was a system -- a military regime with a political wing. That was contrary to what was normally found in many other countries, where political regimes usually had military wings. After the struggle for liberation in Guinea-Bissau, everyone in the country was more or less a former combatant. What had dominated the country for the past 25 years had, therefore, been a military regime. Now, the population, after thinking about it, had decided to vote for a civilian government, which was a total change.

The military also voted, even voting for a civilian, Mr. Nana-Sinkam continued. If one considered the historical background, the facts were that 72 per cent of the population decided to vote for a civilian. Even the former ruling party -- Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau -- received only 24 votes, compared to the 70 they held in the former Parliament. And they had dominated the rule of the country for the past 25 years. There was a strong backing from the population. That being the case, however, there was no lasting solution to the problem of Guinea-Bissau without a solution to the military in the country and a solution to the problem of former combatants.

Mr. Nana-Sinkam said if those factions were not demobilized and reinserted into both the economic structure and civil society of the country, "sooner or later you may end up always having these types of people still with arms in hand". Nevertheless, the World Bank was currently addressing that issue. The objective was to demobilize 15,000 soldiers and former combatants and transfer them to civil society. That, however, might take some time. The military, however, was not willing to sit around the table to discuss it and see how those factions could be demilitarized. The backing of both the military and other forces in the country was thus needed.