Guinea-Bissau may be a very small country, but it has the potential to cause considerable instability in that region of fragile economies and fragile political systems, the Representative of the Secretary-General for Guinea-Bissau, David Stephen, said today at a Headquarters press briefing.
He endorsed an appeal made today by the Security Council, which, through a statement to the press, called on the international community not to abandon Guinea-Bissau, but to help it conduct elections announced for April, if it is to avoid sliding back into political instability.
Briefing correspondents on developments in that West African country, he said that since democratic elections in 1999 and 2000, there had been a steady decline in the political situation there. In November 2002, the President had announced he was dissolving the National Assembly. Elections were supposed to have been held within three months of that announcement, but he had now fixed an election date for 20 April this year.
He reminded correspondents that Guinea-Bissau had experienced civil war in 1998 and 1999. The United Nations Peace-building Support Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNOGBIS) had had a presence in that country since 1999.
The situation in which the elections were being held was "manifestly not perfect". He urged the international community to do everything it could to make the elections as free and fair as possible. They were already overdue by three months. Further, the country had no legislature in place, and in order for it to move out of the political impasse, the elections were necessary.
The situation was very serious economically, politically and socially, he went on. He stressed that, for the moment, Guinea-Bissau was "a country at peace". Its people did not want war, having gone through a traumatic civil war. Furthermore, the armed forces were taking a position of political neutrality. "It would be tragic if yet another country in West Africa were to go through a major crisis which we're working hard to avoid", he stressed.
There was great concern about the lack of funds for the election. Owing to the overall economic situation there, unless the international community provided assistance, there would be no election. Also in the last few months, opposition politicians had been detained; travel bans had been imposed on several prominent individuals; and freedom of the press had been restricted. An independent radio station had been closed, and restrictions were also placed on the Portuguese Television station "RTPI", among the measures that had raised concern, he said.
He said that, in response to the Government's request for assistance for the elections, the Secretary-General had dispatched an electoral needs assessment mission to Guinea-Bissau in mid-January. The mission had recommended that the Secretary-General help to mobilize funds for the election and coordinate the activities of the international observers. In reply to President Yalla's request, the Secretary-General informed him in February that the situation would be periodically reviewed, in order to ascertain that the situation in the country would allow elections to proceed in a fair, transparent and credible manner.
There was also great concern that the elections of the president and vice president of the Supreme Court had not gone ahead, he said. Under the country's Constitution, the Supreme Court judges were supposed to be elected by their peers. In fact, the President had appointed the current heads of that Court. Because the Supreme Court received and vetted candidacies for the election and would also adjudicate in any dispute, this was a "very unfortunate development", as the justices who had that important role in an election were not seen to be independent of the executive.
Underlying those very serious political developments was a very depressed general economic situation, he said. The country had very little income even to sustain a government budget of about $2.5 million a month. Today, the monthly income tax into the treasury was at about $750,000. That meant that most State workers had not been paid for six months, he said.
The situation in Guinea-Bissau was clearly one of great poverty and underdevelopment, he said. Without advances in economic development, there could be no political advances.
The Economic and Social Council last year had set up an advisory group on Guinea-Bissau, which had visited the country and made detailed proposals for some sort of informal agreement. Under such an agreement, the international community would define what it would like to see in the realm of governance, and Guinea-Bissau would set out what it would like to receive in terms of international support. That was a very important innovation in that the Economic and Social Council had looked at developmental issues on a theme basis, rather than on a country-specific basis.
Following his briefing to the Security Council this morning, he said he had expected a call to the international community not to abandon Guinea-Bissau. Somehow, the international community had to calibrate economic support for Guinea-Bissau with measures that ensured that the political governance evolution also proceeded in a satisfactory way.
Replying to a correspondent who asked about the other causes of instability besides economic deterioration, he said that the major one, and the most serious, was really the economy; the checks and balances were not where they needed to be at the moment. As a result, there was a concentration of power in the presidency, and there was no effective separation of powers. Therefore, the opposition felt excluded, and, indeed, it was being excluded. The rhetoric of political debate had also declined, resulting in frequent insults and personal attacks.
"We are, therefore, constantly working to try to prevent things from boiling over from verbal aggression to more literal forms of aggression", he added.
Asked whether Guinea-Bissau had the problem of child soldiers, he said the World Bank was conducting a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme of some kind. Child soldiers had not been a significant problem, but there were quite a few arms in the hands of civilians. Luckily, he added, those were not in the hands of child soldiers. Although disarmament was part of his mandate, not much progress had been recorded to date, as Government had not taken the necessary steps.
To another question, he responded that human rights was also part of his mandate. The restriction on the freedom of the press and movement of people, including a former prime minister, lawyers and other prominent citizens and groups of people, was worrisome, as such restriction bordered on human rights violations. Additionally, the alleged coup attempt of last December had also left a number of soldiers incarcerated.
He was also concerned that the closure of the one independent radio station and of the Portuguese TV station - considered to be a major source of independent information -- was other such examples of human rights violations.
He welcomed as "very encouraging" the offer and show of willingness to be included in the Economic and Social Council advisory group on Guinea-Bissau by several African countries. It was his understanding that they would deal specifically with purely economic and political questions, which would go a long way in moving Guinea-Bissau along the path to recovery, stability and peace.