BISSAU (Reuters) - Guinea-Bissau’s political parties were to meet on Saturday after military chiefs ordered them to organize new elections after a coup this week that cut short an unfinished presidential vote.
Thursday’s putsch in the small, poor and coup-prone state was the second such military power grab in West Africa in a month, following a coup in Mali in March that has raised fears of worsening instability in the region.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon led global condemnation of the coup and called for civilian rule to be restored in Guinea-Bissau.
Members of Guinea-Bissau’s previous civilian government were either detained or in hiding after soldiers on Thursday attacked the house of former prime minister and presidential front-runner Carlos Gomes Junior, before a presidential election run-off was due to be held on April 29.
A spokesman for the armed forces said Gomes Junior and interim President Raimundo Pereira had been detained but were “well” and the military had proposed to the country’s political parties that new elections be held.
Gomes Junior, candidate for the ruling PAIGC party, was unpopular with military chiefs because he backed an initiative to reform and downsize the bloated army, which is accused of involvement in drug-trafficking by western security agencies.
“The military chiefs have told the parties that they do not seek power,” one source close to the military, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. The crumbling coastal capital Bissau was calm on Saturday, with vehicles and pedestrians in the streets.
But this is small comfort for a weak political class who have lived for years under the threat of meddling by the military, which has a history of bloody coups and revolts since independence from Portugal in 1974.
Representatives of political parties planned to meet in the National Assembly later on Saturday to try to form some kind of army-supervised administration leading to elections.
The fractious and undisciplined military’s power is magnified tenfold in one of the world’s poorest and most volatile states, whose main official export is cashew nuts and where most people lives on less than $2 a day.
Organizations and governments, from the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union to the United States and former colonial ruler Portugal, have roundly condemned the latest military interruption of civilian rule in West Africa.
U.N. chief Ban called for the Guinea-Bissau military to release all detainees. “The Secretary-General underscores the need for the armed forces and its leadership to respect civilian authority, constitutional order and the rule of law, as well as to take urgent and immediate steps to return the country to civilian rule,” Ban’s spokesperson said.
African Union Commission chief Jean Ping declared the continental body’s “total rejection of any attempt at undermining the constitutional order and obstructing the completion of the ongoing electoral process”.
The Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP), which counts Guinea-Bissau among its members, called an extraordinary meeting in Lisbon for Saturday to discuss the events in Bissau.
The coups in Mali - still in crisis despite a handback to civilian rule by its coup leaders - and now in Guinea-Bissau are a setback to efforts by West African governments and their Western backers to stop al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups, as well as transnational criminal gangs, from seeking to exploit the region’s ungoverned spaces.
Diplomats said Thursday’s putsch in Guinea-Bissau, initially claimed by a shadowy self-styled “Military Command”, appeared to be an attempt to prevent an election win by Gomes Junior. He had finished top in a first round vote last month, qualifying for an April 29 run-off which his main rival planned to boycott.
The Military Command, whose leader or leaders have yet to publicly declare themselves, said it had acted to head off what it alleged was a secret pact between Gomes Junior and Angola to “annihilate Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces”.
Angola, which due to its oil wealth is much richer than Guinea-Bissau, had been providing military trainers and advisers to the smaller state in a military cooperation mission. But it announced a few days ago that it was ending the mission.
Guinea-Bissau, whose weak governance has made it a haven for Latin American drug cartels transshipping cocaine to Europe, was in the middle of electing a president to replace Malam Bacai Sanha, who died in a Paris hospital in January after an illness.
Additional reporting by Mamadu Cande in Bissau, Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa, and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Janet Lawrence