No news is good news from Guinea-Bissau

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Angolan military aid and a truce between squabbling politicians have bought Guinea-Bissau some respite, although drug trafficking and tricky military reforms threaten its progress towards lasting peace and economic growth.

While Western and regional powers dither over how to help a country whose military has long meddled in politics and is heavily implicated in cocaine trafficking, Luanda has stumped up both money and men to help stabilise the tiny nation.

Official economic data points to healthy growth this year, external debt is being eased and firms, long owed money by a cash-strapped government, say they have been partly paid, Reuters reports.

Consequently, business is ticking up, salaries are being met and even a few potholes are being filled, residents say.
“We are starting from a very low point but there has been progress,” said Vincent Foucher, an analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank.
“The situation had got so bad that all it took was to manage, and things got a bit better,” he added.

In a move that should ease payments, the Paris Club of creditors in May agreed to cancel $256 million in debt.

The IMF says the economy will expand at 4.3 percent this year, up from 3.5 percent last year, due to a healthy harvest of, and better prices for, the country’s main crop: cashew nuts.

Donors are helping build roads and boost power output from a paltry 4 megawatts, just one seventh of the country’s needs.

Suspecting the IMF of painting an overly rosy outlook, not everyone believes the data tells the whole story. Others think drug money may be supporting the legitimate economy.

But the relative stability is undeniable. “It’s good news we haven’t been in the news,” said a Bissau-based businessman. “The country has started to live again over the last six months.”
“MAKING LESS NOISE”

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior has been in his job for three years, a record for the former Portuguese colony that has experienced little but conflict and coups since independence.

The country saw its president and army chief assassinated in 2009, a trend that threatened to continue last year when a revolt in the military put factions accused of collaborating with Latin American drug cartels firmly in charge.

But political bickering, especially between the prime minister and President Malam Bacai Sanha, has eased and the army’s presence has receded after some 200 Angolans set up camp in a hotel in the seaside capital, Bissau.
“The politicians are working better so the military has pulled back a bit … They all realised that the best thing was not to make noise,” said one diplomat in the country.

Angola, also a former Portuguese colony, has pledged over $32 million for military reform and is renovating barracks, a foretaste of a broader, West African-led $90 million “roadmap” to revamp a top-heavy and deeply corrupted armed forces.

Eventually, a 600-strong mission, including Brazilians, is due to help shrink Guinea-Bissau’s military down to 4,000 men. Half the funds will be used to retire an influential but ageing force, a hangover from the 1970s war of liberation.

Angola’s swift intervention is by no means purely altruistic — Angolan firm Bxa has a planned $320 million bauxite project in the south. It also reflects Luanda’s broader push to use its petrodollars to become a key player on the continent.
“Of course they have their own interests, like everyone else. … (but) they are a useful partner,” the diplomat said.

Angola acted while other countries, especially the U.S. and European ones, fretted over how they could intervene while alleged drug traffickers were running the military.

Bubo Na Tchuto, accused by Washington of being a narcotics kingpin, was reinstated as head of the navy last year.

PRAGMATISM WINS OUT

Some said officials linked to trafficking must be removed as a pre-requisite to aid, and others insist the two issues must be tackled at the same time.

In the end, pragmatism appears to have won over idealism.

International opposition to General Antonio Injai — who is close to Na Tchuto and led the army revolt last year, leading to the U.S. and EU cutting military aid — has all but ended.
“The international community has backed down … (and) opted to work with him,” said West Africa analyst Mohamed Jalloh. Injai’s ability to convert Angola’s presence and cash into a semblance of stability has been key, he said.

The first 1,300 soldiers are due to retire over the next month — a serious test of reform plans, which had previously stalled due to the lack of funds for pensions and soldiers complaining the proposed $50 per month was not enough.
“The legitimacy of Injai is his ability to get resources. You see how money plays a role. Unless there is an incentive to voluntarily retire people, they will not go,” Jalloh said.

Although reliable figures are hard to come by, diplomats and experts say the flow of drugs appears to be on the rise again after disruption due to political violence in 2009. The removal in May of the head of the judicial police, who frequently linked the military to trafficking, has been seen as a further blow.

Convincing soldiers long accused of supporting smugglers they will be better off as civilians could be tricky.



Diplomats also complain that Guinea-Bissau still struggles to secure the financial and political backing it needs to combat its drug trafficking — a problem that travels beyond its borders — and the threat to regional stability.
“Everything (progress) is reversible at this stage. As long as the military is not subordinate to the civilians, there is always that risk,” the diplomat said.