Guinea Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embalo this week became the second head of state from the region to visit Guinea, despite a blockade on the country by regional bloc Ecowas.
Embalo’s visit, political observers say, represents further signs of a split in the regional grouping on the right approach to the Guinean crisis.
He arrived in Conakry on Wednesday and was received by junta leader Col Mamady Doumbouya and members of diplomatic missions in Guinea at the foot of the aircraft. He was then transported to a palace in Conakry for a closed-door meeting.
Described by the authorities as a ‘friendly state visit”, it comes about a week after a similar one by Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio, who came under criticism at home for what detractors say amounted to undermining the decision by the bloc to punish Guinea for the military’s takeover.
Bio rejected the accusation, arguing that he went to Guinea for matters concerning the national interests of his country.
But he also raised eyebrows when he went further to question Ecowas’ tough stance against the junta, noting that it could be counterproductive.
“We cannot help the situation there by keeping away from Guinea. We have to be there. We have to talk to the people there, understand what they want to do and influence them to do it the way they can do it so that it is acceptable to the international community,” Bio said.
That statement was interpreted as a recognition of the junta, and it is significant, coming from the leader of one of Guinea’s closest neighbours.
Sierra Leone is one of six countries that share borders with Guinea.
The others are Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire.
Although the exact reason for Embalo’s visit is yet to be known, it is safe to say that Bio has one more colleague that thinks like him in this matter.
This is perhaps the point Bio’s spokesman, Yusuf Keketoma Sandi, was trying to make when he shared the official Facebook page of Embalo announcing his visit to Conakry.
Embalo is indeed one of a growing list of leaders in the region who have openly spoken against the role leaders’ undemocratic actions play in the apparent resurgence of military coups in Africa in general and West Africa in particular.
His condemnation of the trend back in 2020, during a virtual Ecowas heads of state summit on the first coup in Mali, sowed the seed of discord between him and the deposed Guinean president Alpha Conde, who was at the time seeking his controversial third term.
Embalo said back then that Ecowas should adopt a similar attitude in condemning coups against leaders who manipulated constitutions to extend their stay in power, stressing that “third terms are also coups d’état”.
Reports indicate that Ivoirian President Alassane Ouattara, who was also seeking a third term at the time, received the remarks with disdain.
Liberian President George Weah may have borrowed a leaf from Embalo when, during the last Ecowas leaders’ summit on the Guinea coup, he also questioned the role presidential term extensions play in the resurgence of coups and urged the bloc to act.
Under Conde, the two Guineas had estranged relations. Their common border was shut down by the Conde administration, until last month when the junta regime reopened it.
Guinea Bissau has itself seen a fair share of military coups.
Last week fears of another coup gripped the country after a top military official alleged that some members of the army were seeking to overthrow the civilian administration. President Embalo was on a visit to Paris at the time, and his government immediately dismissed the report.
Embalo’s election in late 2019 had rekindled hope for a new beginning for the country, whose main export is cashew nut and had for a long time been on the cusp of becoming a failed state due to the influence of drug dealers.
While in Conakry on Wednesday, Embalo recalled Guinea’s role in resolving his country’s crisis.
"I am very grateful. The people of Guinea Bissau remain very grateful to Guinea," he was quoted saying.
The coups in Mali and Guinea may have been widely condemned, but they have also served as a blessing in that they have pushed Ecowas to rethink its position on issues that were previously considered taboo.
Presidential term limits and democratic tenets in the region dominated the just concluded Ecowas Parliament Extraordinary Summit in Ghana, thanks to the two crises.
The 10-day meeting hosted in the Ghanaian coastal city of Winneba laid what has been described as the foundation for key reforms in the Ecowas protocols relating to good governance, which had come under tight scrutiny in the wake of the coups in the two countries.
Sierra Leonean lawmaker and Speaker of the Ecowas Parliament, Mohamed Sidi Tunis, was emphatic in his condemnation of “undemocratic” actions of leaders that lead to coups. He warned that the bloc risked being perceived as a body of failed states if action wasn’t taken against tenure elongations and undemocratic constitutional amendments.
“Amending a constitution to conform to current realities is not in itself a problem. When the proposed amendments to the constitution protect the governing elite at the expense of citizens or will undermine the very nature of constitutional democracy, thereby granting an incumbent undue advantage to extend his mandate, then we have a problem,” he said.
“If we do not take firm and very decisive actions against this ugly trend, Ecowas will not only be perceived as a body of failed States but will indeed fail.”
Tunis also stressed that considering the effect of the status quo on the region and the toll coups continued to have, it had become necessary for leaders to go beyond issuing statements that merely condemned such actions and consider imposing harsher penalties on would-be perpetrators.
The event’s theme was “Evaluating Two Decades of Democratic Elections in the Ecowas region: Achievements, Challenges and the Way Forward”. It was designed to assess electoral systems in member states, identify the challenges and propose solutions to the shortcomings in the organisation of elections.
Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, the current chairman of Ecowas, delivered the keynote address and made the case for democratising the bloc’s parliament itself as a starting point.