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President of Guinea-Bissau Reasserts Control After Fears of Another Coup in Africa

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Gunfire erupted near the presidential palace. Military trucks raced through the streets as civilians fled. The country’s president vanished from view.

The small West African nation of Guinea-Bissau appeared to be hurtling toward a military coup on Tuesday — the latest in a spate of military takeovers across a swath of Africa in the past year that has signaled a worrisome democratic backslide. But hours later, the country’s leader suddenly reappeared to declare he had thwarted his armed foes.

Addressing the local news media, President Umaro Sissoco Embaló said that “many” members of his own security forces had been killed in what he termed a “failed attack against democracy” with possible links to drug trafficking. Others had been arrested, he said, but he could not say how many.

“It wasn’t just a coup,” he said. “It was an attempt to kill the president, the prime minister and the entire cabinet.”

The dramatic turnabout, after hours of heavy gunfire that drew worried statements from the United Nations and regional organizations, was a rare good news story for Guinea-Bissau — a coastal nation bordering Senegal and Guinea.

Guinea-Bissau has weathered at least four successful coups — the last in 2012 — and perhaps a dozen attempted ones since it gained independence from Portugal 48 years ago.

But the loud wave of international alarm that the attempted coup generated was a mark of growing jitters in the West Africa region, where, after years of halting democratic progress, a rash of military takeovers has stoked growing fears of “coup contagion.”

Last week, in the landlocked nation of Burkina Faso, soldiers seized power and announced a suspension of the Constitution. In the last year and a half alone, there have been military takeovers in Mali, Guinea and Chad. Further east, in Sudan, the military also seized control three months ago.

As Guinea-Bissau plunged into uncertainty for much of Tuesday, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said it pointed to a worrisome trend.

“We are seeing a terrible multiplication of coups, and our strong appeal is for soldiers to go back to the barracks, and for the constitutional order to be fully in place,” he said.

President Embaló of Guinea-Bissau, a former army general who came to power in 2020 following a disputed election the previous year, had finished a cabinet meeting at the presidency on Tuesday when gunfire erupted outside, he said.

Armed attackers tried to enter the building but were repelled, he said without elaboration. They were “well prepared and organized” and “could be related to people involved in drug trafficking,” he added.

While many of the most recent military takeovers were fueled by popular anger at the failure of elected governments to stem rising violence by Islamist and other armed groups in the Sahel, the vast region south of the Sahara, the prospect of a coup in Guinea-Bissau was less surprising.

Political instability has been a constant in Guinea-Bissau, a country of about 1.4 million people.

After the country’s 11-year war for independence ended in 1974, its new leaders were faced with trying to unify an extremely diverse population, many of whom were spread out over an archipelago of 88 islands. Since then, there have been so many coups and attempted coups that the counts vary. Much of the turmoil has been fueled by the country’s status as a major transit hub for drug smuggling.

In the 2000s, the United Nations labeled Guinea-Bissau Africa’s first “narco state” for the large amounts of South American cocaine that were landing there before being smuggled into Europe. The drug economy has fueled corruption in government and the military, destabilizing the country’s fragile politics, said Jonathan Powell, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, who studies coups in Africa.

“The drug trade is important in Guinea-Bissau because it’s been so easy for that industry to hijack the loyalty of many folks in the upper echelons of the armed forces,” he said.

There have been 214 attempted coups in Africa since 1950, up to the recent one in Burkina Faso, Mr. Powell said his research had shown. Exactly half of them — 107 — have succeeded, he added.

Guinea-Bissau has seen several high-profile assassinations in the past two decades, including the killing of President João Bernardo Vieira in 2009, and a mutiny in which the army chief of staff was killed in 2003.

But the country has enjoyed a period of relative political stability since the last successful coup in 2012, in part thanks to what the United Nations termed a “peacebuilding mission.” But the mission was wound down in December 2020.

When President José Mário Vaz completed his term in office in 2019, it was the first time a democratically elected leader had done so in the country’s post-independence history. Even so, the prospect of another coup appeared not to phase residents as reports of another violent confrontation at the presidency began to circulate on Tuesday.

Reached by phone, several people described a growing unease in Bissau about the gunfire, yet said they were continuing with their normal activities.

Mamadu Jao, a senior official with ECOWAS, said he was at a market around midday when news of the gunfire spread by word of mouth. “For the moment everything is calm here and people are going about their business,” he said.

Ruth Maclean contributed reporting from Yaoundé, Cameroon, Rick Gladstone from New York and Mady Camara from Dakar, Senegal.

Circassia News

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