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In Guinea-Bissau, No Stability Without Justice

  • Kate Thomas

General Antonio Indjai, Army Chief of Staff, center, with Desejado Lima da Costa, head of the national electoral commission, right, Guinea-Bissau, March 19, 2012.

General Antonio Indjai, Army Chief of Staff, center, with Desejado Lima da Costa, head of the national electoral commission, right, Guinea-Bissau, March 19, 2012.

Nearly one month after Guinea-Bissau's military seized power in a coup, solutions to the country's political instability remain elusive. Since Monday's United Nations Security Council meeting in New York, attended by the ousted ruling party's foreign minister and the Guinea-Bissau U.N. special envoy, Bissau-Guineans have been debating how to resolve the crisis, and some are calling to bring coup leaders to justice.

But the country's whitewashed Ministry of Justice in the capital, Bissau, has stood empty since the mid-April coup.

Now the country's justice system, limited even before the coup, has stopped operating completely. The minister of justice has fled, staff have gone home and legal cases have been placed on hold.

As the international community discusses Guinea-Bissau's future and the possibility of an international peacekeeping force in the country, many Bissau-Guineans believe that an inadequate justice system is one of the reasons behind the latest coup.

Sanctions, Circumvented
The European Union has imposed sanctions on six military figures, including Antonio Indjai, head of the armed forces, but Bissau-Guineans say coup leaders are corrupt and operate outside of the country's skeletal justice system.

Despite the economic sanctions, they suspect coup leaders will continue to access funds through drug trafficking.

The United States has previously accused some senior military figures of involvement in cocaine trafficking, which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says is a major source of instability in Guinea-Bissau.

Maimouna Bacar Sande, a third year law student, says Guinea-Bissau's top military and political figures are rarely held accountable for their actions.

Guinea-Bissau's crisis runs deep, says Sande, explaining that one solution to destabilization for the country which has suffered several coups since the end of the civil war, would be to strengthen its justice system.

The political situation, she says, is like a bad weed growing in a beautiful country that needs to be pulled out by the root.

Inoperative courts and prisons
Brother Michael Daniels, an American Catholic priest at Bissau's main cathedral, agrees. In addition to his work for the church, he leads an initiative for peace, justice and human rights.

He says there is no justice for military and political players implicated in international drug trafficking or human-rights abuses, and that justice ministers currently aren't able to manage even routine duties.

"The state institutions are not working and the Ministry of Justice closed down," says Brother Daniels, explaining that military leaders considered releasing prisoners from the country's two main jails simply because they did not have enough food for the inmates, many of whom are incarcerated for theft and other small crimes.

"I go buy [the food] myself," he says. "I wait for a lady to finish cooking it and go bring it to 30, 40 prisoners."

Outside the Ministry of Justice, law student Justino Nhaga sits on a wall waiting to meet a friend.

"The country's ongoing political crisis will only be solved when a reliable justice system is established and the coup leaders are held accountable," says Nhaga.

Although heads of state representing the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will continue talks on Guinea-Bissau in coming days at the U.N. Security Council, Nhaga says the situation should be solved by Bissau-Guineans, not by the international community.

Likening international intervention to a donated jacket that will improve the situation for only a short while, underneath the garment, he says, political problems will persist.