February 20, 2008 - Guinea-Bissau Prime Minister describes priorities to PBC
UN News Centre - While Guinea-Bissau was struggling to overcome years of political strife, civil unrest and corruption, Prime Minister Martinho N'Dafa Cabi today told the Peacebuilding Commission that his Government was consolidating recent fragile gains, but needed help to make improvements in key areas, including security, fiscal management, combating drug trafficking, youth vocational training and election assistance.
"We have the courage necessary to see the peace consolidation process through, but that courage must be [bolstered] by commitment and support from the intentional community," Prime Minister N'Dafa Cabi said, as he highlighted the serious challenges his country faced after years of sporadic civil conflicts and military uprisings, which, by the late 1990s, had left the tiny West African nation politically polarized, poverty stricken and unable to pay its workers or to educate its children.
Just three months ago, Guinea-Bissau became the third country to come under the Commission's purview. The 31-member advisory body was created in 2005 to prevent countries emerging from conflict from sliding back into chaos, and has previously chosen Burundi and Sierra Leone to receive intensive international support, as well as initial grants of $35 million from the Peacebuilding Fund for critical post-conflict peacebuilding projects paving the way for sustainable development.
Presenting Guinea-Bissau's peacebuilding priorities and challenges, Mr. N'Dafa Cabi recalled the country's "extremely tumultuous" political past, noting that the first multi-party elections after its independence in the late 1970s had been held in 1994. An army uprising in 1998 had led to the President's ousting, and war had followed. Elections had been held in 2000, but by 2003, a military coup had ousted the President. After being delayed several times, legislative elections had been held in March 2004, and a subsequent uprising of military factions in 2004 had resulted in widespread unrest.
Political divisiveness continued and tensions simmered, though never reaching the boiling point for renewed violence, he continued. In 2005, presidential elections had been held and, after a contested run-off, had been won by the current President. Mr. N'Dafa Cabi said that, throughout that time, the country's socio-economic infrastructure had been almost totally destroyed. From sputtering electricity supply lines to wrecked education facilities, Guinea-Bissau had been left with profound problems.
After many false starts, however, the people realized that the country could not be run without a climate of consensus, he said, they realized there must be dialogue, including among the Government and civil society, to ensure stability. With the successful holding of presidential and legislative elections, the Government now had a clear mandate from the people to pursue peace and reconciliation.
Even if all its economic objectives were not achieved immediately, the Government had made a conscious decision to focus first and foremost on instilling a "permanent climate of dialogue" among the people, civil society groups and all political parties. Opening channels of communication was the only way to move forward, he said, adding that Guinea-Bissau was now set for a new round of free, fair and transparent elections in November or December 2008. For that ballot to be successful, it would need assistance updating its electoral rosters and voter registration programmes, however.
While battling political instability, the Government had simultaneously been working hard to pay overdue salaries -- as far as back as 2005, in some cases -- and administrative fees to teachers and other public sector employees. There were also serious arrears owed former military personnel, he said, adding that the Government also faced the challenge of providing benefits and pensions to ex-combatants and ensuring their integration into society. The lingering political instability had also resulted in depressed economic activity, deteriorating health and social conditions, and increased macroeconomic imbalances.
Mr. N'Dafa Cabi said the key challenges for the country in the period ahead would be security sector reform, combating corruption and restoring fiscal discipline, rebuilding public administration and improving the climate for private investment. Public finance programmes were under way and certain expenses had been eliminated as a cost-saving measure. He acknowledged that measures to ensure the country's fiscal health were being hampered by deep rooted corruption, but assured the Commission that his Government was actively trying to stamp that out.
He also stressed that many reform efforts were being undermined by drug trafficking, which threatened to create a state of anarchy. The Government had moved to address the socio-political and economic fallout, but needed international assistance in that regard.
He said the current Government was determined to take all measures necessary to confront the pressing post-conflict challenges, and would ask the Commission the to consider priorities for its engagement that included reform of public administration, consolidation of the rule of law and security sector reform, promotion of professional training and youth employment, and support for vulnerable groups.
That engagement might also include measures aimed at improving the management of public finances, building State capacity for policy implementation, restoring public confidence in the economy and normalizing relations with the international community, he continued. There were signs that political and economic stability were not too far off. The Government had renewed its relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and various entities within the European Union.
He said Guinea-Bissau was now a democratic country with a democratic society. The Government had visited local communities and held discussions on pricing schemes, access to basic services and market competition, among other things. "The Government has the vision to address these problems [...] although it will not be easy," he said, adding that the Government was also keenly aware that youth training and employment, as well as infrastructure rehabilitation, was vitally important to peace consolidation.
He noted that the people of the country were lucky to have two weeks of uninterrupted electricity. In many areas, the schools were not fit to hold classes, and basic health services were spotty. The economy depended mainly on agriculture; fishing and cashew nuts were its major exports, he said, adding that urgent action was needed to bolster the country's cashew industry. Telling the Commission that Guinea-Bissau was prepared to redouble its efforts to address its own problems, he nevertheless underscored the importance of international support, noting: "It has been said that social and political reform can't be [carried out] on an empty stomach."
Taking into account the difficult process of normalizing everyday life for the people of the country, his Government also intended to submit a number of quick-impact projects to the Peacebuilding Commission in the areas of health, energy, the upcoming elections and youth, with an emphasis on job creation. Projects in those target areas would have an immediate effect on efforts to address many of the country's social and political challenges. They could be carried out in parallel to the establishment of an overall strategic framework for peacebuilding in Guinea-Bissau, he asserted.
Underscoring the frankness and honesty with which Mr. N'Dafa Cabi had presented his country's case, Brazilian Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Chair of the Peacebuilding Commission's Guinea-Bissau configuration, said the Commission was now in a position to request United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to declare Guinea-Bissau eligible for an initial grant from the Peacebuilding Fund to help the tiny West African nation consolidate its recovery from lingering political instability and to address key socio-economic challenges in the period ahead.
Praising the Prime Minister's significant initiatives aimed at laying the groundwork for political stabilization, economic recovery and peace consolidation, Shola Omoregie, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Guinea-Bissau, said those efforts now needed to be reinforced. "The [Peacebuilding Commission's] engagement with Guinea-Bissau will be an added impetus for making irreversible the transition from post-conflict reconstruction to peace consolidation, and thereby yielding concrete dividends in political stability and socio-economic development," he said.
"In essence, this is where the real work begins, and the Government and the international community are expected to stay the course until the work of peacebuilding is completed," he said, underscoring the need for national ownership, close partnership between the Government and the wider international community, and effective implementation and monitoring of projects, including the timely disbursement of financial resources.
A strengthened partnership with Guinea-Bissau was required to lay the foundation for political stability, economic growth and long-term development. The next stage, articulating a strategic framework of the Commission's engagement with the country, would be important in building that partnership, Mr. Omoregie concluded.
In opening remarks, South Africa's Ambassador, Dumisani S. Kumalo, who chairs the Economic and Social Council's ad hoc working group on Guinea-Bissau, said that one of the keys to building peace in any country was working with its neighbours -- in Guinea-Bissau's case Senegal, Cape Verde, Gambia and Guinea. The working group had begun visiting the country as early as 2002 and had also discovered that another priority for building peace was talking with the people.
Mr. Kumalo said that any country emerging from conflict must own its destiny and, in his work with the group, he had been humbled to see that the people of Guinea-Bissau were ready to take their future into their own hands. Among the serious challenges that needed to be addressed to keep Guinea-Bissau on track, he cited predicable budget support, security sector reform, quick impact income-generating projects, help in combating drug smuggling and assistance with external debt.
Following the Prime Minister's detailed presentation, the Commission held an interactive discussion with him. The participants welcomed the peace-consolidations efforts undertaken thus far by the Government of Guinea-Bissau and underscored the Commission's potential in consolidating peace and promoting sustainable development.
Several speakers echoed the concerns of Cape Verde's representative, who urged the Commission to work with the Government to draw up a strategic framework as quickly as possible, bearing in mind that Guinea-Bissau was struggling to build peace without lights or electricity, with unpaid disgruntled workers, a host of restless ex-combatants and disaffected, unemployed youth. Those were challenges that needed to be urgently addressed.
Angola's representative added that Guinea-Bissau's delegation should not leave New York without assurances of concrete support by the Commission. "This is about instilling and building confidence," he said, "otherwise, we will just be here talking." Egypt's representative suggested that, rather than waiting for the Bretton Woods institutions to step in, the Commission should ask Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to immediately consider allocating an "envelope" of some $35 million, ahead of setting up a strategic framework, so that the Government could address issues such as energy and electricity supply and pressing health care matters.
Also taking part in the interactive discussion with the Prime Minister were the representatives of Japan, Jamaica, Portugal, Spain, Ghana, Indonesia, India, Guinea, Slovenia (on behalf of the European Community), Mozambique, France, El Salvador, Mexico, United Kingdom, Gambia, Pakistan and Senegal.
Representatives of the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund also spoke.
Prime Minister N'Dafa Cabi headed a high-level delegation that included key officials of his Cabinet, including Marciano Barbeiro, Minister of Defence, Issufo Sanha, Minister of Finance, and Roberto Ferreira Cacheu, Secretary of State for International Cooperation.
The Peacebuilding Commission will meet again in its Guinea-Bissau configuration at a time and date to be announced.