Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embalo has survived an attempted coup but says many members of the security forces were killed repelling an “attack on democracy”.
Calm returned to the streets of the capital Bissau on Wednesday, a day after men armed with machine guns and assault rifles attacked the government palace.
Embalo was in the government palace along with Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam when it was surrounded and attacked by heavily-armed men on Tuesday afternoon. Embalo said the gunfire lasted for five hours.
“It wasn’t just a coup. It was an attempt to kill the president, the prime minister, and all the cabinet,” he said.
The state broadcaster said the shooting had damaged the government palace and that “invaders” had detained officials in the building. Military vehicles loaded with troops drove through the streets of the capital as people fled the area.
Embalo said later on Tuesday that the situation had been brought under control, and that some of the people involved had been killed and arrested but did not give numbers.
He described the coup attempt as an attack against democracy, saying it “was well-prepared and organised and could also be related to people involved in drug trafficking”, giving no further details.
Who could be behind the attack?
It is not yet clear. Some witnesses described the gunmen as members of the military, others said they were civilians.
Embalo, who enjoyed strong military support during a previous political crisis, said the army was not involved in the attack.
“I can assure you that no camp joined this attempted coup. It was isolated. It is linked to people we have fought against,” he said.
But Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Senegal, said military grievances “have been brewing for a long time”, with a lot of resentment directed towards the government. The country has long been beset by corruption and drug trafficking.
Late last year, the chief of the armed forces said members of the military had been plotting a coup while the president was on a working trip to Brazil.
Guinea-Bissau has suffered four military coups and more than a dozen attempted military takeovers since its independence from Portugal in 1974, with the most recent coup in 2012.
Embalo, himself a former army general, was declared the winner of a December 2019 runoff vote, although the results were bitterly contested by his opponent, Domingos Simoes Pereira.
What has the reaction been to the attack?
The 15-nation West African regional bloc ECOWAS called Tuesday’s violence a coup attempt and said it was following the situation in Bissau “with great concern”.
The African Union called on the military to “return to their barracks without delay” and to release detained members of government.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the “terrible multiplication of coups” in the region, which he called “totally unacceptable”.
Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said on his official website he had spoken to Embalo by telephone and had “conveyed his vehement condemnation … of these attacks against the constitutional order of Guinea-Bissau”.
What are the implications for the country and region?
The attacks threaten to further destabilise the fragile country and could ramp up pressure on Embalo.
Emmanuel Kwesi Aning of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Centre told Al Jazeera the country remains beset by corruption, high unemployment, and low education, all of which is “building up frustration … Particularly where we have leadership that doesn’t speak the language and behaves in a way that reflects the aspirations and hopes [of the youth],” he said.
Tuesday’s attacks have also deepened fears that a recent wave of coups in the region is spreading.
Since August 2020, soldiers have seized power in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.
Despite sanctions and suspensions on those countries by ECOWAS, none of the military rulers has yet organised new elections, and the attack in Guinea-Bissau will add to growing scrutiny over the credibility of the regional bloc.