The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Guinea-Bissau’s president says situation ‘under control’ after attempted coup

Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló in Paris in November. (Michel Euler/AP)

The president of Guinea-Bissau posted a message to Twitter saying he was “fine” Tuesday after mutinous soldiers tried to overthrow the tiny nation’s government in an hours-long shootout.

Video captured gunmen storming the main government compound, and West African leaders condemned an “attempted coup” in the country of 2 million, which has a long history of military uprisings.

“The situation is under control,” wrote President Umaro Sissoco Embaló, who took office in 2020 and who local media outlets reported was in the compound when the attackers arrived.

The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, earlier asked the soldiers in a statement to “return to their barracks” and keep the president safe, echoing the plea it made to military officers in Burkina Faso only eight days earlier.

State radio on Wednesday said six people were killed in the attempt, including two members of the presidential guard and four of the attackers, according to Reuters.

West Africa has endured four coups in 18 months. Soldiers across the region are toppling elected leaders at the highest rate in four decades, analysts say. The overthrows tend to start with protest movements and a sense the government has failed people — on education, jobs, health care and security.

In Burkina Faso, where soldiers deposed the president Jan. 24, thousands have died in a conflict that has only grown since 2015. They blamed authorities for failing to equip the army in the battle against fighters linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

In neighboring Mali — where researchers say those insurgencies took hold — military leaders have twice sacked the president since August 2020, initially accusing the government of diverting funds from the army and leaving soldiers vulnerable to slaughter.

Warfare in vast stretches of West Africa has made it impossible for many to go to the doctor or school. More than 2.6 million people have lost their homes, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency.

Guinea-Bissau, a coastal nation with 88 islands, has avoided the insurgency threat faced elsewhere in the region.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Embaló said that an “isolated” segment of the military led the rebellion and that “many” people died.

The country emerged in economic tatters from an 11-year war for freedom from Portuguese colonial rule. Leaders turned to illicit sources of income, which fueled instability. In the past two decades alone, Guinea-Bissau has counted two successful coups, a civil war and a presidential assassination. Just one president has finished a term since the country gained independence in 1974.

The United Nations has blasted security forces for trafficking cocaine, and Guinea-Bissau developed a reputation as Africa’s first narco-state. The United States posted a reward of up to $5 million in September for the former head of the military, Antonio Indjai, calling him one of the country’s “most powerful destabilizing figures.”

Officials accused the former general of clearing smuggling paths for South American drug gangs.

But Indjai continued to split his time between his home in the capital, Bissau, and his cashew farm in the countryside. Analysts said the president feared that handing over the influential figure could spark another mutiny.

As news of the chaos reached social media Tuesday, West Africans lamented the pattern.

“Nobody wants a coup,” tweeted Lare Sisay, a retired U.N. development manager in Gambia, “but West Africa needs to address the issue of bad governance, corruption and abuse of power or risk being engulfed in endless unconstitutional changes of government.”

Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and Liberia’s former minister of public works, compared it to a contagion.

“The ‘coup’ virus,” he wrote, “is now airborne across the sub-region.”

Borso Tall in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

Read more:

With Burkina Faso’s president ousted, West Africa faces ‘coup bloc’

Soldiers announce overthrow of Burkina Faso president