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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Guinea-Bissau's Military Structure

BISSAU, June 25 (Reuters) - Imagine an army with more officers than soldiers, a penchant for coups and for meddling in politics, but no tanks or planes to defend the nation.

These are Guinea-Bissau's armed forces, the remnants of a once proud guerrilla army which won the small West African state independence from Portugal in 1974 after a bush war.

Since then, the army has tarnished its image with a series of bloody coups and mutinies, a fratricidal 1998-1999 civil war, and a 2004 revolt that killed the army chief.

Foreign donors are worried that senior members of the armed forces are now collaborating with Colombian cocaine cartels which use the small coastal nation -- one of the poorest countries in the world -- as a transit hub for drug shipments. .....

.......A U.N.-funded census of the forces threw up some astonishing figures:
  • Of nearly 4,500 members registered, more than 3,000 were officers, 1,800 of them holding the rank of major or above.
  • Of the 4,500, only six were younger than 20, and there must be hundreds older than 60 ... it's an old army and it has no plain soldiers," said Verastegui, adding that its ranks were bloated by veterans from the 1963-1974 independence war.
  • The army fought dissident Senegalese Casamance separatists on its northern border only two years ago, but Verastegui said there were "more people sitting at home than under arms".
  • "It's an army where the soldiers aren't in the barracks, where the real reason for wearing a uniform is ... to have a meal and a pension," said the Spanish army general, a 56-year-old artillery and aviation specialist.

The restructuring plan, for which the government has estimated a $184 million bill it hopes foreign donors will pay, aims to reduce the armed forces to only 2,500 members. The same plan will overhaul the police and judiciary.

Adding urgency to the security reform, Guinea-Bissau is scheduled to hold a parliamentary election in November and international observers and local politicians are hoping the military will not be tempted to interfere in the vote.

Verastegui said his overtures to win the confidence of military chiefs, including the armed forces head General Batista Tagme Na Wai, had encountered some suspicion.

"They don't really understand why we're here, they think we've come to tell them what to do," he said. He said Vieira's government and military commanders must decide what kind of army they want.

  • Soldiers laid off would also need livelihoods and dignity to avoid storing up future trouble.
    As it stands, the top-heavy Guinea-Bissau military would be hard pressed to protect its land frontiers or jagged coastline, which U.N. anti-narcotics experts say are being constantly penetrated by drug-traffickers' planes and boats.
  • "How many vehicles do the frontier police have?
  • None.
  • How many aircraft does the country have for border control?
  • None.
  • Boats? There are one or two -- but they'd have trouble getting them onto the water," Verastegui said.

"An army which sits in the barracks thinking about things that it shouldn't, will end up doing them."

The Rest @alertnet.com

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