A grimly familiar sequence of gunfire in the capital, military communiqués on the radio and the arrest of government officials is repeating itself in the small coastal state of Guinea-Bissau — apparently the latest West African nation to succumb to a coup d’état.
A second round of voting in presidential elections was scheduled to take place later this month, but on Friday, the heavy favorite, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr., was in army custody along with other senior officials.
The military, which has dominated politics in the country ever since it fought its way to independence from Portugal in 1974, announced it did not intend to stay in power and called a meeting of political parties late Friday.
But military officials did not say what their plans were for the nation of 1.6 million people, which is heavily dependent on aid and considered a major transit hub for Latin American drugs. Once again, in a country long accustomed to coups, the trigger was apparently the army’s perception that its prerogatives were threatened, diplomats said.
Soldiers guarded government buildings in the ramshackle port capital, Bissau, on Friday afternoon, and the streets were deserted. The two-story headquarters of the prime minister’s political party, which dominates the main square downtown, were occupied by the military, and observers said an unusual quiet prevailed after the previous evening’s gunfire and explosions. Photographs showed a large hole blasted in a wall of Mr. Gomes’s residence.
The coup in Guinea-Bissau comes shortly after junior officers seized power in Mali last month, also right before presidential elections were scheduled to take place. But unlike Mali, a longstanding exemplar of democracy in the region, Guinea-Bissau, in its recurrent upheavals, has consistently been at the extreme edge of instability among its neighbors.
In Guinea-Bissau, the interludes of democracy have been more fleeting than elsewhere, and seemingly built on shakier bases. Coups and coup attempts are so common that experts are stumped when asked how many have taken place in the country’s 38 years of independence. In the last three years alone, there have been at least six political assassinations, including of the president and the army chief of staff in 2009, and three attempted coups, including this week’s. No president has ever completed a full term.
Regional African organizations strongly denounced the coup on Friday, with the African Union saying it served to “tarnish the image” of Africa. In Guinea-Bissau, the military is both the country’s most intractable problem and, because of its role in ousting the Portuguese in a fierce guerrilla campaign 40 years ago, the holder of a popular legitimacy that is not found among its counterparts elsewhere in the region or in Bissau’s own weak institutions. Politicians who did not take part in the independence fight, like Mr. Gomes, are held in suspicion and contempt by the military.
On Friday, a self-proclaimed “military command” announced on the radio that it had deposed the prime minister because of what it said was a “secret” agreement between him and military forces from Angola aimed at suppressing Guinea-Bissau’s army. It offered no evidence of the agreement, and diplomats and analysts said it seemed likely that the army was simply trying to eliminate Mr. Gomes before his probable victory in the second round of the presidential election. The vote was intended to replace President Malam Bacai Sanhá, who died in January.
As many as 200 Angolan troops have been present in the country since March 2011, the latest attempt in what other nations have called the “reform” of the Guinea-Bissau military, after an unsuccessful initiative by the European Union. Mr. Gomes has backed these plans — principally attempts to downsize the armed forces — which have been resisted by the military. In the past, former senior members of the military have been implicated, by the United States and others, in drug trafficking. The speckle of islands off the coast are ideal for the undisturbed landing of small planes carrying drugs.
As Western aid donors, frustrated with the lack of progress in the country, have taken a back seat, Angola — with its ambition to become a major foreign-policy player on the African continent — has stepped in, canceling Guinea-Bissau’s $39 million debt to the country.
During a December coup attempt, Mr. Gomes took refuge in the Angolan Embassy in Bissau, and Angolan-trained police officers took the lead in protecting him. The head of the Bissau military, Gen. Antonío Indjai, recently accused the Angolan military of arming itself with ever-heavier weapons. Late Friday, coup leaders said in a statement that General Indjai had also been removed.
“We knew there was a malaise between the military and the Angolans,” said Henrique Pereira Rosa, a former president and unsuccessful candidate in the first round of voting last month. “We knew there would be problems.”
The Angolans had also recently announced their departure, suggesting that the real objective of the apparent coup attempt was not them, but Mr. Gomes, who seemed set to take up the country’s top position, the presidency. “In a certain sense, it was now or never” to depose Mr. Gomes, said Vincent Foucher, a Bissau expert at the International Crisis Group in Dakar.
The opposition had called for a boycott of the second round of elections, alleging fraud, a position most lately advanced by the second-place finisher, Kumba Yala, at a news conference on Thursday. Not long after, the soldiers moved in, taking over state radio and the governing party’s headquarters.
By Friday afternoon, citizens had resigned themselves to a situation that has become all too familiar: soldiers patrolling the streets of Bissau. “There is nobody out, nobody,” said a longtime diplomat in the capital. “It’s so quiet, it’s unbelievable. It’s a very uneasy silence.”
Mr. Rosa, the former president, said he was staying home until the situation became clearer. “We are waiting for the communiqués,” he said. “We are waiting.”