To mark the 40th anniversary of the death of the country’s founding leader, Amilcar Cabral, on 20 January, a newly formed think-tank – the Benten Institute – organised the inaugural Guinea Bissau Economic Forum, under the theme “What would Cabral do?”.
Guinea Bissau has had a chequered history, which has been widely documented. Fortunately, this tarnished reputation does not match up to the reality on the ground. A visit to its capital city, Bissau, does not give the impression of a failed state, nor a fragile one, although there are signs of political and economic stagnation, resulting from the past decade of political instability. If some of the media potrayals of the country are to be believed, the first-time visitor to Bissau would probably expect to see a city run amok by South American drug lords, arms traders and smugglers. Yet, to the contrary, the city is relatively peaceful and comparatively safer than most other African capitals.
Guinea Bissau was the first African country to attain independence from the Portuguese, under the leadership of national hero and renown strategist and intellectual Amilcar Cabral. But it has lagged behind other Portuguese-speaking African countries, which have been attracting investment and plaudits from academics, economists and businessmen alike.
It was with such a backdrop that the newly formed Instituto Benten organised the first Guinea Bissau Economic Forum to help lay new foundations for the country’s economic transformation. This think tank is the brainchild of Paulo Gomes, a well connected businessman who once served as one of the World Bank’s youngest executive director.
Gomes has developed a strong network, evidenced by the calibre of those gathered at the Forum, who included influential businessmen, politicians, academics and officials from major financial multilaterals such as the World Bank, the IMF and IFC, as well as UN officials. There was also a strong participation from local Guineans and encouragingly, these included many young participants from local universities and schools.
But why exactly did Gomes set up the Economic Forum?
“In Guinea, what is clearly lacking is an operational strategy that enables us to identify a portfolio of structural projects to transform the country, and this is what I wanted the Forum to focus on,” he explained, also expressing his satisfaction at the outcome of the Forum’s first outing:
“I’m pleased with the level of engagement. The Teylium group [which has the biggest hotel and shopping mall development in neighbouring Senegal] has agreed to build a hotel in Bissau. South African investors are looking at an eco-lodge. A Chinese businessman is looking at connecting Guinea Bissau to an undersea cable. And we are discussing how to build transmission lines to Guinea-Conakry’s hydro damn in Kaleta which will be operational by 2015. Lastly, an Israeli investor expressed interest in developing his agri-business activities in the country.” During a panel discussion when speakers were asked what areas Guinea Bissau should focus on, management consultant Victor Ndiaye stressed that the fisheries sector provides a huge area of growth in Guinea Bissau. Astonishingly, the government receives some $35m from the European Union to allow European vessels to fish in Guinean waters.
The same can be said of the cashew nuts industry, which today operates in a rentier style industry. The vast majority of the cashew harvests are exported raw to India. Again, adding structure to the industry and creating the full value chain internally could transform the economy.
Guinea Bissau also has a rich biodiversity and natural heritage, which can provide the country with immense opportunities in eco-tourism.
It was left to keynote speaker, former Nigerian president Olesugun Obasanjo, to drive the point home, stating that “potential alone never brought food to the table”. The year 2013 will be crucial in terms of the transition of the country and moving forward as envisaged by Gomes’ Forum ideals, and political stability will have to be one of the cornerstones.
The coalition government of Guinea Bissau, which was formed after last year’s coup, is still not recognised by any of the international bodies including the African Union and the European Union. Discussions are under way with the international community, with Ramos Horta, Nobel prize winner and former president of Timor, as the mediator. Undoubtedly the UN willneed to take a lead role to reconcile the different parties so that the country can re-enter the international arena.
Gomes also stressed that civil society and the private sector can play an active role in driving the agenda for change. “By assembling a strong economic front, this platform [of civil society and the private sector] can provide the momentum for change, and stability,” he said. The Forum concluded that to make progress, the country’s responsibility is a collective one and the challenges it faces can only be met by united efforts in line with Cabral’s “bottom-up” philosophy.