Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Lesmes Monteiro opened his shirt to show the 5cm scar in his chest from an attack by two knife-wielding masked men outside his home in the capital of Guinea-Bissau in 2017. The trained lawyer and part-time hip-hop artist believes he was attacked for organising anti-government demonstrations that have set off a wave of youth activism in one of Africa’s most unstable nations.

A state of paralysis stemming from President Jose Mario Vaz’s feud with his party, known as PAIGC, over voter registration is stoking discontent among a public tired of lacking basic services such as clean water and electricity.

“People are starting to lose their fear,” said Monteiro, a 33-year-old founder of the non-partisan Movement for Conscious and Dissatisfied Citizens. “Historically, people who criticised power in our country ended up dead or beat up, but our conviction is changing that.”

The desire for change in Guinea-Bissau is symptomatic of the growing anger among young people in many African countries dissatisfied with faltering job and educational opportunities, says Theophilus Acheampong, a senior analyst with IHS Markit.

“The average age of most of the leaders in the continent is 65, bordering 70, and the average demographic profile in a lot of these countries is between 25 and 30 years,” he said from London. “You see the big disconnect between the masses of the population who are youthful and the people who are ruling them who are old men.”

The feeling is widespread in Guinea-Bissau where politicians remain widely discredited in a country marked by a civil war, repeated coups and political assassinations since attaining independence from Portugal in 1974.

The presence of about 600 African Union peacekeepers, in the country since a 2012 military coup, has helped maintain calm, but tempers are flaring. The latest in a rash of strikes, a teachers’ stoppage, has kept public schools shut for more than two months and triggered nearly weekly student protests, sometimes violent.

Under the threat of international sanctions, the military has also stayed on the sidelines during the political crisis. The number of demonstrations in the capital, Bissau, has risen sharply to 21 in the past two years from one in 2010, according to figures from US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a non-governmental organisation that tracks political unrest.

Vaz, 61, has defended his administration and its record of overseeing an annual economic growth rate of more than 6% in the cashew-producing nation in the past three years.

“Drop by drop, we will fill our ocean of hope,” he said in his 2017 year-end address. “The future is not built in three-and-a-half years and with beautiful speeches, but rather with work, with a lot of work.”

Yet power cuts are almost a daily affair in the dusty capital, where only a few main roads are paved and have street lights. More than a quarter of the West African nation’s 1.8-million people is undernourished, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“The population has remained passive, but I believe there is a risk of a social implosion with all these strikes and no sense of economic progress,” said Suzi Barbosa, a PAIGC legislator who at 45 is the youngest female deputy in the National Popular Assembly.

Monteiro said his movement is preparing more demonstrations to pressure Vaz to set a date for a long-overdue legislative vote that was delayed in November over problems with voter registrations.

“Those who have ruled us are a failed generation,” said Amadu Djamanca, a 32-year-old journalist who heads the newly created Observatory of Democracy and Governance. “We are helping awaken the people from their slumber.”