Umaro Sissoco Embalo in Bissau on December 28 2019. Picture: SEYLLOU / AFP
Umaro Sissoco Embalo in Bissau on December 28 2019. Picture: SEYLLOU / AFP

Bissau — Opposition leader Umaro Sissoco Embalo swore himself in as the new president of Guinea-Bissau on Thursday, defying a ongoing row over the outcome of elections nearly two months earlier.

Embalo, who styled himself as the outsider in the election campaign, vowed to break with the decades-long domination of Guinea-Bissau’s traditional ruling party, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

“I swear on my honour to defend the constitution, to respect it and have it respected,” Embalo said, his right hand raised, before a crowd of several hundred at an upscale hotel in the West African state’s capital, Bissau. Outgoing president Jose Mario Vaz then placed the presidential sash over his shoulders, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

Embalo lashed out at “the lack of vision, the nepotism, the 45 years of waste, which have driven our country to failure”.

“Today, a new era begins, a new hope for our country,” Embalo said.

The ceremony took place despite a continuing legal and political battle in one of West Africa’s most volatile countries.

Embalo, 47, won 53.55% of the votes in the December 29 runoff, according to the National Electoral Commission.

PAIGC candidate Domingos Simoes Pereira, won 46.45%, but denounced the result as fraudulent.

The Supreme Court, responding to a petition by the PAIGC, has issued rulings requiring a check of the vote tally sheets.

However, this has failed to resolve the dispute, and a row has now brewed between the supreme court and the election panel.

On Tuesday, the election commission confirmed the results that it had previously announced, while the PAIGC stood by its objections.

By pushing ahead with the inauguration, Embalo bypassed the supreme court, which he said did not have authority to rule over the result dispute, as well as parliament, which has to give its approval to the swearing-in.

The speaker of the legislature, which shares power with the presidency under Guinea-Bissau’s constitution, was a notable absentee at Thursday’s ceremony.

However, Embalo, in his speech, promised to build a new alliance in parliament, where the PAIGC has a relative majority.

The current prime minister, Aristides Domingo, has described Embalo’s tactics as a “coup d’etat” — a word with dark historic resonance in Guinea-Bissau.

Troops were deployed in significant numbers in and around the hotel where the inauguration took place — an apparent sign that the armed forces were willing to let the ceremony go ahead.

The response of the international community to the inauguration is as yet unknown.

The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which has played the role of mediator in Guinea-Bissau’s crises, congratulated Embalo in January.

Ecowas officials did not say on Thursday whether the bloc officially recognised him as president.

Portugal, the former colonial power, said in January that it would await the final results, validated by the supreme court.

The US state department referred to a statement in January that recognised Embalo’s victory.

France “is following the situation closely, in close consultation with its African and European partners”, the foreign ministry said.

Guinea-Bissau has a reputation for graft — ranked 172 out of 180 countries in the Transparency International index for 2018 — and for serving a transit point for cocaine smuggling. Two-thirds of its 1.8-million people live below the poverty line despite rich mineral reserves and tourism potential.

It is also chronically unstable, having seen four coups and 16 attempted coups since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974. The latest putsch was in 2012, followed two years later by presidential elections, although the return to democracy was swiftly overshadowed by squabbling between Vaz and the PAIGC.

Embalo is a reserve brigadier general with a fondness for wearing a red-and-white Arab keffiyeh headdress.

He served as a former prime minister under Vaz between 2016 and 2018 before joining Madem, a party formed by PAIGC rebels.

Pereira is a lifelong member of the African Party for the PAIGC, which led the struggle for independence.

A civil engineer by training who studied in Ukraine and California, the US, he became party leader in 2014 before serving as prime minister under Vaz.

The two fell out over accusations of mismanagement of the country and corruption and he was sacked in August 2015.

AFP