- Guinea Bissau’s new Prime Minister Aristides Gomes, who has been in office for six months, speaks to IRIN about his hopes of improving living conditions and restoring investor confidence in a country long blighted by conflict and instability.
QUESTION: Perhaps we can start by speaking about your priorities. As head of the government, what are your visions, your priorities for your term in office?
ANSWER: Our priority is the improvement of Guineans’ living conditions. We must regulate our social problems, the problems of education, health and the impoverishment of the population. To be able to resolve these problems, we must prioritise and resolve our financial problems. We must find a solution to our budget deficit. We must make reforms - we have to change many things. We must address our military budget - it should be reduced. The budget should be used in a more productive way. And we must improve the quality of services. The civil service has to be reduced. We need to reduce the number of personnel in public service and modernise our working methods in every respect. The public expenditure should be cleaned-up.
Q: Have you already identified the number of people who should be cut from the payroll?
A: We must bring the civil servant per capita ratio in line with current standards for the economic zone that we are part of. We are well above those standards.
Q: And how far above ‘current standards’ is that?
A: I think that it will be necessary to get rid of at least a third of the manpower we currently have, within two years, for example.
Q: What kinds of alternatives can you offer young workers who are going to be laid off?
A: The country has to be modernised. We need improved infrastructure to enable companies to invest. The roads should be modernised. We must resolve the problem of electricity and our communications systems in general. That would make it possible for companies to invest and give hope to people who leave the civil service.
To sum it up, our strategy is to make a synthesis: we must reduce manpower in the public service and take better qualified and better able civil servants and work in a more modern manner. We must build more roads, improve the health service and education. That will make it possible for investors to increase their investments, to create more job opportunities and to train people laid off from public office.
Q: It is two or three months now that civil servants haven’t been paid….
A: Two months only: April and May.
Q: Do you have money to pay them at the end of the month?
A: Yes... We had a problem, which we believe will not last. Currently, we are refunding loans contracted under the previous government. But we will finish the refunding of these payments within a few days and then we will be able to resume again the regular payment of the wages.
Q: Last week, I heard news of a pay rise for soldiers. Is that right?
A: It is a misunderstanding. No increase has been promised. In fact, within the wage structure for the military, there is an enormous difference between the wages of the top officers and that of the subalterns and the soldiers. We want to restructure the wages of the soldiers so that there is less of a difference between top-level wages and bottom-level wages. The wage bill will not change - so it is not a wage increase but an internal reorganisation. We will increase the low wages and reduce the high wages appreciably, but all that has been negotiated within the armed forces.
Q: How low are the lowest wages?
A: Currently a soldier earns something like 30 000 CFA [US $60 a month]. It will increase a little bit after approval of parliament, though the wage bill will not increase. The budget is the same, again it’s a matter of redistribution.
Q: When you speak about a reduction of the number of civil servants, does that include teachers?
A: No, that does not include teachers or workers in the health services. Of course, if there are those who are not qualified, they will be replaced by others who are better qualified.
Q: Will the military, who are also on the public wage bill, also be affected by these cut-backs?
A: Yes, yes, there are those who will be laid off. There will be voluntary departures too. It is something which is being negotiated inside the armed forces. It is not a unilateral decision by the government, it is being very well prepared - there is a programme. There are some who may choose to leave, others who are old and will want to retire. It is a very precise programme.
Q: When will that programme begin?
A: It has already started and will continue gradually.
Q: Let us turn now to the conflict in the north of the country. Can one say that the conflict is now over?
A: Firstly, it was not a conflict. The border [with Senegal] was made safe. We got rid of rebels who had settled in our territory in very advanced positions, that is all.
Q: And the landmines, who left those?
A: The rebels left the mines. To protect themselves they established mines all around the zones that they had occupied.
Q: How do you plan to go about clearing the mines?
A: Part of the mine clearance is being done with the assistance of the United Nations. But that will be ongoing with co-operation from others. We are exploring whether there are other countries that can provide us with technical assistance, such as de-mining tanks that can remove the mines. The assistance of the United Nations is insufficient, very insufficient. So we must find some of these vehicles to remove the mines.
Q: In general, does Guinea Bissau have good relations with the international community and the country’s financial backers?
A: I think so, yes [laughs]. We have good relations, yes. We have a programme with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Q: Is the government budget close to completion?
A: Yes, we will discuss the budget in parliament in the coming days though it has not been approved yet, it is one of the items on the agenda of the parliament. I will present the budget and the legislators will vote.
Q: When is that vote expected to take place?
A: I do not know, I await until parliament convenes, though I imagine it will be in two or three days.
Q: The farmers complain about the price of a kilo of cashew nuts, fixed by the government at 350 CFA a kilo [US $0.60]. How would you respond to their complaints?
A: This is nothing new, we do not fix a price, but we do give a price of reference. According to our calculations, we think that this is a fair price, but it is not in the interests of the traders to pay a higher price as they do not make as much profit. So the lower the price, the happier the traders. If the price is high, then they make less - that is the rule of the market place.
Q: In general would you agree that selling raw products at low prices is a widespread problem in Guinea Bissau?
A: It is a problem, yes, insofar as we depend on the sale of products that are not finished before being sold abroad. The day when cashew nuts are processed here, we will no longer have this problem. When you sell a product with no added value, which is not industrialised, inevitably the price is too low. But, if you process these products, it sells better and at a higher price.
Q: I visited projects this morning including a small factory where they produce biscuits and syrups made from the cashew nut fruit. Is the government intending to help such initiatives, new projects?
A: Our wish is to help companies transform products locally, this is why we encourage banks to find money to lend to investors. It is government policy to encourage these companies to transform local goods locally, whether it is the cashew nut or some other Guinea Bissau product. But once again, as a government, we do not intervene directly. Like I said, we can create the necessary environment as I previously mentioned - with the necessary infrastructures, electricity and so forth, to create a good investment climate for business. Public administration systems must be effective, too, and education systems also have to function well. If all that happens, then investors will come and they will transform agricultural production.
Q: Is the government in a position to be able to do all this unaided?
A: We do not claim to be able to do it all alone. We think that the international community should contribute. It is with this aim that we are working with the international community. Each of our backers can contribute in a way that is relevant to their abilities.
Q: It is now six years that Guinea Bissau has been in a period of relative stability. Can you promise the international community that is going to last?
A: I think so, but no country can assure that in the absolute - especially a country that has such economic and social problems.
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