By Alberto Dabo
BISSAU (Reuters) - Under pressure from Western donors, Guinea-Bissau is struggling to organize elections to turn the page on a military coup but many in the West African country say a failure to reform the army means a new government will be vulnerable.
The tiny former Portuguese colony - which has become a staging post for South American cartels trafficking cocaine into Europe - was plunged into turmoil in April 2012 when soldiers toppled the government days before a presidential election.
It was a familiar story. No president has completed a term since Joao Bernardo Vieira was ousted after a civil war in 1999.
Senior officers' determination to wield power has been strengthened by kickbacks from trafficking routes that snake through Bissau's remote mangrove-lined islands, diplomats say.
Pushed by the United Nations as well as Western and regional powers, President Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo's transitional government is striving to organise delayed legislative and presidential polls on November 24, despite a lack of funds.
"If we rush to go to the elections we find ourselves back in the same situation," political analyst Bamba Cote said. "Even if a candidate wins with 75 percent of the vote, he will never succeed, now more than ever, to wrest power from the military."
A high-seas drugs sting by the U.S. Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) in April that captured former navy chief Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto may have reinforced the will of top brass to retain power rather than face prosecution.
Army chief Antonio Injai, the leader of last year's coup who is classified as a 'drug kingpin' by Washington, angrily told a news conference after evading the DEA agents that he would never resign and would kill himself rather than be arrested.
The DEA operation appears to have scared away cartels into neighboring states and drug trafficking in Bissau has sharply declined, diplomats say.
But residents on the ramshackle streets of the coastal capital are gloomy about the prospects for change in a country which has held more elections than any other in West Africa, only to see its leaders struck down by coups and assassinations.
"As long as there no major reform of the security forces, no elected president will regain the political power confiscated by the army," said Lazaro Barboza. "Guinea-Bissau's people will continue to be held hostage by the military."
MILITARY THREAT LOOMS
The armed forces rose to prominence in Guinea-Bissau's war of independence from Portugal in 1974 and have remained its most powerful institution.
The army is believed to number between 5,000 and 8,000 soldiers in a nation of 1.6 million inhabitants. It gobbles up around 3 percent of GDP, according to CIA estimates, in one of the world's poorest countries where the average person scrapes by on less than $2 a day.
Reforming an institution that has grown used to wielding power will not be easy and many observers say interim President Nhamajo lacks the political clout to do it. Attempts by the European Union and Angola in recent years to cut Bissau's army staff and train top brass to respect civilian rule ran aground.
"Modernizing the armed forces cannot be undertaken by a weak transitional government," said the United Nations' special representative in Bissau, Jose Ramos-Horta. "This can start seriously after the new elections."
Ramos-Horta, former president of East Timor and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, said West African bloc ECOWAS had thrown its weight behind reform. Regional power Nigeria has provided over $50 million in funding and military trainers.
"I don't believe anyone in the army will dream of staging another coup any time in the future. ECOWAS leaders would come down hard on them," he said. "There's a consensus even among army officers to move on with these much-needed reforms."
Part of the problem is that with a poor pension system, commanders do not want to retire, leaving a top-heavy structure. The United Nations has estimated the total cost of reform at $200 million - around a fifth of annual economic output.
Following the U.S. sting operation, Injai told a conference in the capital, attended by the interim president, that he would only depart if dismissed by a legitimately elected leader.
"It's anybody's guess what that commitment is worth," said Vincent Foucher, West Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group. "Since the 1990s, all the army chiefs have been killed or removed in a coup; there's no history of a chief retiring."
The question is complicated by ethnic rivalries. Injai, like most of the military top brass, is Balanta. Injai launched the 2012 coup when Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior - of Portuguese extraction - was poised to win the presidency, accusing him of plotting to end Balanta military leadership.
"If your ethnic group is a minority, don't run in the election. You will not win," Injai said recently, in a warning to Gomes Junior not to return from exile to compete.
TICK ELECTION BOX
There are growing doubts over whether the ballot will take place on time. Augusto Mendes, president of the National Electoral Commission, said it was waiting for the government to deliver funding and conduct a census to update the voter roster.
ECOWAS leaders are due to discuss the situation with President Nhamajo, after the CPLP grouping of Portuguese-speaking nations urged a postponement of the election last week.
"The best advice I have received from U.N. election experts suggests that credible elections might not be feasible on November 24," Ramos Horta said. "However, any unreasonable delay will further harm the country's best interests."
The U.N. Security Council said in mid-September it was imperative that elections be held as quickly as possible.
An elected government would enable a resumption of cooperation with donors including the World Bank and the European Union, which suspended its cooperation in 2010 over governance concerns. Bissau depends on aid for 70 percent of its budget.
A Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, said the election box had to be ticked because the international community needed a legitimate president to work with.
"No-one in the international community thinks elections are the solution but you won't reach a solution without them."
(Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Giles Elgood)