African basket case: Just another day of crisis in Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau parliamentary speaker Raimundo Pereira was sworn in yesterday as interim head of state 24 hours after President Joao Bernardo Vieira (pictured) was assassinated. The tiny West African republic is reeling from the news the country’s military killed the president in revenge for the murder of the armed forces’ chief of staff the day before. The army denies a coup and the capital Bissau remains quiet. Parliament declared seven days of national mourning for the president and two state funerals. According to the country’s precarious constitution, Pereira has 60 days to call an election. It is likely the deaths are related to tribal and drug trafficking issues.

The chain of extraordinary events began on March 1. Vieira (from the minority Papel ethnic group) had a tense relationship with the army dominated by officers from the majority Balanta ethnic group including chief of staff, Batista Tagme Na Wai. Vieira was accused when Na Wai was killed in an explosion that destroyed part of the military headquarters on Sunday evening though no one claimed responsibility for the blast. Renegade troops left Mansoa barracks, 60km north of Bissau on Sunday with a mission to “liquidate President Vieira”. They released seven soldiers who carried out a failed attack on the 69-year-old president last year. They then attacked Vieira as he fled his presidential home for the safety of the Angolan embassy. He was savagely beaten before being shot several times in the throat and face.

The United Nations Security Council issued its usual condemnation about the assassinations. The council called on the country’s government to bring the killers to justice and pleaded for calm and restraint on the streets. It urged all parties to resolve their disputes through political and peaceful means within the framework of its democratic institutions and opposed any attempt to change the Government through unconstitutional means. However the UN has not offered any practical help to the struggling nation.

Chronically poor Guinea-Bissau has been the victim of political instability and corruption since unilateral independence from Portugal in 1974. It was ruled by a junta for 10 years and the first multi-party elections did not occur until 1994. But the military intervened several times since, notably in a civil war which ripped the country apart in 1998-1999. That war saw the overthrow of Joao Vieira but he was returned to power in 2005. His second regime was destabilised by parliamentary elections in November 2008 won by opposition parties. Vieira survived a coup attempt that month when renegade soldiers launched a pre-dawn attack on his residence.

The Christian Science Monitor‘s Scott Baldauf says this week’s double assassinations are a troubling sign for a region “with weak institutions for self-government and strong incentives for corruption”. The country with a 1.5 million population is one of the poorest in the world, ranked 175th out of 177 nations in the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index. Apart from cashew nuts, its main industry is drugs. Guinea-Bissau is a transit point for the cocaine trade between South America and Europe. With no navy to worry about, Colombian drug cartels land on islands off the coast before distributing their cargo to impoverished African migrants to ferry the drugs north to Europe. “Government corruption, fed by poor government salaries at the bottom and uncertain political leadership at the top, means Guinea-Bissau has few tools to stop the drug trafficking,” says Baldauf.

According to the UK Independent, an estimated tonne of pure Colombian cocaine is transited through Guinea-Bissau every day. It claimed politicians and armed forces officers facilitate the trade. The denial by navy head, Jose Americo Bubu Na Tchutu wasn’t convincing. “I just sit there waiting for evidence,” he said. David Zounmenou, a senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies said drug traffickers were involved in the deaths of Vieira and Na Wai. “This recent set of killings can be explained [as] the action of the drug traffickers, who would not allow anything to get in the way or to obstruct their links with Europe,” he said.


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