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GUINEA-BISSAU: Live By the Sword…

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Mar 5 2009 (IPS) - Violence was a trademark of João Bernardo Vieira’s life: he survived a coup, four attempts on his life and 13 years fighting the Portuguese colonial army in Guinea-Bissau. But the legend died at the hands of the corruption and violence he himself fed.

In the early hours of Mar. 2, Vieira was killed as a result of a settling of scores by followers of João Baptista Tagme Na Waie, the Army’s chief of staff and his traditional ethnic and political rival, who was killed hours before, allegedly by men close to the President.

When entering the jungle during the war (1961-1974), Portuguese soldiers hoped to dodge the feared commander “Nino,” Vieira’s combat name; he gained legendary status after authoring the most severe defeats against even the elite troops of the Portuguese army.

Vieira “was a very skilled man in the military arena, one of the main exponents of Guinea-Bissau’s liberation war, with great capacity for mobilisation,” former Portuguese President Mario Soares told IPS. Soares was one of the main architects of the Portuguese Empire’s decolonisation in 1974-75 and a staunch opponent of the corporatist regime (1926-1974).

The former President supported an initiative by the Portuguese government, which after an urgent meeting on Monday with the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) decided on Mar. 3 to send an urgent diplomatic mission headed by Portuguese Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs João Gomes Cravinho.

A long history of violence

After overthrowing President Luis Cabral in 1980 and taking power, Vieira began a harsh repression against the Balanta ethnic group, who were prominent in the army, by arresting, torturing and executing his perceived rivals.

It was brigadier general Ansumané Mané who overthrew Vieira’s government in 1999 with the help of one of his closest collaborators, Tagme Na Waie. Both were Balanta.

In January 2000, the little-known Kumba Ialá managed to strip the presidency from Malam Bacai Sanhá, the candidate of the omnipotent African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), a political group which gained almost mythical fame for conducting an armed struggle against Portugal.

Ialá, who had founded the Party of Social Renewal (PRS) in 1998 on the basis of the Balanta ethnicity, became the first to break the 26 years of PAIGC parliamentary rule, gaining an impressive 72 percent at the polls.

Nevertheless, the new president went for an authoritarian rule, managing in only three years to replace 50 ministers and vice-ministers, fire five prime-ministers, jail several Supreme Court judges, make threats to invade Gambia and to break ties with Portugal, limit press freedom, expel journalists and close down the Portuguese state television (RTP-Africa) for two months. He also ordered the assassination of General Mané.

Ialá himself was overthrown in a coup in 2003. The leader of that coup, Verissimo Correia de Seabra, was summarily executed in 2004.

Vieira returned from six years of exile in Portugal, only to return and regain the presidency in democratic elections in 2005.

The CPLP, formed by Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, São Tomé and Principe and East Timor, could “play a crucial role” in preserving peace in the African country, argues the Portuguese former President.

“We need all Portuguese speaking countries to unite and help prevent chaos or a bloodbath,” concluded Soares.

Already on Guinean soil, Cravinho has expressed hope that presidential elections will take place in the next 60 days and has also called international support in restoring constitutional order.

IPS also sought the opinion of lawyer Fernando Ka, president of the Guinean Association for Social Solidarity (AGSS), which provides support for Guinean migrant communities abroad. Ka argued Guinea-Bissau’s chronic violence can be traced back not only to power struggles and ethnic conflicts, but also to “the immense corruption of the political class, which is becoming richer and richer.”

As long as the country lacks a development policy generating wealth to a population impoverished to unimaginable levels, Ka says, “we cannot be surprised at the proliferation of international mafias with local partners and the consequent prolongation of a seemingly endless violence.”

Ever since independence from Portugal, life in this small West African country of 36.125 square kilometers and 1.5 million inhabitants that lies between Senegal and the former French colony of Guinea has been marked by volatility.

One of the few peaceful periods in Guinea’s independent history was between 1973 and 1980 under Luis Cabral (1973-1980), brother of Amilcar Cabral, “the father of the nation” who in 1974 was assassinated in Conakry by Portuguese commandos. However, after almost seven years in power, he was the victim of a coup by one of his closest aides, none other than the legendary commander “Nino” Vieira.

The future “can only bring hope if an appeal is made to Guinea-Bissau’s human capital abroad, in the technical, scientific and cultural fields, to return and create capacity for a true reconstruction of the state,” said Ka.

The President of the AGSS points to the violent events since the beginning of March as indicating “another instability in a country that has totally lost the confidence of the international community and, even worse, of Guineans themselves, who don’t trust the military, the government and the judiciary.”

Regarding the late President, Ka regrets the assassination but recalls that “Nino Vieira governed the country as if he was the only citizen of Guinea Bissau,” whereas on the other hand “the military lives only of blackmailing with coups whenever it needs money.”

The fourth poorest country in terms of purchasing power according to the International Monetary Fund, Guinea-Bissau only performs better than the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Burundi.

Although the annual per capita income stands at a mere 856 dollars, large sums of money flow into the country, but this wealth does not benefit the larger population and concentrates around a core of individuals who have turned rich at an almost inexplicable pace.

The only possible explanation can be found in the warnings issued by international organisations, which identify Guinea-Bissau as a country on its way to becoming the first African “narco-state”, where South American traffickers have set up a vast “technical connection” operation to smuggle cocaine into Europe.

A variety of investigative articles published by journalists in Portuguese, Cape Verdean and other media, as well as by activists from African and European non-governmental organisations, have denounced the official veil of silence surrounding drug trafficking.

The panoply of accusations includes threats and pressures on judges aimed at inhibiting their investigation of accused individuals.

Under the initiative of the country’s more courageous judges, a few Guineans and foreign citizens have been detained, only to be released without charges, in spite of large seizures of cocaine in September 2006 and April 2007.

Even though precise data is missing, the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) estimates some 300 tonnes of cocaine go through Western Africa each year on their way to Portugal, Spain, and from there to other European destinations.

Interpol asserts that this vast operation, which sees the participation of traffickers from Africa, Latin America and Europe, has found in Guinea-Bissau an ideal harbour. Colombian and Brazilian drug lords operate at ease in a Portuguese speaking country with little coastal vigilance and extensive uninhabited areas.

The double assassination at the beginning of March is also connected to an ethnic element, always used by politicians to spice up violence in the country, especially in the chronic confrontation between the majority group Balanta and the influential Papel minority to which Vieira belonged.

In 1986, Joao Baptista Tagme Na Waie – a Balanta – said his destiny and that of the dead president were strongly linked and that the day of his death would also be the last day of life of “Nino” Vieira.

Twenty-three years later, the prophecy has been fulfilled.

 
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