Wednesday, March 04, 2009

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 barely 24 hours after President Joao Bernardo Vieira (pictured) was assassinated. The tiny West African republic is still reeling from the news that the country’s military killed the president in apparent revenge for the murder of the armed forces chief of staff the day before. Despite the deaths, the army denies there is a coup and the capital Bissau remains quiet. Parliament has declared seven days of national mourning for the assassination of the president and two State funerals. According to the country’s precarious constitution, Pereira now 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 1 March. The assassinated president Vieira (from the minority Papel ethnic group) has long had a tense relationship with the army dominated by officers from the majority Balanta ethnic group including chief of staff, Batista Tagme Na Wai. So it was no surprise Vieira was accused when Na Wai was killed in an explosion that destroyed part of the military headquarters on Sunday evening. While no one claimed responsibility for the blast, many armed forces members placed the blame squarely on the president. Renegade troops left Mansoa barracks, 60km north of Bissau, late on Sunday, to with a mission to "liquidate President Vieira". They first released seven soldiers who carried out a failed attack on the 69 year old Vieira last year. They then attacked Vieira as he tried to flee 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 platitude of condemnation about the assassinations. The council called on the country’s government to bring the killer 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, despite these pious calls, 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 ever since it won unilateral independence from colonial masters Portugal in 1974. It was ruled by a junta for ten years and the first multi-party elections did not occur until 1994. But the military has intervened several times since then, most notably in a civil war which ripped the country apart in 1998-1999. That war saw the overthrow of Joao Vieira's first term of office but he was returned to power in 2005. His regime was destabilised by parliamentary elections in November 2008 which was won by opposition parties. Vieira survived a coup attempt that same month when renegade soldiers launched a pre-dawn attack on his residence.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, 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 of 1.5 million population is one of the poorest in the world, ranked the 175th out of 177 nations in the U.N. 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 speak of, Colombian drug cartels are free to land on islands off the coast before distributing their cargo to impoverished African migrants who ferry the drugs north to Europe. “Government corruption, fed by poor government salaries at the bottom and uncertain political leadership at the top, means that 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’s islands every day. It claimed that politicians and armed forces officers are key facilitators of the trade. The denial by navy head, Jose Americo Bubu Na Tchutu wasn’t particularly convincing. “I just sit there waiting for evidence," he said. But the drug traffickers aren’t sitting there waiting. David Zounmenou, a senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies is convinced they are 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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