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Thursday, 22 November, 2001, 18:28 GMT
Guinea Bissau's colourful leader
President Kumba Yala of Guinea Bissau
Yala has earned himself the reputation of being erratic
By Ligio Monteiro of BBC's Portuguese Service

President Kumba Kobde Yala of Guinea Bissau is an unpredictable man.

His unexpected tirades often confound people and his behaviour is interpreted by many as erratic.

Recently he sacked the country's top judges, who have now been charged with corruption.

He also threatened to dismiss all civil servants and replace them with people from his his own ethnic group.

And this week he unceremoniously sacked the minister of foreign affairs whilst she was out of the country - prompting demonstrations in the street.

She subsequently warned that the small west African nation, which gets by on fishing and cashew nut revenues, was heading for dictatorship.

According to insiders though, to regard him as erratic is a wrong perception, because his actions and decisions are carefully calculated.

Man of the people

The son of a peasant he came to power in February 2000 following democratic elections held after an 11-month armed conflict.

A 47-year-old, he first came to prominence in 1994, during the campaign for the first multi-party ballot to be held in the country.

A forcefull and eloquent communicator, he used all his skills to ridicule the then President, Joao Bernardo Vieira and his party, capturing the mood of the people.

Guinea Bissau militant
Many independence war soldiers come from Mr Yala's ethnic group

His rallies were always well attended, and there was an air of anticipation surrounding him, especially among the poor and working class.

His reputation as a man of the people came about, not only because of his working class background, but also because of his fondness for a simple and humble lifestyle.

Despite this, he is reported to have taken three degree courses in Philosophy, Theology and Law both in Portugal and in Guinea- Bissau itself

He is from the Balanta ethnic group mainly from the south and central regions of the country.

The Balantas make up about 30% of the population of the country and formed the bulk of the armed forces who fought for the independence from Portugal between 1963 and 1974.

Strange hat

One of Mr Kumba Yala's best known charcteristics is the red woolly bobble hat he wears.

Former President of Guinea Bissau Joao Vieira
Vieira was often ridiculed by Yala

For some, this might look strange, but there is an explanation.

The Balanta ethnic group is the only one in Guinea Bissau with neither a chief or a recognised leader.

All important decisions are taken by a "Council of Elders".

To be a member, the person has to be circumcised and this is usually done after the age of 40.

To mark this initiation ceremony and to show the rest of the community that you have become a responsible and respectable man you have to wear the red hat.

Of course the red hat has now become his trademark - and he milks it for all its worth - enhancing his colourful image.

See also:

15 Nov 01 | Africa
Guinea Bissau arrests top judges
23 Oct 01 | Africa
UN urges caution in Guinea Bissau
04 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Guinea-Bissau
25 Jul 01 | Africa
Timeline: Guinea-Bissau
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