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Thursday, October 22, 1998 Published at 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK

World: Africa

Behind the Guinea-Bissau conflict

The recent fighting in the impoverished West African country of Guinea-Bissau once again sees President Joao Bernardo Vieira confronted by his one-time comrade-in-arms, Brigadier Ansumane Mane.

Guinea-Bissau gained independence in 1974, the first of Portugal's former colonies to do so in the modern era.

It was achieved after a 13-year struggle, led by the African Independence Party, the PAIGC, which has been in power ever since.

But its leaders have repeatedly fought with each other over how the country should be governed.

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During the war of independence, Mr Vieira fought alongside both Mr Mane and Luiz Cabral, the man Mr Vieira was later to overthrow.

Mr Cabral was one of the founders of the PAIGC, and became the country's president in 1974. He made Joao Vieira, who had previously been the commander of the armed forces, his prime minister.

But Commander Vieira ousted his former ally from power in a near bloodless coup in 1980.

He claimed that endemic corruption and economic mismanagement was preventing the country from emerging from its extreme state of under-development.

But now the cycle of history has come full circle, and President Vieira is accused of autocracy by fellow members of the PAIGC.

The current dispute was triggered when President Vieira fired the head of the armed forces, Brigadier Ansumane Mane, on June 5, accusing him of allowing arms to be smuggled to rebels in the southern Senegalese province of Casamance.

General Mane, who also fought alongside President Vieira during the colonial wars, attempted to seize control the following day. He declared himself the head of a military government and called for free elections.

Relations with neighbours

Senegal and Guinea-Conakry both sent in troops to help crush General Mane's revolt. But although Guinea-Bissau enjoys mostly good relations with its neighbours, there have been some problems.

  • Relations with Senegal have been occasionally disturbed by border disputes, which stem from an agreement made in 1960 between France and Portugal, the former colonial powers. Senegal has also accused Guinea-Bissau in the past of providing support for the Casamance rebels. President Vieira distanced himself from this support by sacking Brigadier Mane. Now the leaders of the two countries say they are committed to improving relations. The two governments are united in their condemnation of both groups of rebels, who they believe are helping each other.

  • There have also been border disputes with Guinea-Bissau's other neighbour, Guinea-Conakry, particularly off-shore where they may be oil deposits.

  • The PAIGC had the original aim of securing the independence and unification of Guinea-Bissau and the nearby Cape Verde islands. However, the idea of union with Cape Verde was dropped after the 1980 coup.

Crippling debt

Although one of the world's poorest countries, Guinea-Bissau was once hailed as a potential model for Third World development. After independence, the West poured money into restructuring, but the country failed to meet any of its economic targets.

  • The country, and its population of one million, still suffers from a crippling external debt, with foreign financing still accounting for an estimated 75% of budget revenue.

  • Gross Domestic Product: $253m - equivalent to $240 per head (according to a World Bank estimate in 1994)

  • A key export is cashew nuts. Other cash crops are palm kernels and cotton.

  • The mining sector is under-developed, although the country has large reserves of bauxite and phosphates

  • There may also be considerable oil reserves in off-shore areas. Drilling of three offshore petroleum wells began in 1989.

  • Most of the population are subsistence farmers, whose staple food is rice.

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22 Oct 98 | Africa
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Guinea-Bissau history (in Portuguese)

CIA World Factbook: Guinea Bissau

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