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Testing times for Guinea-Bissau

By Ebrima Sillah
BBC News

The dramatic comeback of Guinea-Bissau's former military ruler, Joao Bernardo Vieira, in presidential elections on Sunday could be put down to an error of judgement on the part of the ruling party of losing candidate Malam Bacai Sanha.

Joao Bernardo Vieira
Mr Vieira first came to power in a coup in 1980

Many blame the PAIGC government for being complacent in allowing Mr Vieira, often referred to by his nom de guerre "Nino", to return from exile to stand in the elections.

He had ruled Guinea-Bissau with an iron fist, from 1980 until 1999 when he was overthrown in a bloody civil war.

The second potential mistake on the part of Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr's government was to allow a violent confrontation between supporters of former President Kumba Yala and the police immediately after the results of the first round of the election were declared.

Mr Yala came third in the first-round vote. His party rejected the results and as his supporters were marching to the electoral commission to lodge their complaint they clashed with the police leaving two demonstrators dead and several others wounded by stray bullets.

This marked a turning point as the incident triggered the hurried decision by Mr Yala to declare his support for Mr Vieira.

Military standing

His victory could also come down to campaign strategy.

In the run-up to the second round, the PAIGC campaign was characterised by huge rallies, but Mr Vieira's camp on the other hand divided itself into small teams which spent time meeting voters even in the remotest parts of the country.

Supporters of former President Nino Vieira
Mr Vieira's supporters say he can stand up to the army

However, probably the biggest factor that swung things in Mr Vieira's favour was the armed forces and which of the two candidates was best suited to stand up to them and their constant interference in Guinea-Bissau's politics.

This point came to the fore when two weeks ago officers from the Para Commando army unit attacked the presidential place and the interior ministry, killing two security officers and wounding several people.

Although Prime Minister Gomes' government acted swiftly by arresting some of the attackers, none of them have yet been charged.

This prompted many to question the ability of the PAIGC to challenge the military on issues of insubordination.

Revenge

Although Guinea-Bissau had security problems during Mr Vieira's 19-year rule, for most of the time he was able to subdue members of the armed forces.

He also fought dissent with detention without trial and firing squads.

Regular troops in Guinea-Bissau's capital Bissau
Guinea-Bissau has suffered from years of coups and political instability.

It was an era that many Bissau Guineans describe as a brutal period of fear and dejection.

But it seems six years after Mr Vieira was forced out of power, the people of Guinea-Bissau have not had enough of the old timer, who as a young man joined up as a guerrilla fighter in the struggle for independence from Portugal.

His return to the helm will no doubt have further political ramifications.

Most of the soldiers who participated in his ousting are now in prominent positions in the army and many people wonder whether they will take kindly to working with their former foe.

Hands tied?

More practically, Mr Vieira has been elected on an independent ticket but he will have to work with the PAIGC government to deliver on his promises of job creation and economic development.

With the PAIGC, the party with the largest number of seats in parliament, now rejecting Mr Vieira's victory, it will be interesting to see how he will function as a president.

Should things come to head, some political pundits suggest the best - but most risky - option for Mr Vieira would be to dissolve government and allow Mr Yala's party, which forms the second largest parliamentary group, to form a coalition government with smaller parties.

But any attempt by Mr Vieira to dislodge the PAIGC-led government from power would certainly be resisted.

Mr Vieira himself repeatedly said during the campaign that he will respect the constitution and will not take revenge on those who ousted him.

It will be interesting to see if Nino sticks to his word.

SEE ALSO
G Bissau winner calls for unity
29 Jul 05 |  Africa
Bissau government promises calm
16 May 05 |  Africa
Amnesty for Bissau coup-makers
12 Apr 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Guinea-Bissau
17 Jul 04 |  Country profiles

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