Page last updated at 21:06 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

History of crisis haunts Guinea-Bissau

By Will Ross
BBC West Africa correspondent

Following the assassination of President Joao Bernardo Vieira and the murder of the head of the army, General Tagme Na Waie, it is not surprising that foreign ministers from the region are heading to Guinea-Bissau.

Guinea-Bissau aoldier (archive photo)
Guinea-Bissau's army has called the shots since independence

The country has been a destabilising force in West Africa for years. The region has seen enough conflict and is determined to ensure a smooth transition and that no problems spill over the borders.

Guinea-Bissau was the only country in West Africa to have fought its way to independence.

But since that war with Portugal ended and the country's flag was hoisted in 1974, it has lurched from one crisis to another and analysts have long warned that the country urgently needs to change into a democratic state.

The past presidents, including Mr Vieira, have all relied on the army to stay in power and so whenever the military support has not been strong enough, a coup has taken place - or in this latest case, an assassination.

Prophetic warning

Eight months ago the Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group, said fundamental changes to the way the country was run were required.

It gave this pointed advice: "Army reform is needed most urgently to free the political system from military interference."

Guinea-Bissau President Joao Bernardo Vieira casts his vote on 16 November
President Vieira has led Guinea-Bissau for more than half its independent life

It would be hard to find a better example to back up this warning than the tit-for-tat murders of the president and the army boss.

The chairman of the opposition National Unity Party, Idrissa Diallo, told French radio that Guinea-Bissau was in the grip of a bitter power-struggle.

"The source of this instability is caused by extremely weak institutions and a non-existent state. At the pinnacle of the political system there is a permanent war for the control of power which is now tied to drug trafficking which is becoming the trigger... in the fight for power and has a central role in the struggle for leadership in Guinea-Bissau."

Coups and a lack of functioning state institutions all point to the country's instability but the situation has deteriorated in recent years as Guinea-Bissau, like several other West African nations, has become a hub for South American cocaine headed for Europe.

With over 100 tiny islands, most of which are uninhabited, it has been easy for drug traffickers to drop off, hide away and move on their huge hauls of cocaine.

So were the two deaths linked to the drug business?

"Based on the information that is available so far, I don't think that any direct relation can be drawn between the two factors. They are more the result of, let's say, an institutional and personal character crisis rather than anything else," says Antonio Mazzitelli of the United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime.

'Always vulnerable'

But military officers and politicians are known to have become embroiled in the lucrative cocaine smuggling business, and it would be no surprise if some of the divisions amongst Guinea-Bissau's elite had been accentuated by the influence and lure of drug money.

There had been bad blood between Mr Vieira and Gen Tagme, the head of the armed forces, for some years. The two men represent a wider ethnic problem.

Map of Guinea-Bissau

Vieira comes from the small Papel ethnic group whilst Guinea Bissau's military has been dominated by the Balanta, Gen Tagme's community.

The tensions increased when five years after seizing power through a coup in 1980, Mr Vieira accused six Balanta officers of planning to topple him they were executed.

Having been toppled in 1999 and forced into exile in Portugal, Mr Vieira may have made a remarkable comeback when he returned to rule again following an election, but he was always vulnerable.

It was never made clear who had ordered a group of soldiers to attack the president's home last November. Holed up in a room as a shoot-out ensued in his living room and bedroom, Mr Vieira must have known he was living on borrowed time.

He then lost his key ally in the region in December. Mr Vieira openly wept at Lansana Conte's funeral in December. The death of the man who ruled neighbouring Guinea for 24 years took away one of the props which was keeping Mr Vieira in power.

No change

Mr Conte had in the past sent troops across the border to help out his neighbour when there had been a need for some bolstering, and he even lent Mr Vieira a military helicopter to fly home when he first returned from exile ahead of his comeback in the 2005 election.

Aware that he needed protection following the November attack, Mr Vieira employed a 400-strong militia.

Wreckage outside Mr Vieira's palace after the assassination
The president's home was looted after he was killed

This seemed only to heighten tension between himself and Gen Tagme and there were claims that the militia protecting Mr Vieira attempted to kill the general in January.

When Mr Vieira won the election in 2005 he declared: "Guinea-Bissau is going to change for the better. Our state will serve and protect the sacred rights of every man, woman and child."

It has not changed for the better. It is as fragile as ever and people are still desperately poor, with life expectancy in the mid-40s.

Its people will be hoping the transition to a new leader is smooth and that any new presidential promises are followed through.

People say Barack Obama has taken on a difficult task at an unfortunate time - but jobs do not come much harder than turning around Guinea-Bissau as it sinks closer towards becoming a true "narco-state".

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