Page last updated at 09:11 GMT, Saturday, 27 June 2009 10:11 UK

Hoping for change in Guinea-Bissau

Malam Bacai Sanha election stage

By Luis Cardador
BBC News, Bissau

Voters in Guinea-Bissau hope presidential elections on Sunday will be a turning point for the deeply troubled state which has become a major transit route for cocaine smugglers and witnessed a spate of political assassinations.

Despite the recent turmoil and a serious cash crisis, the atmosphere has taken a distinctly carnival atmosphere.

In past elections, voting has largely gone along ethnic or religious lines, but many people are now so fed-up with the situation that this seems to be changing.

The country is cash-starved and heavily dependent on just one product - the cashew nut, which 75% of its people rely on for income.

Only 40% of the population has been to school. Many teachers have not been paid for more than a year.


Our navy only has one ship. How can we secure all our coast with its many islands?
Malam Bacai Sanha
Presidential candidate

However, one Bissau resident told me that the cash crisis had one positive side - the army did not have enough ammunition to cause any trouble.

The authorities say everything is in place for a smooth election - only the heavy seasonal rains could upset the plans.

Yet beneath the apparently relaxed atmosphere on the streets, all is not well.

Earlier this month a presidential candidate and a former defence minister were shot dead by soldiers who accused them of plotting a coup.

Presidential hopeful Baciro Dabo was said to be resisting arrest at his home when he was shot dead, but his allies insist he was asleep with his wife at the time.

And former Defence Minister Helder Proenca and two of his guards were also killed.

These killings follow the assassination of President Joao Bernardo Vieira in March - the reason why this election was needed.

He is thought to have been killed in revenge for the murder of the armed forces chief a few hours earlier.

'West Africa's cocaine warehouse'

These deaths highlighted what many see as a culture of impunity in the country.

There is still no word from the authorities on who was responsible for the president's assassination let alone the other murders, death threats and beatings which many believe are politically motivated.

Children at a well in Guinea Bissau
Only 40% of people have been to school in cash-strapped Guinea-Bissau

One legal expert told the BBC that Guinea-Bissau has a very advanced legal system but "the rules are simply ignored".

European Union election observer Johan Van Hecke believes the rule of law must be enforced.

"There now has to be a serious fight against the feeling that some people are above the law. Whoever is elected president of Guinea-Bissau, I believe that should be one of their first priorities."

This sense of impunity has helped turn Guinea-Bissau into a major centre for the drugs trade.

It has been nicknamed the "cocaine warehouse of West Africa".

Recently members of the US Senate accused Colombian drug barons of being involved in trafficking here, and earlier this week US Assistant Under-Secretary for Africa Johnnie Carson declared Guinea-Bissau to be the continent's first narco-state.

Many Bissau-Guineans believe these descriptions are overstated; nonetheless, all presidential candidates agree that drug-trafficking must be tackled.

"But what can we do without outside help?" asked one of the presidential front-runners, Malam Bacai Sanha.

"Our navy only has one ship. How can we secure all our coast with its many islands?"

Third time lucky?

Voters are not deprived of choice: There are 11 candidates running for president, of whom three are seen as likely winners.

Yala election poster
Koumba Yala may have changed his name but not his trademark hat

Mr Sanha is the candidate of the ruling PAIGC, the party of the 1970s struggle against Portuguese colonial rule.

This is the third time he has fought for the job, having been defeated once by Koumba Yala and in 2005 by Mr Vieira, the president who was assassinated last March.

No wonder is motto is "Hora Tchica" meaning "the time has come".

But he is facing a strong challenge from Henrique Pereira Rosa.

Mr Rosa is running as an independent and some commentators suggest his campaign is gaining ground and he might even win on Sunday.

He is seen as a man able to bring a degree of stability to the country.

He headed a caretaker government between 2003 and 2005 after a coup deposed then-President Yala.

Mr Yala - who has recently changed his name to Mohamed Yala Embalo but he still wears his trademark red bobble hat - is the third main player.

He is the leader of the opposition PRS and for many people the man responsible for changing the political and economic course of the country for the worse.

During Mr Rosa's interim rule, Mr Yala once infamously forced his way into the presidential palace and proclaimed himself president.

During his own presidency the IMF and the World Bank suspended aid to the country after accusations of mismanagement and a string of sackings in the government.

But he is believed to have wide support within the military.

His share of the vote could be a decisive factor in the outcome of a second round, should none of the candidates win outright on Sunday.

Playing cards

Twenty-one observers from 14 countries have arrived to monitor the elections.

Henrique Pereira Rosa.
Henrique Pereira Rosa is gaining ground in the campaign

Ahead of the polls, Mr Hecke seemed satisfied with the preparations.

"What most impressed me was the fact that the Cacheu Regional electoral commission had carried out the process in a transparent and inclusive way," he said.

He joked how one candidate's agent had told him it was common to see rival candidates' officials playing cards together.

But he remains worried about the lack of security for candidates despite the violence earlier this month.

And the observers are keen to ensure that in small towns and villages, the voters are genuinely free to choose between candidates.

There is however one common denominator in this campaign: The need for unity, peace and stability.

Bissau-Guineans say they are tired of broken promises, violence and political turmoil.

For them the priority is that there is no return to the bad old days.

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