Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Bissau coup, Guinea Bissau
Thierry Charlier/AP
Guinea-Bissau President Joao Bernardo

Guinea-Bissau President Survives Military Coup

November 24, 2008 01:29 PM
by Denis Cummings
Members of the Guinea-Bissau military launched a failed coup early Sunday morning, further destabilizing a country with a long history of political instability.

President Vieira Unharmed After Failed Coup

A group of mutinous soldiers from the Guinea-Bissau military attacked the home of President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, killing a member of the president’s security forces and injuring several others. After three hours of fighting, the security forces were able to repel the attack and arrest at least five of the mutineers.

Vieira, who was not injured during the attack, gave a press conference Sunday afternoon. “These people attacked my residence with a single objective: to physically liquidate me," he said. “No one has the right to massacre the people of Guinea-Bissau in order to steal power by means of the gun.”

No one has claimed responsibility for the coup, but security forces are targeting Alexandre Tchama Yala, a navy sergeant and nephew of former President Kumba Yala, reports Agence France-Presse.

Kumba Yala is head of the Social Renewal Party (PRS), the main opposition party to Viera’s African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). The PRS won just 28 of the 100 National Assembly seats—compared to 67 for the PAIGC—in the Nov. 16 parliamentary elections, which were made official Friday. He called the election results “fabricated” and accused Viera of being a drug trafficker.

Yala is from the Balante ethnic group, which controls the military. The “swollen, ill-disciplined military” is well-armed due to a 1998-99 civil war and full of aging officers who fought for independence from Portugal in the 1970s. “Civil society organisations have accused leading political figures and Balante military chiefs of using soldiers as personal militias, including to protect drug smuggling,” says Reuters.

The coup has been condemned by the United Nations, African Union and neighboring Senegal, which has sent troops into Guinea-Bissau to help stabilize the situation. Guinea-Bissau has been unstable for much of its 34 years of independence, with numerous coups and a civil war in 1998-99. It is currently one of the five poorest countries in the world and a hub of Latin American drug trafficking.

Background: The political history of Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau, a small republic on the West African coast, is a former Portuguese colony. In 1974, after years of guerilla fighting led by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, it was given independence.

Luis Cabral, brother of assassinated PAIGC leader Amilcar Cabral, ruled for the first six years of independence before Viera led a military coup to overthrow him. He helped modernize the economy and move to a multi-party system, and in 1994 he was elected president in the country’s first free elections.

In 1998, after Viera fired an army commander for allegedly smuggling arms into Senegal, the army staged a mutiny, starting a civil war that ended in Viera’s ouster and exile in May 1999. The next president election was held in 2000, which was won by Yala.
Yala’s tenure was marked by conflict with parliament and erratic behavior. He was removed from power in a bloodless military coup in September 2003, but maintained belief that he was the rightful ruler of the country. A special presidential election was held in 2005, in which Viera—who had returned from exile—defeated Yala.

Over the past several years, Guinea-Bissau has developed into a center of the Latin American drug trade. The country’s many islands and inlets are difficult to police, especially for a government as poor as Guinea-Bissau’s. International observers fear that it risks developing into a “narcostate” if it cannot adequately police its shores.

“The situation is so serious that government stability is threatened as drug traffickers extend roots into ministries, the army and the police, according to various sources familiar with the trade who spoke on condition of anonymity,” wrote IRIN in 2007.

The November elections, which were called “free, fair and transparent” by the National Electoral Commission chief, solidified the rule of the PAIGC and gave some hope that it could lead to political stability, says Reuters. The coup, just two days after the results were confirmed, ended any hopes of stability in the near future.

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