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

Guinea-Bissau President Assassinated by Military

March 02, 2009 02:46 PM
by Denis Cummings
The assassination of President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira, which followed the killing of the military chief, is part of a longstanding conflict between the government and military of Guinea-Bissau.

President Vieira Killed by Soldiers

Guinea-Bissau President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira was assassinated Monday morning by a group of Guinea-Bissau soldiers, hours after Gen. Batiste Tagme na Waie, the armed forces chief of staff and chief political rival of Vieira, was killed in a bombing attack.

Army spokesman Zamora Induta said that the soldiers who killed Vieira believed he was “one of the main people responsible for the death of [General Na Waie].” He also said that the killing was not part of a coup d’etat; the army has thus far made no attempts to seize control of the country.

“We reaffirmed our intention to respect the democratically elected power and the constitution of the republic,” said Induta. “The people who killed President Vieira have not been arrested, but we are pursuing them. They are an isolated group. The situation is under control.” The Associated Press reports that parliament chief Raimundo Pereira is scheduled to succeed Vieira as president.

The “tit-for-tat” murders is symptomatic of the longstanding conflict between the government and military in the tiny West African nation. Vieira, a member of the minority Papel ethnic group, has frequently been targeted by the military, which is run by the Balanta ethnic group. Vieira was removed from power in a 1999 military coup and, having regained power in the 2005 election, survived a military coup in November 2008.

The political instability is exacerbated by the cocaine trade off the coast, which has turned the Guinea-Bissau into a “narco-state.” The country, one of the poorest in the world, has little money to police its shores and officials in the government and military have been bought off by drug traffickers. Waie has been accused of participating in the trade and, according to the Times, the bombing of Waie was likely ordered not by Vieira, but by a drug cartel.

The current political instability will only help drug traffickers. “As a general rule, political turmoil is usually good for drug cartels,” writes David Blair in The Daily Telegraph. “Whoever emerges as Guinea-Bissau's new leader … face exactly the same temptations from Latin Americans armed with unlimited sums of money.”

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 presidential 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.

During his term Vieira faced continued resistance from 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.

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.

Soon after Vieira won the November 2007 election, soldiers attacked the presidential palace in an attempt to seize control of the country. The coup failed, and Vieira formed a 400-man security team to protect him.

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