Thursday, March 12, 2009

The assassination of Joao Bernardo Vieira, the president of Guinea-Bissau, just hours after the assassination of his army chief of staff, had the outward appearances of a military coup.

Instead, analysts point to other reasons for the latest bout of turmoil in the tiny West African nation.

“The two killings apparently had more to do with … personal hatreds, ethnic rivalries and the growing involvement of Latin American drug cartels, predominantly Colombian, in the affairs of the former Portuguese colony,” said Joseph Sala, a former State Department official.

Mr. Sala was stationed in Lisbon during the 1990s, where he monitored developments in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.

Bissau, Guinea-Bissau’s national capital, fronts the Atlantic Ocean. It is dotted with numerous coves and islets, making the city a natural hideaway and transshipment point for illegal drugs bound for Europe.

The U.N. estimates that more than $1 billion worth of cocaine transits Guinea-Bissau each year, dwarfing its tiny economy based on cashew and peanut exports.

The army chief, Brig. Gen. Batiste Tagme Na Waie, was killed by a huge explosion March 2 as he was walking up a staircase to his office.

“That bomb was very sophisticated. It had to come from outside,” Mr. Sala said. “That kind of explosive is not manufactured locally.”

Asked about the assassination of the president, Mr. Vieira, by soldiers later the same day, he replied:

“There was a burning personal hatred of Vieira by his army chief of staff [and] by the majority Balanta ethnic group.” Mr. Vieira was a member of the smaller Papel tribe.

Mr. Vieira seized power in 1980 and ruled for 19 years until being driven from power and forced into exile at the onset of a civil war. He returned to win 2005 elections.

He escaped one assassination attempt late last year, in which armed men burst into his home and began firing automatic rifles. The president survived by hiding while his security forces fought back.

Ever since winning independence from Portugal in 1974, power struggles, coups, attempted coups and a civil war have plagued this nation of 1.5 million.

It sits ninth from the bottom on the U.N. human development index released in mid-December, which measures living standards and quality of life. The average life expectancy is just 47years.

When Gen. Waie was killed, a Balanta battalion stationed miles from Bissau assumed that their ethnic rivals were the perpetrators and decided to retaliate, according to reports in the Portuguese media.

Novelist Frederick Forsyth, who has written about African coups and mercenaries and is best known for his “The Dogs of War” and “The Day of the Jackal,” was in Bissau during the gruesome events. He provided details to several news media, including BBC and National Public Radio.

Mr. Forsyth said he heard the sound of an explosion and later learned that the blast in the president’s villa “hurt but did not kill” Mr. Vieira.

The author said the president was shot as he came stumbling out of his room, then dumped into a truck and “chopped to bits with machetes.”

The regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) immediately called ministers of its member-states into session.

At the meeting, Guinea-Bissau Prime Minister Carlos Gomes and Defense Minister Artur Silva firmly denied that there had been a military coup.

Reinforcing their statements, events in Bissau proceeded in an orderly fashion.

Two days after the assassinations, the speaker of parliament, Raimundo Pereira, was sworn in peacefully as interim president in accordance with the constitution.

“We need to really ensure that some sinister forces were not behind this,” Mohammed ibn Chambas, executive secretary of ECOWAS, was quoted by an African newspaper as saying at the meeting.

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