3 October 2005

Guinea Bissau: West Africa Calls for World Backing As President Sworn In

Bissau — West African leaders are urging quick international assistance for Guinea-Bissau, whose new president Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira was sworn in this weekend facing a massive cholera epidemic and fears of continuing political instability.

"Donors must help Bissau now, and without conditions," Senegal's Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio told reporters on Monday.

And a one-day summit of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) wound up in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Friday with a "call on the international community to fulfill its commitment to extend financial, technical and material assistance to Guinea Bissau."

But of the 17 heads of state invited to attend Vieira's ceremonial swearing-in, none was in attendance. As heavily-armed soldiers patrolled the streets, many of the country's leading politicians too stayed home, raising fears of a return to years of instability.

Vieira, a former military ruler with a history as an independence fighter against Portuguese rule, won 52 percent of the vote in the 24 July presidential election. In his inaugural speech, he also issued a plea for assistance in fighting the devastating cholera outbreak currently ravaging the tiny country, which has affected more than one percent of its 1.3 million people in less than four months.

The new president, wearing a black suit and red tie, pledged to consolidate national unity and the law while promising to modernise the country, defend freedom of expression and reform the army.

One of the six poorest countries in the world, according to the UN Human Development Index, Guinea-Bissau has been unable to pay its civil servants for the past three months and its health and education systems are in dire straits.

But probably the country's worst nightmare remains the fear of instability. This election was supposed to draw a line under years of trouble - a civil war in 1998-1999 followed by political instability and administrative chaos.

Absent at Vieira's inauguration also was his main challenger at the ballot box, Malam Bacai Sanha, the candidate of the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) who trailed in second with 48 percent.

The PAIGC is split between its leadership, which refuses to recognise Vieira's victory, and other party members who do.

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, who had rejected Vieira's election, has said he is ready to share power, yet the new head of state made no mention of Gomes Junior during his inaugural speech and on the streets of Bissau few believe that the head of state and the head of government will get on.

The PAIGC holds the most seats in parliament and also leads the transitional government, which is due to be replaced in coming weeks.

Vieira seized power in a coup in 1980 and went on to win the country's first multi-party elections in 1994 before being overthrown himself in 1999.

But this time around he appears to have the support of the military, with Armed Forces chief of staff Tagme Na Wai, Navy chief of staff Bubo Na Tchuto and Aniceto Na Flak, all behind him.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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