20 March 2009

Guinea Bissau: Perspectives On a Crisis


In an interview with Pambazuka News, CODESRIA researcher Carlos Cardoso analyses events leading up to the assassinations of both Guinea-Bissau's military chief General Tagme Na Wai and President Nino Vieira within hours of each other on 1 March, and charts out his thoughts on what lies ahead for the country.

On 1 March 2008, a bomb exploded at the army headquarters in Bissau, killing military chief General Tagme Na Wai. The conflict between the general and President Nino Vieira had at this point reached its apogee. A few hours later, assailants as yet unidentified, but doubtless members of the security forces, assassinated Vieira at his residence. With the subsequent power vacuum, Guinea-Bissau is living through the bloody epilogue of a conflict between two men that has dominated the country's political life. CODESRIA researcher Carlos Cardoso analyses the events leading up to this dramatic end and charts out what lies ahead for the country.

Pambazuka News: The political and institutional crisis engulfing Guinea-Bissau has long revolved around the rivalry between President Nino Vieira and the military chief Tagme Na Wai. Does their simultaneous and violent death present a chance at stability for the country?

Carlos Cardoso: I don't think we should overestimate the impact of the recent event. Other factors must come into play for the political space to change. Bad governance generally afflicts Guinea, but needless to say, the elimination of Na Wai and Vieira will lead to dramatic changes given that they had an enormous influence on political and military life. It is also important to point out that these two men were the embodiment of the intractable contradictions that have characterised the instability in Guinea-Bissau.

Pambazuka News: What was the nature of their conflict?

Carlos Cardoso: This goes back a long time. Tagme Na Wai and Nino Vieira share a long history in the politics of Guinea-Bissau, but also personal ties dating back to the liberation struggle. One can speak of rivalry between two men who distinguished themselves as soldiers. In spite of the personality and stature of men like Amílcar Cabral and others at the forefront of the liberation struggle, Nino was able to build up his own personality cult. Along with others like Tagme Na Wai, these personalities grew over the course of time.

Relations worsened during the 1985 coup d'état against Nino, when Tagme Na Wai was fingered as one of the key role players.[1] Again, during the 1998 rebellion, Tagme Na Wai sided with Ansumana Mané.[2]

In spite of all of this, when Tagme Na Wai was appointed military chief [following the assassination of General Verissimo Correia Seabra in 2004] and Nino Vieira was elected president [in 2005], the two men maintained a fractious relationship. Each knew that he could not stand, but also could not do away with the other. There were two centres of power; one political, the other military. These relations were so intricate that the politics of Guinea-Bissau was plagued with strong interference by the armed forces as a result.

This said, it is true that the deaths of these two men will change things in Guinea-Bissau, but to what extent, we are still not sure.

Pambazuka News: Why is it that 30 years after the liberation struggle, the army still holds such sway in political life?

Carlos Cardoso: This is in large part due to the violent heritage that characterises Guinea-Bissau's society. This is particularly the case because after independence, the new government did not set in place mechanisms to redefine the role of the military in a civilian state. Furthermore, there was the tendency by political leaders to either claim or cling to power by co-opting the military. The military thus occupied a central role, whereby political differences were no longer settled peacefully, but with their involvement. Politicians were thus accustomed to using the military to their own ends.

This combination of factors has placed the military in a very influential political position.

Pambazuka News: Are there countervailing forces that can help Guinea-Bissau out of the current situation?

Carlos Cardoso: It is possible, but only if the politicians take account of the enormous responsibilities they have. For years, the need to reform the armed forces as a prerequisite for political stability has been discussed. The inherent obstacles do not necessarily mean it is altogether impossible. Everything hinges on political will. And I believe things will get easier, now that there is a new and focused generation, a generation who were not a part of the liberation struggle. In this generation, Guinea-Bissau has well trained cadres with a different understanding of politics, governance and civil order. They still have to contend with the old guard, but the change will happen. The change can start now, if the military is reformed into a modern institution that can rise above the challenges facing the country.

Pambazuka News: At the end of the 60-day transition period with Raimundo Pereira at the helm, elections are scheduled to take place. Do you think this will happen?

Carlos Cardoso: I had indeed foreseen a scenario where a transition period would take place in a power-vacuum. But again, I remain optimistic that the constitutional timeframe will be respected if the political will exists. Granted, there are structural deficiencies. Guinea-Bissau is practically bankrupt, with huge deficits, but in life, where the will to do right exists, financial means are not the sole determinant.

I am gratified that the prime minister reaffirmed plans to hold elections in the stipulated period. If the international community comes to the party with the necessary support, if ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) commits itself to the process, it can be achieved. I am however, under no illusion that, in a country with such structural and administrative problems, it will be smooth sailing. I just think that the challenges are surmountable, and everything else is open to conjecture.

Pambazuka News: If the elections do take place, do you foresee real political stability holding?

First and foremost, the current government elected in November 2008 must remain in place. If a dialogue takes place now with other political actors (this is necessary during the transition period), it will be possible to hold free and fair elections. I do not think the opposition is strong enough to mount an upheaval.

The November 2008 elections, in my opinion, demonstrated that the opposition had lost traction. And contrary to conventional logic, the PAIGC [African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau, the majority party] is likely to become even stronger following Vieira's death, because he embodied the very contradictions that weakened his party, in particular, leadership differences between himself and Carlos Gomes Junior [the current prime minister]. With the demise of Vieira, it will be easier for the PAIGC to heal itself and govern the country with a stable parliamentary majority.

But I am basing this on the assumption that the PAIGC wins the upcoming elections. At the moment, we do not know who the candidates will be. If the eventual winner is not from the PAIGC, he will have problems governing. But then again, this depends on the personality of the winning candidate.

Pambazuka News: You have touched on the contradiction between the political and military spaces in explaining the power crisis in Guinea-Bissau. Are there, in your view, other factors contributing to the violence?

Carlos Cardoso: Indeed, there are many other factors. But I do not subscribe to the notion that Guineans are naturally violent, hence the violent culture. This kind of determinism is neither justified, nor justifiable. It is true that violence as means of resolving disputes has entrenched itself and become a political reality. One could also point to the culture of machismo that may have led to certain violent behaviour. But it is more a tradition of violence than a culture of violence.

Also, the majority Balante ethnic group have a warrior heritage, and played a major role in liberation struggle. In the estimation of some, the Balante, who Amílcar Cabral singled out as having been a significant force,[3] were never fully compensated for their part in the struggle. After independence, leadership and all its trappings went to the intelligentsia, consisting mainly of the ethnic Pepel. This in part explains the situation, but this is not enough to justify the labelling the society as violent.

Pambazuka News: Guinea-Bissau is currently seen as a narco-state. What impact has the drug trade played in the current violence?

Carlos Cardoso: It is indeed a key factor in the current crisis. Drug trafficking seems to involve the military. Given the ubiquity of the military in political life, anything that affects it, affects the state. Tagme Na Wai put on a public show of fighting the drug scourge. Nino Vieira, by contrast, was not as visible. It is possible that they had differences on this score.

All the same, Nino's negative image came from the manner in which he returned from exile to contest the 2005 elections, and won. He arrived in Bissau by helicopter, even though the airspace was closed to him. This was a blatant challenge to the country's laws. In the same way, drug traffickers seem to be able to land their small planes anywhere and leave undetected.

Pambazuka News: In Angola, the death of Jonas Savimbi was a major factor in the re-establishment of peace and political stability. Do you think the demise of Tagme Na Wai and Nino Vieira could have the same effect?

Carlos Cardoso: There are limits to this comparison. In Guinea-Bissau there was a political polarisation that translated into the personalisation of power by two individuals. And it was clear that each sought to eliminate the other from the public stage. In fact, Tagme is credited with stating that if he died in the morning, Nino would be buried in the evening. This was the prevailing situation in Guinea-Bissau. In Angola, the death of Savimbi weakened UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), while the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) still had dos Santos. In Guinea-Bissau, both protagonists are dead.

Furthermore, let us not assume that Angola's problems went away with the death of Savimbi. The country continues to face serious problems linked to resource distribution, notably petroleum revenues. The stability of a state cannot be reduced to politics and the military.

* Philosopher and anthropologist Carlos Cardoso is a researcher and programme officer at CODESRIA. Translated from French by Josh Ogada

* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.


[1] On assuming power in 1980 through a coup d'état that deposed first president Luis Cabral, Nino Vieira survived three coup attempts in 1983, 1985 and 1993 before being removed in 1999. Tagme was detained and subjected for a long time after the 1985 coup attempt.

[2] In 1998 an armed revolt led by military chief Ansumane Mané failed to remove Nino from power, thanks to the intervention of Senegalese troops.

[3] Amílcar Cabral, assassinated in 1973 by Portuguese forces, was the head of the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau), that fought the liberation struggle leading to independence in 1974.

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