Bissau — A 21 October attack in Guinea-Bissau - when soldiers stormed barracks near Bissau's main airport, targeting military figures and leaving six people dead - has provoked more fear than the numerous coups and counter-coups of recent years.
The transitional government branded the attack a coup attempt, and accused former colonial power Portugal of backing it in an attempt to propel former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, who is in exile there, back into power. Within days, alleged coup leader Captain Pansau N'Tchama was arrested on the island of Bolama, in the Bijagos archipelago. He is expected to face a military court later in the year.
Although Guinea-Bissau's history is littered with coups, counter-coups and attempted coups, most ordinary Bissau-Guineans have not been involved or directly affected.
However, October's attack has ramped up tensions, largely because it took place during a dedicated transition period backed by regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and designed to lead Guinea-Bissau towards fresh elections in April 2013.
The attack also raised fears of rising human rights abuses: Two politicians, Yancuba Djola Indjai and Silvestre Alves, were badly beaten by soldiers the day after the coup attempt and a Portuguese journalist was expelled from the country.
On 6 November Luis Ocante da Silva, who was an ally of the ex-army head José Zamora Induta, was abducted from his home by a group of uniformed men, and was today reported to have died from his wounds.
"The last time I saw this level of fear among activists and commentators was in the build-up to the civil war in the late 1990s," a former diplomat told IRIN on condition of anonymity. "People are really afraid to talk in public about politics or even initiatives," he said. "It has also raised tensions between ethnicities as so many difficult questions rear their heads regarding Bissau's future."
Some Bissau-Guineans say they had been expecting an attack. "If it wasn't last month, it might have been this month," said Alfonso Gomes Vieira, who works as an upholsterer in Bissau. "The transitional period is seen as a cover-up... How could we gloss over all of Guinea-Bissau's problems and pretend things are fine?
Since the April coup several sources say drug trafficking has mounted in Guinea-Bissau. Two planes full of cocaine have allegedly landed on the mainland over the past two weeks: in Gabu, southeast of the capital Bissau on 5 November, and in Catio, southwestern Bissau, the week before.
"This is another sad episode in Guinea-Bissau's ongoing crisis," said Lorenso, an administrative officer at a radio station in Bissau who gave his first name only. "The path to new elections has been littered. I didn't expect things to run smoothly, but there is an underlying sense that things are getting worse, that this was not an isolated incident... Maybe we'll never be free from this insecurity."
In January, President Malam Bacai Sanha, who was elected in 2009, died of illness in a Paris hospital. His death created a void that was set to be filled during elections scheduled for March and April 2012. But between the first and second rounds, soldiers staged a coup, ousting acting President Raimundo Pereira and his prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior, the frontrunner in the second round of the vote.
The coup came as security sector reforms were under way, approved by parliament, backed by the European Union (EU) and the UN, and designed to revamp the armed forces, initiate pension plans for military members of retirement age, and create a force that would work in cooperation with civilian leaders.
"Security sector reform is a difficult task," a member of the UN team charged with instigating reforms, told IRIN on condition of anonymity. "There are dozens of army members who are 70 years old or upwards, some of whom are in their nineties. They don't want to change. Their tensions with the government date back to the independence war against Portugal in some cases, and they aren't about to be resolved just because we tell them it's a good idea."
Although the EU has withdrawn programmes and financial backing from Guinea-Bissau in the wake of April's coup, the UN-backed security sector reform programme is ongoing. But those involved say it may as well have ground to a halt.
"We had high hopes," a UN trainer told IRIN in November. "But we're working with people who don't want to change. No matter how strong the reasons for change, it has to come from them and we are seeing a lot of resistance. They do not want to cooperate with whoever is in charge at a civilian level; they want the civilian leaders to cooperate with them."
Trust levels low
October's events were a setback for human rights in Guinea-Bissau, say rights groups. Several arrests have been made since N'Tchama was caught in late October. At least two journalists have gone into hiding, and - as yet unfounded - rumours of assassinations are circulating.
"Having human rights is one thing, but applying them is something else entirely, Fernando Texeira, coordinator of human rights group Casa dos Direitos in Bissau, told IRIN.
"We're working on outreach projects to inform people that they have human rights, but what kind of rights do they really have right now? We have to ask ourselves whether the future will bring true justice and liberty to Bissau," said Texeira.
The Casa dos Direitos building, which was once Bissau's main jail, includes a room that is equipped with seats and a projector for talks and debates, he said. "We planned to invite people to come and speak about human rights and politics, but people are afraid... Nobody feels comfortable discussing their political views with people they don't know or trust at the moment."
"Guinea-Bissau is in a state of siege. That's why people don't dare speak out," said Néné da Costa , a housekeeper in Bissau.
"When I first heard about the transitional government's mandate, I thought, this seems like lending someone a smart jacket to wear for a while. You become warm on the surface, but underneath the same health problems are there," said law student Justino Nhaga. "We need real solutions, not ones that simply look and sound good," he added.
Guinea Bissau ranks 176 out of 187 countries on the UN human development index; just over half of the adult population is literate; life expectancy at birth is 48 years.
After months of on-off striking by teachers, schools remain closed despite an agreement having been signed between teachers and the transition government.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]