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Guinea-Bissau yearns for new era after elections

July 15, 2005

By Diadie Ba

BISSAU (Reuters) – While many African leaders opt for
canes, batons or even fly whisks as symbols of authority, the
former president of Guinea-Bissau insisted on a red woolen cap
despite the tropical sunshine.

Many in the former Portuguese colony cheered the end of
Kumba Yala’s rule when he was overthrown by the army in 2003,
hoping that promised elections would deliver a less eccentric
president to rescue them from deepening poverty.

With the tiny West African country due to hold the second
round of those polls this month, Guineans are nurturing dreams
of a new era of enlightened rule against formidable odds.

“I don’t care who will run this country, all we need is
peace and stability above all else,” said 32-year-old taxi
driver Ibrahima Bangoura, driving a battered blue and white
car.

“How do you expect our cars to be in good shape with all
these big holes in the roads?” he said, negotiating one of the
craters in the streets of the capital Bissau. “But even that is
nothing compared to the chronic instability here.”

Bearing the scars of a liberation struggle that led to
independence in 1974 at a time when Portugal was leaving its
better known, much bigger colonies Angola and Mozambique,
Bissau bears witness to years of decay and civil strife.

Creole music blaring from bars in a city perched on the
edge of the Atlantic fails to lift the sense of neglect in a
town with hardly any buildings higher than a few stories,
chronic power shortages and ubiquitous peeling paintwork.

Campaign posters for the various presidential candidates
plaster the walls, but they cannot paper over the fear of many
residents that the military will again stifle efforts to
install a credible civilian government in the country of 1.4
million.

“All we need in our country is peace, peace and peace.
Everything starts with peace,” said Evora Dasylva, 37, selling
cashew nuts at the city’s central market.

TROUBLED PAST

Like many of its neighbors in West Africa — where
countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone have endured periods as
classic “failed states” — Guinea-Bissau’s recent history is a
story of dictatorship, military takeovers and treachery.

Leading the anti-colonial struggle since 1956, the African
Party for Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) set up
the country’s first post-independence civilian government under
Luis Cabral, promising a future of freedom and prosperity.

Just six years later, in 1980, liberation war hero Joao
Bernardo “Nino” Vieira toppled the government, establishing an
iron-fisted autocracy that only ended when a civil war in the
late 1990s forced him into exile in Portugal.

The pendulum swung back to civilian rule when Yala, a
philosophy professor whose red cap is a symbol of authority in
his Balante tribe, won a landslide victory in 2000 elections,
but hopes of improvements were again dashed.

Yala failed to deliver better living standards, while
election delays, capricious appointments to the military and
judiciary and frequent ministerial sackings reinforced fears he
was just another dictator in civilian clothes.

While the international community felt duty bound to
condemn the soldiers who kicked him out in a bloodless putsch
in 2003, many people in Guinea-Bissau were overjoyed to see the
back of a man regarded as eccentric and incompetent in equal
measure.

ELECTION

Yala disputed the results of the first round vote in June
that put him in third place but has said that he will now back
former ruler Vieira in the run-off against Malam Bacai Sanha of
the PAIGC.

Whoever wins the July 24 ballot, residents in Guinea-Bissau
will be anxious to see democratic principles take root, and
above all for the army to stay in the barracks.

“They number of soldiers is disproportionate to the
country’s security needs,” said analyst Peter Karibe Mendy.
“The demilitarization of Guinean society is critical for the
establishment of a culture of peace,” he said.

Despite the challenges, there are some encouraging signs,
including campaigning by members of Guinea-Bissau’s small
circle of educated activists who want to see real change.

“We are tired of poverty, we want to open a new chapter in
this country’s history,” said Macaria Barai, coordinator of the
Citizens of Good Will, a civic group promoting democratic
ideals.

“During these elections we drew up a code of conduct for
all the candidates, to carry out very responsible campaigns, to
accept the results of the elections and to use the judiciary
for any complaints regarding the elections,” Barai said.

Whoever wins the presidency will face a serious challenge
in delivering the kind of economic improvements needed to
cement stability and end do-or-die competition for state power
among politicians who see few other avenues to wealth.

Cashew nuts and fish earn most foreign exchange, while
gross national income per capita fell to $130 in 2003 from $230
in 1997, ranking Guinea-Bissau as one of the world’s poorest
states.

Revitalizing the economy will be crucial for placating the
army, which has a deep-rooted sense of entitlement.

Many retired soldiers fought the Portuguese while more
recent recruits battled troops sent by neighboring Senegal and
Guinea to help Vieira quell an army uprising in 1998, although
no election candidate has tabled detailed plans for reform.

“As long as the economic problems of the army have not been
solved, there will not be any stable institutions in this
country,” said Tcherno Djalo, political analyst and rector of
the country’s Amilcar Cabral public university.

“The next president should tackle the problem of the army,”
he said. “If he succeeds then it will be a great achievement.”




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