Guinea-Bissau goes to polls

2012-03-15 13:52

Bissau - Guinea-Bissau will elect a new president on Sunday, a key test for the fragile, coup-prone state where a powerful army has resisted reforms, and cocaine cartels have deep roots.

The election follows the death of leader Malam Bacai Sanha in January after a long illness, and will see nine candidates vying to take his place. Some 579 000 people have registered to vote.

The ex-Portuguese colony on the bulge of Africa is the only west African nation to have achieved independence through military force, and since 1974, the army and state have been in constant, often deadly, competition.

This has lead to chronic instability and a dysfunctional state which, with its porous coastline and archipelago of islands, provided fertile ground for Latin American drug lords looking for a hub to ship their cocaine to Europe.

Guinea Bissau has never had an elected president finish his term in office.

Three have been overthrown, one was assassinated in office by the army, and the latest, Sanha, died in his first term. An army uprising in 1998 led to a brief but bloody civil war.

"There is very strong tension between the civilian government and military. All reform attempts have failed and have created political tension," said Vincent Foucher of the International Crisis Group based in Dakar.

The army, left over from the independence war, numbers about 10 000 for a country of 1.6 million and commands some 10% of the budget, more than education or health.

The least worst candidate

The country's most recent political turmoil began in 2009 when the army chief was blown up in his office by a remote-controlled bomb, followed by the assassination of president Joao Bernardo Vieira in an apparent revenge bid.

On April 01, 2010, an army mutiny saw then-prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior abducted by deputy army chief Antonio Indjai, who declared himself army chief.

The mutiny also saw the comeback of former navy chief Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto - who the US has designated a drug kingpin and who had long been a fugitive over an earlier coup plot.

Both men were later appointed to their respective posts, prompting the European Union and the United States to suspend crucial budgetary and security sector reform support.

Tchuto has since been arrested for his role in a December 26, 2011 attack on military headquarters described by the regime as a failed coup bid, during which Gomes sought refuge at the Angolan embassy.

The fellow Portuguese-speaking Angola is a powerful influence, providing "defence troops and a lot of money in military assistance", said Foucher.

This has worried the army as the state grows more reliant on the foreign troops.

Gomes - who stepped down as prime minister to run in the election - is an election favourite, despite being unpopular with some in his party and the military which he wants reformed.

Foucher said Gomes, 62, is seen by the international community as "the least worst" candidate.


A peaceful election is as crucial for oil-rich Angola and its investment plans, as it is for donors who hope the country will stabilise.

Also in the running is former president Kumba Yala, 59, whose 2000-2003 regime was marked by instability, and who was overthrown in a coup d'etat.

Independant Henrique Rosa, 66, who was transition president in 2004-5 and scored 24% in the last election, is also running as is independent Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, formerly of the ruling party.

Development is the greatest challenge for the state which has proved unable to provide decent health and education, and which has a very weak economy.

The main source of revenue is cashew nuts, followed by fish, and the country depends on international aid to pay the wages of civil servants and of the armed forces.

And then there is the cocaine trade, which the United Nations and others have said is condoned by high-ranking officials in both the government and military.