Guinea-Bissau wraps up poll campaign

2012-03-16 18:01

Bissau - Guinea-Bissau's election campaign wound down on Friday in a carnival-like atmosphere ahead of a weekend vote in the fragile coup-prone west African state to elect a new president.

Music blasted in bars and boutiques as well as campaign convoys ahead of Sunday's ballot as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for peaceful, orderly and transparent elections.

The election follows the death of president Malam Bacai Sanha in January after a long illness. Nine candidates are vying for the top job in a country where tensions between the army and the state have caused chronic instability.

A mutiny by renegade soldiers in April 2010 prompted the European Union and the United States to suspend crucial budgetary and security sector reform support - leaving much hanging on a smooth election and post-poll reforms.

"It's a kind of carnival here at the moment, in the capital Bissau and the whole country," said Barnabe Gomes, a senior official supporting ex-prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior's presidential bid.

The walls of the crumbling seaside capital of this impoverished former Portuguese colony are plastered with election posters.

Umar Djali, 20, who is unemployed, danced with star-shaped sunglasses perched on his nose. He hopes former prime minister Gomes, 62, who has survived an army mutiny and failed coup bid in the past two years, will win.

"I have seen his campaign, it is very good, the music, the activities, the man himself ... ".

Strong support

Gomes is a favourite, despite an often fractious relationship with the army, which he wants reformed.

In the suburb of Belem, the party is for another frontrunner, former president Kumba Yala, 59, whose 2000-2003 regime was marked by instability.

Yala was overthrown in a coup but retains strong support from his Balanta ethnic group, the country's largest.

Despite a peaceful three-week election campaign, some fear violence or military intervention if the army does not approve of the winning candidate.

Guinea-Bissau 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 in 2009, and the latest, Sanha, died in his first term. An army uprising in 1998 led to a brief but bloody civil war.

Health and education

The army, left over from the independence war, commands some 10% of the budget, more than education or health, and has fiercely resisted reform.

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 revenue earners are cashew nuts and fishing, 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.