Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Guinea-Bissau News Bulletin: Raimundo Pereira, Speaker of Parliament, Sworn In as Interim Leader

Guinea-Bissau speaker is sworn in

Guinea-Bissau's parliament has elected the speaker as the West African state's interim leader, a day after the president was assassinated.

Raimundo Pereira must organise a fresh presidential election within 60 days.

Diplomats representing West African and Portuguese-speaking nations have been meeting the government to ensure the constitution is honoured.

President Joao Bernardo Vieira was shot dead by soldiers who blamed him for a bomb attack that killed the army chief.

Guinea-Bissau - a major transit point for Latin American cocaine headed for Europe - has been plagued by political unrest since it gained independence from Portugal in 1974.

Before taking the oath of office on Tuesday, national assembly leader Mr Pereira said Guinea-Bissau was "facing a very delicate situation".

He called on MPs "to assume their responsibility toward the nation".

Lawmakers in the capital Bissau also observed a moment of silence for President Vieira and for the army chief-of-staff Gen Tagme Na Waie.

Life in the city began to return to normal with some businesses re-opening, although shoppers briefly fled two market places in panic after rumours spread of fresh shooting, according to Reuters news agency.

'Fragile situation'

Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua, who heads the 15-member regional bloc Ecowas, has sent a delegation to the country.

"The fragile political situation in Guinea-Bissau has been further weakened by these events," he said.

Soldiers killed President Vieira early on Monday in an apparent tit-for-tat attack after Gen Waie was blown up in his headquarters hours earlier.

The African Union's Peace and Security Council decided not to suspend Guinea-Bissau when it met in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Tuesday, as it said the attacks did not represent a coup.

The AU suspended neighbouring Guinea and Mauritania after coups last year.

Guinea-Bissau's army has denied it is launching a coup and has promised to honour the constitution.

Portugal's foreign minister also arrived in Bissau and reportedly said he did not see any need for international military intervention in the country.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has reportedly sent a plane to pick up Mr Vieira's wife and children and take them to Dakar.

Guinea-Bissau, an impoverished former Portuguese colony of 1.6 million people, has been plagued by coups since 1980, when Mr Vieira himself first came to power in one.

Monday's attack was the second on President Vieira in recent months.

In November, his residence was targeted by soldiers with automatic weapons.

In January, Gen Waie had a narrow escape when unidentified gunmen opened fire on his car.

He reportedly suspected the attack had been ordered by Mr Vieira, as he had just stepped outside after receiving a call from the presidency asking him to come at once.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/03/03 19:39:58 GMT

Envoys concerned over Guinea-Bissau democracy

BISSAU (AFP) - - A doctor who carried out an autopsy on the body of Guinea-Bissau's president said he had been savagely beaten before being shot as diplomats rallied Tuesday to safeguard democratic rule in the state.

President Joao Bernardo Vieira, murdered by soldiers Monday morning, was brutalised before being shot several times in the throat and face, said the doctor who declined to be identified.

"The president was hit by several bullets in the thorax and face and his body shows the marks of violent blows," said the doctor, who declined to be identified.

"He was savagely beaten before being finished off with several bullets," he added.

Vieira was assassinated at his home in apparent retaliation for a bomb blast Sunday night which killed the head of the armed forces, General Tagme Na Waie.

National Assembly speaker Raimundo Perreira, who has taken over as interim leader, was holding talks with foreign envoys, including Portugal's Deputy Foreign Minister Joao Gomes Cravinho, officials said.

"We are going to study with the competent authorities the ways and means to identify and evaluate the immediate needs of the country, so that we can provide support, notably in the organisation of elections, and put an end to the cycles of violence in the country," Gomes Cravinho told reporters.

Under the constitution, Perreira must organise presidential polls within 60 days.

Gomes Cravinho said he and a delegation from Lusophone states would also hold talks with Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior and representatives of the armed forces.

The capital Bissau was returning to normal Tuesday with government ministries and businesses reopening and children going to school, residents said.

Soldiers had largely withdrawn from the streets of the capital after a show of force in the hours after the killings.

Military chiefs have pledged to respect constitutional order and denied that they had staged a coup.

Government officials are also expected to hold talks with foreign ministers from regional bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) led by Senegal's Cheik Tidiane Gadio.

"ECOWAS is concerned about what has just happened in Guinea-Bissau," said Gadio.

In the National Assembly, lawmakers were expected to debate the twin killings for the first time as well as discuss plans for the late president's funeral.

Meanwhile, the African Union's Peace and Security Council, meeting in an emergency session in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, said Vieira's assassination was not a coup, but demanded a probe into the killing.

"A head of state was assassinated but we have not reached the stage where the situation can be defined as a coup," said Bruno Nongoma Zidouemba, who chaired the meeting for council member Burkina Faso.

According to the AU's statutes, member states should be suspended in the event of an unconstitutional power change, as were Mauritania and Guinea Conakry following coups last year. However, the AU stopped short of suspending Guinea-Bissau.

Instead, AU chief Moamer Kadhafi said the 53-member body would send an envoy to Bissau "to assess the situation and prevent it from worsening."

Guinea-Bissau has a history of coups and has become a notorious transit point for the cocaine trade between South America and Europe, raising the stakes in long-running power feuds between political and military leaders.

Details began to emerge Tuesday of the military assault on the president's home.

A soldier who said he took part in the operation told AFP the soldiers who killed the president had deployed late Sunday from Mansoa barracks, 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of the capital, to "liquidate President Vieira".

He said they left Mansoa to avenge the death of the army chief.

The soldier said that the unit had first sprung seven soldiers from a police station in Bissau where they had been held since a November 24 attack on Vieira's residence that killed two of his guards.

Relations between the president and his army chief Na Waie had reportedly deteriorated after the attack.

History of crisis haunts Guinea-Bissau

By Will Ross
BBC West Africa correspondent

Following the assassination of President Joao Bernardo Vieira and the murder of the head of the army, General Tagme Na Waie, it is not surprising that foreign ministers from the region are heading to Guinea-Bissau.

The country has been a destabilising force in West Africa for years. The region has seen enough conflict and is determined to ensure a smooth transition and that no problems spill over the borders.

Guinea-Bissau was the only country in West Africa to have fought its way to independence.

But since that war with Portugal ended and the country's flag was hoisted in 1974, it has lurched from one crisis to another and analysts have long warned that the country urgently needs to change into a democratic state.

The past presidents, including Mr Vieira, have all relied on the army to stay in power and so whenever the military support has not been strong enough, a coup has taken place - or in this latest case, an assassination.

Prophetic warning

Eight months ago the Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group, said fundamental changes to the way the country was run were required.

It gave this pointed advice: "Army reform is needed most urgently to free the political system from military interference."

It would be hard to find a better example to back up this warning than the tit-for-tat murders of the president and the army boss.

The chairman of the opposition National Unity Party, Idrissa Diallo, told French radio that Guinea-Bissau was in the grip of a bitter power-struggle.

"The source of this instability is caused by extremely weak institutions and a non-existent state. At the pinnacle of the political system there is a permanent war for the control of power which is now tied to drug trafficking which is becoming the trigger... in the fight for power and has a central role in the struggle for leadership in Guinea-Bissau."

Coups and a lack of functioning state institutions all point to the country's instability but the situation has deteriorated in recent years as Guinea-Bissau, like several other West African nations, has become a hub for South American cocaine headed for Europe.

With over 100 tiny islands, most of which are uninhabited, it has been easy for drug traffickers to drop off, hide away and move on their huge hauls of cocaine.

So were the two deaths linked to the drug business?

"Based on the information that is available so far, I don't think that any direct relation can be drawn between the two factors. They are more the result of, let's say, an institutional and personal character crisis rather than anything else," says Antonio Mazzitelli of the United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime.

'Always vulnerable'

But military officers and politicians are known to have become embroiled in the lucrative cocaine smuggling business, and it would be no surprise if some of the divisions amongst Guinea-Bissau's elite had been accentuated by the influence and lure of drug money.

There had been bad blood between Mr Vieira and Gen Tagme, the head of the armed forces, for some years. The two men represent a wider ethnic problem.

Vieira comes from the small Papel ethnic group whilst Guinea Bissau's military has been dominated by the Balanta, Gen Tagme's community.

The tensions increased when five years after seizing power through a coup in 1980, Mr Vieira accused six Balanta officers of planning to topple him they were executed.

Having been toppled in 1999 and forced into exile in Portugal, Mr Vieira may have made a remarkable comeback when he returned to rule again following an election, but he was always vulnerable.

It was never made clear who had ordered a group of soldiers to attack the president's home last November. Holed up in a room as a shoot-out ensued in his living room and bedroom, Mr Vieira must have known he was living on borrowed time.

He then lost his key ally in the region in December. Mr Vieira openly wept at Lansana Conte's funeral in December. The death of the man who ruled neighbouring Guinea for 24 years took away one of the props which was keeping Mr Vieira in power.

No change

Mr Conte had in the past sent troops across the border to help out his neighbour when there had been a need for some bolstering, and he even lent Mr Vieira a military helicopter to fly home when he first returned from exile ahead of his comeback in the 2005 election.

Aware that he needed protection following the November attack, Mr Vieira employed a 400-strong militia.

This seemed only to heighten tension between himself and Gen Tagme and there were claims that the militia protecting Mr Vieira attempted to kill the general in January.

When Mr Vieira won the election in 2005 he declared: "Guinea-Bissau is going to change for the better. Our state will serve and protect the sacred rights of every man, woman and child."

It has not changed for the better. It is as fragile as ever and people are still desperately poor, with life expectancy in the mid-40s.

Its people will be hoping the transition to a new leader is smooth and that any new presidential promises are followed through.

People say Barack Obama has taken on a difficult task at an unfortunate time - but jobs do not come much harder than turning around Guinea-Bissau as it sinks closer towards becoming a true "narco-state".

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/03/02 21:06:05 GMT

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