Sunday, June 28, 2009

Guinea-Bissau in Disarray Holds Few Hopes For Vote

Nation in Disarray Holds Few Hopes for Vote

New York Times

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — First the general was blown up. Then the president was shot dead, the former prime minister was arrested and tortured, a presidential candidate was killed in his villa, and the former defense minister was ambushed and shot on the bridge outside town.

Despite those chilling messages — reportedly carried out by men in military uniform — Sunday’s election to replace the assassinated president, João Bernardo Vieira, will go on.

There is jolly music and dancing in the decaying streets; earnest international observers crisscross Bissau, the capital; the remaining candidates hold buoyant rallies in preparation for the vote; and trucks packed with chanting supporters bounce up and down over the little city’s deep potholes.

Underneath, though, there is anxiety and doubt here in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony that is pitch-black at night because of a lack of electricity and that is so fragile it is being abandoned even by the drug traffickers, according to a United Nations expert.

No specific suspects or motives have been found for the political killings of the past four months. And few here are betting that the election will check a military that never stood down after winning this West African country’s liberation struggle nearly four decades ago.

“The election won’t end the problems,” said Cheik Malaine, a 26-year-old who works at a downtown stationery store, as rocking goumbé music blared from the ruling party’s building next door. “The problem is the army,” he said, looking down.

Antonio Armando, a teacher, said angrily: “It’s not possible, to live in a state where there are killings all the time. We practically have no state.”

A leading political scientist, Flavien Fafali Koudawo, said, “The day after the election will be the same as the day before.” Then he began laughing, explaining it as “the humor of desperation.”

The state “is in a phase of deliquescence,” said a former justice minister, Carlos Vamain. “The state has been dismantled.”

Signs of the government’s disarray are everywhere. The roof is still caved in at the army building where the military chief of staff, Gen. Batista Tagme Na Waie, was killed in an explosion in March. He was the third officer to be killed in that post since 2000.

The windows are still blown out at the roofless presidential palace, abandoned since its destruction in the civil war of 10 years ago. Papaya trees grow from the ruins of buildings downtown destroyed during the war.

The grim indicators pile up, one after another. Potholes two feet deep pockmark central streets. A civil servant in a white shirt, approaching a newcomer, said he had not been paid for two months and begged for money to buy rice. Small, ragged boys scale mounds of garbage at the edge of town, searching for bits of copper and iron.

The life expectancy here, 46 years, is at the low end of the scale in Africa; per capita income is $180, and the mortality rate for children under 5 is one out of five.

“Life is too difficult here,” said João Mendes, 30, an accounting student who has family members in the civil service. “You work for two months, the government pays you for one.”

At the heart of it all is this fact: No president elected since multiparty rule was restored in 1994 has completed his five-year term, because of military interventions. One global research organization, the International Crisis Group, said that if the military here did not get its way through lobbying, “it proceeds to direct intimidation and violence, including beatings and even murder.”

By some measures the military consumes 25 percent of the budget in Guinea-Bissau, a country that ranks ninth from the bottom in the United Nations Human Development Index.

In this uncertain atmosphere, even the one economic domain where Guinea-Bissau seemed to have a future, albeit a shady one — as a leading way station for Latin American drugs bound for Europe — is threatened.

“Already in September the drug traffickers had started moving out of Guinea-Bissau,” said Antonio L. Mazzitelli of the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime in Dakar, Senegal, noting that there had been no important drug seizures since October. The drug traffickers, he said, “need a certain stability.

“They don’t need a failed state,” Mr. Mazzitelli added. “They need a weak state.”

The threat of violence from the army haunts everyday life. Dingama Aiamate, a worker at the port, said, “People are afraid to speak, because if you speak, maybe they’ll come get you at night, and you never know what is going to happen.”

That fear has led political candidates and other prominent figures here to tiptoe around the question of holding the military accountable in the recent killings. The Interior Ministry said the army was merely putting down a coup plot in the case of the two most recent killings. Soldiers shot President Vieira in March.

Inside and outside the country, analysts insist that the only hope is to get rid of the army, find pensions for the soldiers and send them home.

But the leading candidate in Sunday’s election, Malam Bacai Sanhá, a veteran of the governing party, said all of the country’s public administration needed to be reformed, not just the military.

In an interview at his home here, in a break from crisscrossing the verdant countryside, Mr. Sanhá refused to single out the army. After all, he said, soldiers make up only a quarter or so of the 25,000 federal employees.

Similarly, the prime minister, Carlos Gomes Jr. also of the governing party, known by its abbreviation, P.A.I.G.C., sidestepped questions about how and why some of the leading political figures had recently been killed.

Mr. Sanhá’s chief rival, former President Kumba Yala, wears a red tasseled cap that emphasizes his ties to the Balanta ethnic group, and he is accused of exploiting divisions for electoral advantage. The Balanta are particularly strong in the military, and his supporters blame the P.A.I.G.C. for the recent killings, talking darkly of settling scores.

But whatever the outcome of the vote here, it is nearly certain not to settle this small country’s crushing problems, in spite of the frenzy in the streets and the jaunty, blaring music everywhere.

“We have the genius of make-believe here, and of not seeing things,” Dr. Koudawo said, laughing again. “There is a culture of repression here.”

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