Last Sunday when millions of people on the African continent found themselves in various churches worshipping, a group of military officers in Guinea-Bissau were also busy plotting the overthrow of President João Bernardo Vieira, just two days after parliamentary election results were published. This failed coup is believed to have been masterminded by senior military personnel in a dissident faction within the armed forces, either in protest at the results of the recently held parliamentary elections, or unmentioned grievances in the military service.
Another theory suggests that last Sunday’s attackers, who are most likely low-ranking soldiers, were either acting in support of the opposition leader and former president Koumba Yala, or could be disgruntled Balante associates of a Balante former navy chief, Rear-Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, who fled the country in August after being accused of plotting a coup. Koumba Yala is also from the Balante ethnic group and enjoys support in the Balante-dominated armed forces.
The relatively poor and fragile West African country, by regional standards, got its independence from Portugal in 1974 and has since experienced considerable political and military upheavals. In 1980, President João Bernardo Vieira took over the helm of affairs via a coup. President Vieira’s regime made considerable efforts in setting a path to multiparty democracy and a market-driven economy, with support from the international community.
Nonetheless, that regime was characterized by the suppression of political opposition and the purging of political rivals. The near 20-year reign of Vieira which is very noticeable in African politics, from 1980 to 1999, was characterized by several failed attempts to overthrow him, also a usual characterization of African politics which is today being replced with democratic elections. These developments peaked when a military coup was attempted on June 7, 1998, which later on erupted into a brutal civil war. Former Brigadier General Ansumane Mane, who led the coup, accused the President of corruption and leading the nation into poverty. Vieira had earlier fired Mane from command of the armed forces on charges of selling weapons to a group of rebels in southern Senegal.
Soon after the rebels had failed to oust the government, the country received significant military aid from neighbouring Senegal and Guinea-Bissau; nearly 1200 Senegalese and 400 Conakry troops were flown into Bissau to hold back the rebellion. The failed coup, which immediately led to intense fighting in the country, particularly in the capital, caused many of the 300,000 inhabitants of the capital to flee the city, while artillery duels created great damage to the downtown areas.
The two sides subsequently agreed to a cease-fire on July 26, 1998, while negotiations continued with Portuguese assistance. Violence ruptured the cease-fire a number of times, but usually in isolated incidents as on October 19, 1998, when both sides engaged in artillery duels in Bissau. Vieira and Mane signed a peace agreement on November 2, 1998 in Abuja, Nigeria.
The peace deal showed serious signs of breaking down in February, 1999 as both sides engaged in renewed fighting, but further work on the part of Togolese diplomats soon halted the combat. On Thursday, May 6, 1999, Mane’s forces struck out against the government troops, capturing Bissau and forcing Vieira to flee to a foreign embassy to seek for protection. After intense negotiations involving the leaders of Gambia and Nigeria, the two sides agreed to an arrangement which called for new elections in March and the pullout of Senegalese and Guinea-Conakry troops who were replaced by a regional peacekeeping force. The terms of the peace deal established an interim government of national unity featuring supporters of President Joao Vieira and of the rebel faction.
In 2000, a presidential election was held that saw Koumba Yala emerge as the president. Throughout his period in office until 2003, when he was ousted from power by current President, Vieira, there existed a full Cabinet of Ministers assigned various portfolios but shamefully enough there was no parliament of elected representatives who could make decisions about the direction that the country needed to follow in addressing political, economic and social matters. Koumba Yala was making efforts to establish a fully-fledged democratic state by creating the legislature (with the electioneering of representatives) when Vieira seized power from him in a bloodless coup in 2003.
Vieira illegally held on to power until 2005, when fresh elections largely viewed as peaceful and transparent, was held. That has since retained him as president until last Sunday’s failed coup was made against him. Coup-plagued Guinea-Bissau has been noted to have established links with powerful cocaine cartels in South America, who use the country’s ports as a transit point for cocaine smuggling. International experts say the West African state, with numerous economic, health and social problems, lacks state institutions sufficiently strong to deal with international drugs cartels that use it as a hub to transport cocaine from South America to Europe.
At this juncture, what observers and level-minded people are wondering about is the extent to which this coup will serve as a deterrent for others in that country and elsewhere in Africa. More importantly like-minded Africans are also wondering whether this failed coup will register in the history books as the last in Guinea-Bissau. In this regard, it is being advocated that severe punishment must be meted out on the group involved so that it will be a real lesson for others. But most importantly, the government must engage all opposition parties in its quest to lead the country out of poverty and other social problems.
By Alhassan Atta-Quayson, a graduate student of the University of Ghana and a columnist of African Liberty