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Vieira death offers room for progress

As Guinea-Bissau copes with aftermath of the president's death, one diplomat has said his murder could present an opportunity for democracy and progress in the crisis-ridden country.

The death of Joao Bernardo Vieira could be an opportunity for democracy, a diplomat has said.
The death of Joao Bernardo Vieira could be an opportunity for democracy, a diplomat has said.

Standing opposite Guinea-Bissau's bombed-out presidential palace is a monument commemorating the triumph of Marxist revolutionaries over a colonial power. But with its red star sitting slightly askew, atop a discoloured concrete pinnacle, it no longer evokes the glory of liberation. Like the palace, destroyed during a 1998 civil war, the monument seems more symbolic of the ideological decay that set in after Guinea-Bissau gained independence from Portugal in 1974. With the assassination on Monday of Joao Bernardo Vieira, Guinea-Bissau's president, a pivotal leader in that independence struggle died as he lived - in violence, clinging to power, enmeshed in a feud with another strongman. In life, as much as in death, Vieira embodied the failure of his revolution to improve the lives of a people saddled with generations of poverty and oppression. His end came hours after his rival, Gen Batiste Tagme na Waie, the head of the army, was murdered in a bomb blast. An unidentified group of soldiers shot Vieira to death at his home. And yet again, the turbulent West African nation was thrust into political upheaval. Not everyone, however, is mourning the loss of two of the country's leading figures. "My opinion is not politically correct: in this case, it's probably the best thing that could happen to this country, as the two dead men were the dinosaurs that were hindering the democratic process," said a foreign diplomat in Bissau who requested anonymity. He said their deaths might offer an opportunity to move beyond the political instability that has continued unabated for decades. The near-constant state of crisis has left a shell of a country with institutions that function barely, if at all. Guinea-Bissau has no prison, for example; its healthcare system covers just 40 per cent of its population, and electricity is absent outside the capital, which has only a sporadic supply. Forgotten by most of the world and unencumbered by the rule of law, the country has become an ideal staging point for South American drug cartels smuggling cocaine to Europe. Although Guinea-Bissau has faded into obscurity, its 1963-1974 revolution was widely known and supported throughout the world. Disenchantment among Portuguese troops who fought the Marxists contributed to a coup that ousted Portugal's dictator, Antonio Salazar. Vieira was a key leader in that anti-colonial struggle. But when Salazar fell and Guinea-Bissau gained independence, the revolution began to devour itself as leaders fought for power along ethnic lines. In 1980, Vieira staged a coup and took over the presidency. And there he stayed for most of Guinea-Bissau's post-colonial history. Revolutionary ideals took a back seat to maintaining control and Vieira survived several coup attempts. As military leaders squabbled over power, Guinea-Bissau remained mired in poverty. Vieira, the revolutionary-cum-autocrat, turned democrat in 1994, declaring and winning elections. But a dispute with an army chief of staff sparked civil war in 1998 and he was sent into exile. A disastrous civilian government followed, and international aid dried up as donors refused to fund such a mismanaged state. After a 2003 coup, Vieira returned to win presidential elections in 2005, voted in by a population desperate for some measure of stability. His term has been punctuated by clashes with military leaders, including Waie. In November, Vieira survived an assassination attempt similar to the one that succeeded on Monday. A group of soldiers - never identified - fought their way into his house, spraying it with bullets. After the attempt on his life, Vieira formed a personal bodyguard team of 400 men. Some of them were later accused of attempting to kill Waie while he was reported to be on his way to meet Vieira who had summoned him by phone. Decades of political infighting have been Guinea-Bissau's downfall. "Ordinary citizens are paying a high price for the economic and institutional stagnation that is paralysing the country while the political and military classes engage in their endless rows," said the International Crisis Group in a Jan 29 report. The organisation warned that desperately needed aid is unlikely to come unless donors are assured that the country is on a path to stable government. For their part, military leaders who took control after Monday's events have said they will honour the constitution and allow elections. "This is a typically Guinean event where the military intervene violently in the political arena," said the diplomat in Bissau. "The difference with the past is that they do not want the power, and this is where we - the international community - finally have the chance to promote democracy and development." If he is right, Vieira's death might finally open the door to the progress that he and his revolutionary comrades fought for more than three decades ago. But that would be putting a lot of faith in the military to stay out of politics. In August, a Spanish general, Juan Esteban Verastegui, spoke to The National about an EU-backed programme he was heading, aimed at reforming Guinea-Bissau's security forces. They are notoriously corrupt and known to be involved in the drug trade. He said: "I have absolutely not any trust in the army." jferrie@thenational.ae Jared Ferrie reported from Guinea-Bissau for The National