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Archive for Friday, March 6, 2009

Collapse of Guinea-Bissau deepens after leader killed

Mariama Ntchala, widow of slain armed forces chief of staff Gen. Batiste Tagme na Waie, lights a candle next to his portrait, as family and friends gathered in mourning at his home Thursday in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. Tuesday’s swearing-in of Head of Parliament Raimundo Pereira marked a welcome continuation of democratic rule after the killings of President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira and Waie, his long-standing rival.

Mariama Ntchala, widow of slain armed forces chief of staff Gen. Batiste Tagme na Waie, lights a candle next to his portrait, as family and friends gathered in mourning at his home Thursday in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. Tuesday’s swearing-in of Head of Parliament Raimundo Pereira marked a welcome continuation of democratic rule after the killings of President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira and Waie, his long-standing rival.

March 6, 2009

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— The blood-soaked kitchen where Guinea-Bissau’s president was brutally murdered is littered with broken glass, bullet casings and a rusted machete.

No crime scene tape cordons off the area, no police stand guard outside. No one has been arrested, and hardly anyone in this sleepy tropical capital seems to care.

The apathy surrounding the slaying of President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira in his own home — as well as the bombing attack that killed his main rival hours earlier — symbolizes just how far this drug-wracked state has fallen.

“What are we supposed to do, cry? Demand justice?” asked journalist Zique Choaib, 41. “The powerful people at the top have been fighting each other for decades. They’ll keep fighting. It’s really nothing new.”

Less than 24 hours after the brutal slayings Monday, market stalls were open, people were back in the streets and the city’s dilapidated fleet of blue-and-white Mercedes taxis was again cruising the potholed roads, Caribbean rhythms pulsing from their radios.

The reaction was nearly identical after the last military coup in 2003: no surprise, mild speculation, then within a day, a return to normalcy so complete it seemed as if nothing had happened.

Since winning a violent struggle for independence from Portugal in 1974, this nation of 1.5 million has been on a losing streak — cursed by coups, coup attempts and war. Today it is ranked third-worst of 177 nations on the U.N. Human Development Index, which measures general well-being. One of the world’s poorest countries, life expectancy is a mere 45.

Drug trafficking

Vieira is blamed for much of the slide. He seized power in 1980 and ruled for 19 years before being ousted at the onset of the country’s civil war. He returned from exile to win 2005 elections that observers deemed free and fair.

But life only seemed to get worse.

Then, multistory villas began springing up on the edge of town, signaling the arrival of suspected Latin American drug traffickers who moved in to take advantage of the country’s weak government, corrupt security forces and strategic position south of European drug markets.

U.N. officials now say Guinea-Bissau has become a leading transit point for Europe-bound cocaine. Last month, the State Department warned that the “degeneration of Guinea-Bissau into a narco-state is a real possibility.”

The nation’s economy is minuscule, driven largely by cashew, fish and peanut exports, so even a small influx of drug money can have a major impact.

The U.N. estimates the cocaine transiting through Guinea-Bissau is worth more than a billion dollars a year, dwarfing the meager national budget.

Top military officials have been accused of taking a cut to allow drug planes to land and to turn a blind eye to drug activity. The Judicial Police responsible for investigating the narcotics trade are unarmed, equipped with typewriters and the targets of anonymous death threats.

‘In Need of a State’

The International Crisis Group summed up the dire state of affairs in its latest report, titled “Guinea-Bissau: In Need of a State.”

Vieira governed from his own modest home — a four-bedroom, single-story bungalow on a crumbling downtown street frequented by mud-covered pigs. The rocket-blasted presidential palace has been uninhabitable since its roof was blown apart in fighting a decade ago. Today, it lies neglected — much like this extraordinarily undeveloped nation.

Asked about Vieira’s fate, student Abenaque Camara asked: “Why should we care?”

“We’re more concerned with finding something to eat,” said the 20-year-old, who still hasn’t finished high school because of repeated teacher strikes. “Look at us: No jobs, no food, no electricity. There’s only darkness.”

Amid the languid despair, there was one upside to the latest tragedy: The military did not seize power, and the head of parliament was swiftly sworn in as interim president.

Military spokesman Zamora Induta, who is leading one of two investigations into the slayings, said whoever killed the armed forces chief, Batiste Tagme na Waie, was in the military headquarters at the time. An inside-job, but nobody has been detained.

Induta keeps the key piece of evidence in a black plastic bag beside his desk: the pieces of an electrical device that may have been used to detonate the bomb.

Few believe justice will be meted out, though, and the sense of impunity sets a dangerous precedent. On a continent trying to put violence behind it, coups in neighboring Guinea in December and Mauritania in August have already dampened hopes for change.

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