Army ousts president of Guinea-Bissau

President Kumba Yala of Guinea-Bissau was deposed by the army in a bloodless coup on Sunday after delaying parliamentary elections in this small West African state for nearly a year and leaving civil servants and soldiers unpaid for several months.

Although the former teacher was elected president with 72% of the vote in what was generally regarded as a free and fair poll in early 2000, his one-time supporters became increasingly disenchanted with his erratic style of government.

Yala dissolved Parliament in November last year after it passed a vote of no confidence against him. Then he delayed four times the election of a new legislature.

The last straw may have come on Friday, when the national electoral commission announced that it would not be able to complete voter registration in time for the latest proposed election date of October 12.

Kumba Yala (49) was deposed in a pre-dawn coup by a military junta headed by the army Chief of Staff, General Verissimo Correia Seabra.
The military chief pledged to form a broad-based government including all the main political parties in this former Portuguese colony of 1,3-million people.

Seabra, who played a leading role in two previous successful coups, said in a statement broadcast over local radio stations that civilian rule would be restored through the holding of fresh elections at an unspecified point in the future.

Yala and his prime minister, Mario Pires, were taken into military custody, apparently without resistance, and the mood in the capital Bissau remained calm and relaxed, despite the announcement of a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Seabra said publicly in May that the army had no plans to intervene again in the politics of this former Portuguese colony, which won independence in 1974 after a long and bitter guerrilla war.

However, the 52-year-old army chief is no stranger to coups. He backed the overthrow of Guinea-Bissau’s first president, Luis Cabral, in November 1980 and was a leading figure in the 1998 mutiny that eventually led to the departure of Cabral’s successor, Nino Vieira, after a year-long civil war

But this time, Seabra, a veteran of the liberation struggle against Portugal, has stepped out of the shadows to take power himself at the head of a committee for the restoration of constitutional order and democracy.

He appears to have taken power reluctantly. Diplomats in Bissau said Seabra had warned Yala repeatedly in recent months that the army would be forced to intervene if the president failed to put his chaotic and near-bankrupt government in order.

Yala, who like most of the army’s top brass belongs to the country’s dominant Balante tribe, managed to put down at least one previous coup attempt. But he was unable to stop this one after alienating most of his former allies.

“I can’t say this publicly, but it would be a good thing if Yala was overthrown,” a senior opposition politician said last month.

Yala himself protested publicly about several alleged coup plots against him during his three years in office, but diplomats and opposition politicians said most of these were largely fictitious.

They accused the embattled of head of state of inventing conspiracies to glean sympathy abroad while providing a pretext for clamping down on his enemies at home.

But this time the coup was for real. Yala was arrested and taken to military headquarters at about 3am local time. Five hours later, the coup was announced in a communiqué read out on independent radio station Radio Bombolom.

This denounced the “incapacity” of Yala’s government to resolve Guinea-Bissau’s profound economic problems and find a way out of the country’s political crisis. The communiqué said the army had tried repeatedly to alert the authorities to the danger the country was in and its “closeness to civil war”.

Pires, the prime minister, told a recent political meeting that Guinea-Bissau would be plunged into a fresh civil war if the opposition won next month’s now-suspended parliamentary elections.

Troops were deployed on the streets of Bissau and private cars were banned from the streets, but otherwise civilians were allowed to move around freely. There were no reports of gunfire or civil disorder, although Radio France Internationale reported that Yala’s residence had been looted by men in military uniform.

Correia Seabra said in an interview with Portuguese state television that Yala had carried out arbitrary arrests and had fomented division in the country, while disregarding the Constitution.

He also accused the deposed head of state of preparing to rig the October 12 parliamentary elections in favour of his Social Renovation Party.

In a subsequent interview with Portuguese state radio, Seabra said he would only remain head of state until the holding of fresh elections “when appropriate conditions have been created”. He declined to give a firm date.

Seabra said the army was aware that any coup against Yala, who was elected with 72% of the vote, would trigger international condemnation, but he said military intervention had become inevitable.

“We were clearly aware that the international community would have never agreed to a coup d’êtat under any circumstance, but unfortunately we did not have another option, another alternative”; he said.

Portugal expressed regret at the coup and issued a statement urging “those behind it to return constitutional legality to the country immediately”.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Lisbon said the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries, which includes Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe and East Timor, would meet on Monday to analyse the situation.

Cape Verde, with which Guinea-Bissau has traditionally had close ties, offered to mediate. President Pedro Pires said his island state, 450 km west of Senegal, was “ready to help Guinea-Bissau adapt good and credible democratic institutions”.

Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, who is currently president of the African Union, unequivocally condemned the coup. He urged the new military leaders to hold immediate talks with the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) “to find the best solution to restore constitutional order”.

Nigeria, often seen as the dominant power in Ecowas, came out strongly against the coup. The Nigerian government, which played a leading role in restoring Fradique de Menezes to power in Sao Tome, a week after he was ousted by a military coup in July, said that, together with Ecowas, it was “determined to resist the unconstitutional change of government”.

But despite the international chorus of disapproval directed against the coup-makers, there is unlikely to be much sympathy for Yala at home.

The ousted president has been widely identified as the main culprit for Guinea-Bissau’s political and economic malaise, antagonising the country’s political class and engaging in clumsy stand-offs with the media, the judiciary and foreign donors.

Yala, who was known for his trademark red woolen bobble hat, began his political career as an ideologue of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, the guerrilla movement that fought Portuguese colonial rule and came to power at independence.

However, he subsequently quit the party and stood as the main opposition presidential candidate against Vieira in Guinea-Bissau’s first multiparty elections in 1994. He was defeated by Vieira on that occasion, but won an overwhelming majority at the next poll in 2000.

Despite promising to act as a unifier and healer, Yala was frequently accused of openly favouring his own Balante people, the largest ethnic group in the country.

But the charge sheet went well beyond that. He was widely accused of wrecking Guinea-Bissau’s fragile social system, presiding over the collapse of state education and provoking an endless series of public sector strikes by unpaid civil servants.

Yala was unable to retain the loyalty of ministers for long. There were constant Cabinet reshuffles and Pires was his fourth prime minister in less than three years.

Unexpected ministerial sackings became the norm. Last week Yala fired his latest information minister after he had been in office for less than two months. Radio stations and newspapers suffered constant harassment under his rule.

Such constant changes exasperated donors and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund found it difficult to build up lasting relationships with key ministries.

Yala’s dismissal of the head of the Supreme Court and two other judges on the panel in September 2001 also provoked strong criticism abroad. The three judges have yet to be replaced.

Even the United Nations signalled its concern about developments in Guinea-Bissau.

The postponement of legislative elections, originally scheduled for February, then April and then July, provoked a series of warnings from New York.

A report issued by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on June 9 observed: “The overall situation in Guinea-Bissau has not improved. In fact, it has worsened. Amid political and institutional instability, electoral uncertainty has continued to generate tensions.”

David Stephen, the UN chief representative in Guinea-Bissau, said last month that the holding of free and fair elections on October 12 would be crucial to breaking the country’s isolation and restoring Yala’s credibility.

But as the national electoral commission made clear on Friday, he could not even deliver that.—Irin

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