/ 4 March 2009

A grisly end to a career that began with promise

Nino Vieira, the president of Guinea-Bissau, who was shot dead aged 69 in the capital on Monday, was one of the most plotted against of African leaders.

A former militant of the movement that fought against Portuguese colonialism, and one of the country’s leaders after independence in 1974, he seized power in 1980 in a coup against the mainly mestiço (mixed-race) leadership of Luís Cabral.

The 19 years of Vieira’s first period in power ended in a year of civil war and his eventual overthrow. If his roots in the liberation movement accounted for his popularity, which permitted him to be re-elected in 2005, Guinea-Bissau’s record, after 35 years of independence, has been one of the worst in Africa, with growing poverty, corruption and a reputation as a centre of cocaine smuggling.

Vieira was born in Bissau. He trained as an electrician, but in his early 20s joined the new resistance movement against the Portuguese, the Partido Africano do Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), founded in 1961 by the charismatic Marxist Amílcar Cabral (half-brother of Luís). This was the most successful of all the anti-Portuguese movements in Africa, and by the early 1970s controlled two-thirds of the country, a key factor in the Portuguese military revolution of 1974, which paved the way for independence that year.

”Nino” was Vieira’s guerrilla name and, after a period of training in China, he soon became chief of the liberated area of Catio in the south. In the late 1960s he became commander of the whole southern front, as well as a leading member of the party’s war council. The elite of the movement had suffered a grievous blow with Amílcar Cabral’s assassination in January 1973, but it did not obstruct the process. After the unilateral proclamation of independence in September 1973, elections were held in the liberated areas and Vieira became president of the People’s National Assembly. After independence in 1974 he became minister of defence, and in 1978 took on the post of prime minister. Although now number two in the regime, differences with President Luís Cabral pushed Vieira to overthrow him in a bloodless coup in November 1980.

Vieira faced his own power struggle in 1983-84 with his own prime minister, Saúde Maria, who was sent into exile. Another more serious plot came in 1985, after vice-president Paulo Correia protested against IMF-backed stabilisation, which ran against the PAIGC’s socialism. Correia and his co-conspirators were executed. More compromises followed, and, faced with Africa’s democracy wave after 1990, Vieira bowed to demands for multi-partyism, and managed narrowly to survive against his main opponent, Kumba Yala, a philosophy professor, in the presidential elections of 1994, and again in 1998. Economic hardship increased a general malaise.

Political discontent in the PAIGC rose to the surface after the election, and, in June 1998, after army chief Ansumana Mané was dismissed, the bulk of the army tried to seize power, only thwarted by an intervention by neighbouring Senegal. This was only resolved by the sending of a peacekeeping force from the Economic Community of West African States following a peace agreement signed in Nigeria in November. However, in May 1999, Vieira was overthrown.

He sought exile in Portugal, and there followed a period of uncertainty. Yala won fresh elections, but his increasing incompetence led to a new coup in 2003, leading to presidential elections in 2005, in which Vieira stood. Although seen as damaged goods, he had long abandoned the ideals of the PAIGC, and his residual standing as the last liberationist leader, and the fact that he was a ”known devil”, helped him back to power.

The PAIGC was still the strongest party in the National Assembly, but had little confidence in Vieira, an antagonism compounded by the party of Yala, which drew strong support from the Balanta ethnic group (about 30% of the population), who had been one of the main bulwarks of the war against the Portuguese, but had become Vieira’s main opponents. These tensions, as well as the inability of the government to control the influence of Colombian drug barons, who were using Bissau as a transit point, led to several plots against Vieira.

The most serious was a coup attempt in November 2008, just after parliamentary elections (again won by the PAIGC). An increasing feud with the army commander General Batista Tagme Na Waie and some of his Balanta supporters led to the events of March 1 and 2 in which first Waie and then Vieira were killed. Waie was killed by a bomb at army headquarters; hours later Vieira was shot. His widow, Romana, sought refuge in the Angolan embassy.

It was a grisly end to a career that had begun with so much promise. He was dragged down not just by the impossibility of running a hopeless country, but by his own shortcomings. It was a long way from the glory of the war against the Portuguese colonialists. — guardian.co.uk