/ 6 March 2009

‘You can’t just kill a president like a dog’

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 — symbolises 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 on 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 United Nations Human Development Index, which measures general well-being. One of the world’s poorest countries, life expectancy is a mere 45.

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, multistorey villas began springing up on the edge of town, signalling 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.

UN 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 UN estimates the cocaine transiting through Guinea-Bissau is worth more than a billion dollars a year, dwarfing the meagre 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.

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.”

Languid despair
The capital, Bissau, is a place where young men watch the world go by from dilapidated sofas dumped on the side of the road and where gas is more likely to be hawked in plastic water bottles than at gas stations.

Yellow clumps of grass sprout from the top of the city’s main courthouse, where a concrete sculpture darkened by mildew features scales of justice that look like thousand-year-old artifacts. The rusted skeletons of abandoned cars are everywhere.

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 spokesperson 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.

Zamora 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 neighbouring Guinea in December and Mauritania in August have already dampened hopes for change.

Luis vaz Martins, of the independent National Human Rights League, said he believed Vieira and people surrounding the armed forces chief were deeply involved in the drug trade. One plane that landed in Bissau from Venezuela last year, intended for Vieira’s associates, was seized instead by military rivals and disappeared, he said.

There is little to indicate the killings were drug-related hits. Even so, Martins said the influx of cocaine money has given people another reason to fight, exacerbating deep ethnic tensions that have already fuelled years of conflict.

A nephew of Vieira who refused to be identified because he was afraid for his safety, also dismissed theories the slayings were drug related or a settling of scores between the two long-time enemies, whose rivalry dates back to the independence era.

”It’s about power. They just wanted him out of the way,” he said.

”But he was democratically elected. You can’t just kill a president like a dog.” — Sapa-AP