President appoints controversial new prime minister

Guinea-Bissau's President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira appointed a long-time ally as prime minister on Wednesday, days after sacking the government of his political arch rival Carlos Gomes Junior.

Aristides Gomes, the mastermind behind the campaign that propelled Vieira to the presidency in July, was swiftly sworn into office and promised to mend political fences and the West African nation's ailing economy.

"I will form a government of national consensus that reflects all the country's political forces," Gomes told reporters after the ceremony.

The new prime minister pledged to work closely with the international community, a priority for the former Portuguese colony where foreign aid is needed just to pay state salaries.

The current crisis has done little to dispel concerns among donors, who want to see political stability before they are once again willing to invest heavily in the world's sixth poorest country.

The feuding between Gomes Junior and Vieira had been going on for months, but it came to a head on Friday night, when Vieira issued a decree sacking his prime minister for allegedly endangering the country's stability.

A delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) left Guinea-Bissau on Monday.

"A program was underway, but since there is no government for the time being, we cannot continue discussions," Harry Snoek, head of the IMF's delegation, told reporters before leaving the capital, Bissau.

He also suggested that the possibility of holding a donors' round table in December would depend largely on a satisfactory resolution of the problems.

"The sooner you have this stability, the faster the international community will return to help you," said Snoek.

However, even though the prime ministerial void has now been filled, the controversy may not be over. Wednesday's choice of prime minister did not go down well with Gomes Junior's African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

"The president's decision is arbitrary and unconstitutional," said a spokesman for the PAIGC. "We will, therefore, fight with all the political means at our disposal to have this decision overturned."

The party won legislative elections in March 2004 but when 14 legislators, including the new prime minister Gomes, defected from its ranks last month, the balance of power tipped away from them.

However, the PAIGC still has the most seats in the chamber and so under the constitution, it has the right to nominate a candidate to be the new prime minister, subject to the president's approval.

Immediately after his dismissal, the party had demanded that Gomes Junior be reinstated. But he backed down on Monday.

"I have always said that I'm not going to cling to power," the outgoing prime minister told reporters after meeting with Vieira, the man he once famously branded "a bandit and a mercenary".

"That's why I told the president that I cannot serve as prime minister. Now, the PAIGC will meet and chose one of its vice-presidents to serve as prime minister."

However, Vieira opted to ignore the recommendations of the party and ploughed ahead with Aristides Gomes, his former campaign director who served as a minister in one of his previous governments.

Vieira, who had fought for the PAIGC against the Portuguese until independence in 1974, came to power through a military coup in 1980. He ruled both party and country until his overthrow during the civil war of 1998-99 when Gomes Junior expelled him from the PAIGC.

Aristides Gomes was the party's first vice president until May when, after months of internal tension, he was suspended for openly supporting Vieira's presidential bid against the PAIGC's Malam Bacai Sanha.

"In many ways the disputes of the 18 last months are an act of revenge by those Nino (Vieira) supporters who had been marginalised by Gomes Junior in 1999," explained Chris Melville, Africa research analyst at the London-based research group Global Insight.

He said that Vieira's brief stint in power had not borne witness to his campaign promises of national reconciliation for the chronically unstable country.

"Unfortunately, he seems to have gone for his own political needs and survival," Melville said.