Assassination severe blow to civilian power

The assassination of President João Bernardo Vieira of Guinea-Bissau, hours after the killing of the country’s army chief of staff, has dealt a severe blow to efforts at stable, civilian government in the coup-wracked country, according to analysts.

Guinea-Bissauans, who have lived through decades of coups and counter-coups, face some of the world’s highest levels of maternal mortality and under-five malnutrition and many were hoping that recent parliamentary elections might be a step toward stability and recovery.

See a Guinea-Bissau timeline here

Army Chief of Staff Gen Tagme Na Wai was killed by a bomb at the armed forces headquarters in the capital Bissau on 1 March. President Vieira died in a reprisal attack on 2 March, according to Sandji Fati, a retired army colonel who was close to the President.

The killings follow mounting tension between Na Wai and President Vieira.

The main roads in Bissau were sealed off on 2 March and most businesses were closed. Traffic in the capital was scarce and most residents stayed home.

“This is a very bad day for Guinea-Bissau. There is clearly a power vacuum now,” said Richard Moncrieff, West Africa director of think-tank the International Crisis Group.

“This shows a terrible struggle for creating a civilian power base and civilian politics in a country where the military feel they have the legitimate right to rule because they brought the country to independence,” Moncrieff said. “Civilian politicians will be keeping their heads down now.”

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, considered by analysts to be a reformist politician, has little support base within the army, according to Moncrieff.

The security sector reform agenda, driven by the government and supported by international donors including the UN Peace Building Support Office (UNOGBIS), is clearly off-track, according to Moncrieff.

“Any further reform needs to tackle the heart of the problem – that people in power are prepared to use violence to settle political scores, and until this is sorted out, they are just playing around the edges.” 

He added: “We need to reinforce the message that military power is unacceptable in West Africa, but finding the right way to do so is difficult.”

History of tension

In November President Vieira survived a gun attack on his home by mutinous soldiers, in an apparent coup attempt two days after election results were announced.

In early January Na Wai accused the presidential guard of attempting to assassinate him.

One expert who did not want to be named told IRIN the calculated nature of Na Wai’s assassination is highly unusual for Guinea-Bissau, pointing to the potential involvement of drug cartels.

Urging calm

José Zamora Induta, navy deputy chief of staff, issued a press release on 2 March urging people to remain calm and stay at home. The release said security forces would obey democratically elected institutions. 

A military commission has been set up to investigate the killings and “the situation is under control”, the statement said. 

But Algassimo Diallo, a resident of Bissau, told IRIN: “I do not trust soldiers will return power to civilian rule now.”