Guinea-Bissau heads to polls after leader's death

AP News
Posted: Mar 17, 2012 10:27 AM
Guinea-Bissau heads to polls after leader's death

There's a sense of deja vu in Guinea-Bissau, a minuscule nation ringed by an archipelago of virgin islands off Africa's western coast, where voters are again heading to the polls on Sunday.

They voted for president in an emergency election two years ago, after their previous leader was gunned down inside his home. But instead of bringing the much-needed stability that this coup-prone nation craves, newly elected President Malam Bacai Sanha spent his presidency shuttling between hospitals in Europe and Africa, for what his aides described as "routine checkups."

In January, the 64-year-old Sanha died in Paris, once again plunging this nation of 1.5 million into uncertainty. Besides political upheaval, Guinea-Bissau has been destabilized by a booming cocaine trade, which has turned its picture-perfect islands into docking stations for Latin American druglords. It's flooded the country, which is no larger than Connecticut, with easy money, exacerbating the nation's long-standing political feuds.

The scene in Bissau on the last day of the campaign Friday felt like a carbon copy of the campaign two years earlier.

Five of the nine candidates running for office also ran in 2009. Even their campaign posters and slogans are largely recycled. The front-runners include former president Kumba Yala, who was overthrown in a 2003 coup, and former prime minister Carlos Gomes Jr.

"For us, it's really a case of history repeating itself," said Bissau-based political analyst Rui Landim. "We have little hope that anything will change. You can see it in the campaign. There's very little enthusiasm. At the rallies, there are very few people. ... It's a race between the people already in power," he said, pointing out that among the nine candidates, there's a prime minister, a parliamentarian, a minister of defense and several ex-presidents.

Residents of this sleepy tropical capital say they hope that this election will finally bring Guinea-Bissau the leadership it needs to evolve. Since winning independence from Portugal in 1974, the country's history reads like a chronology of unrest. An army mutiny in 1998 forced out President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira, ushering in a civil war.

Yala was elected in 2000, only to be toppled three years later in another coup. Elections were held again in 2005, bringing Vieira back to power.

He escaped an attack on his residence by members of the military in 2008, who killed one of his bodyguard. In 2009, they returned, killing him in a hail of bullets which left his living room stained with blood.

The nation's political upheaval began getting international attention in 2007, when South American drug traffickers discovered the Bijagos, its archipelago of largely uninhabited islands. The traffickers used the islands to land small, twin-engine planes loaded with cocaine, which were then parceled out and carried north to Europe by boats and by drug mules, who ingested the drugs before boarding commercial flights.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of the Treasury declared two high-ranking members of the country's military as drug kingpins, freezing any assets they might have had in the United States.

"I am just praying for peace," said 26-year-old voter Ibrahima Balde. "As far as our new president, I just hope that he'll be a better choice than our last one. We need stability."

Nearly 600,000 people are registered to vote in Sunday's election, which was organized two months after Sanha's death at the Val de Grace military hospital in France. The chronically ill president, who was known to be a diabetic, was rushed to the capital of neighboring Senegal on multiple occasions, abruptly abandoning the country each time, and fueling rumors of pending coups.

That experience has wizened some voters, who say they are now looking more carefully at the health of the candidates.

Maimuna Ba, 25, a first-year student at the country's military academy, said she plans to vote for 33-year-old Minister of Defense Baciro Dja.

"He is the youngest candidate, only 33 years old," said Ba. "One of the factors of voting Baciro Dja is his young age. He is strong and fresh for the battle ahead."


Lassana Cassama contributed to this report from Bissau. Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.