March 2, 2009

The President and head of the army in Guinea-Bissau were killed in tit-for-tat murders that have plunged the West African “narco-state” into crisis.

President Joao Bernardo Vieira and General Tagme Na Waie died in separate incidents only hours apart. General Na Waie was killed in a bomb blast at army headquarters. Hours later Mr Vieira died in a hail of bullets as he tried to flee his home in the capital Bissau.

An army spokesman claimed responsibility for the President’s death saying it was in reprisal for the earlier assassination of the army chief.

“President Vieira was killed by the army as he tried to flee his house,” said Zamora Induta. He said that the President was “taken down by bullets fired by … soldiers.”  

Mr Induta alleged that Mr Vieira was “one of the main people responsible for the death of [General Na Waie].”

Mr Vieira ruled Guinea-Bissau from 1980 to 1999 before being deposed in a military coup. He returned from exile in 2004 and was reinstated as president at elections the following year.

But tensions between the President and the army have remained high. In July last year the head of the navy fled the country after a failed coup attempt. Days after parliamentary elections in November gunmen attacked the presidential palace leading Mr Vieira to establish an elite unit of personal bodyguards.

This militia was, however, partly disarmed by the army after its gunmen were accused of shooting at General Na Waie’s convoy in January in an incident that underlined the extent of the hostility between the President and his top military man.

Diplomats have accused General Na Waie of involvement in the growing cocaine trade through West Africa.

Drugs enforcement officials have complained that Mr Vieira failed to crackdown on the lucrative trade in which an estimated 50 tonnes of cocaine transit the region destined for Europe every year.

Much of this cocaine passes through Guinea-Bissau, one of the impoverished region’s poorest and weakest states. Its ragged coastline of unpoliced inlets and islands has in recent years been targeted by South American cartels seeking new routes to traffic cocaine to Europe.

The former Portuguese colony has a history of coups, mutinies and instability since winning independence in 1974.

But analysts say that the blowing up of General Na Waie bears the hallmarks of an attack by drugs cartels rather than the result of power struggles within the military.

“There is no mutiny aspect to the bombing. It looks more like a drugs hit,” said one analyst. The murder of Mr Vieira was a revenge attack by General Na Waie’s army loyalists.

There are fears that the instability might spread beyond Guinea-Bissau’s own borders. “This is a very bad situation,” said Richard Moncrieff, West Africa project director at International Crisis Group. “There is a power vacuum, people are not coming out onto the streets and there is still shooting going on.

“There are many factions within the armed forces, the fear is that the army could fracture further,” he warned.

After years of brutal civil war that ravaged West Africa during the 1990s it had seemed that the region was entering a new era of peace with the end of fighting in Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone. But in the past 12 months there have been military coups in Mauritania and Guinea.

“West Africa is not out of the woods at all,” said Mr Moncrieff.