Guinea-Bissau: On the brink of collapse

Guinea-Bissau, a small West African country, has a calm, almost jubilant atmosphere as elections approach to replace recently-murdered President Vieira.  While Bissau-Guineans like to believe that elections will put their impoverished country on the road to stability, the reality is that Guinea-Bissau is in the eye of a storm that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Guinea-Bissau stands out even on a continent known for housing some of the most troubled nations in the world.  After the assassinations of the army chief-of-staff, the President, and a presidential candidate, the already weak state has slid towards complete collapse.  To add to political rivalries, drug traffickers have utilized Guinea-Bissau as a key transit point for cocaine traveling from Latin America to Europe, giving Guinea-Bissau the honor of being arguably Africa’s first narco-state.

After decades filled with coups, wars, and strife, Bissau-Guineans are receiving the elections set for Sunday with hope tainted by a legacy of institutional and governmental failure.  Elections generally reported to be free and fair in 2005 put in power the very president who was assassinated earlier this year.  Bissau-Guineans recognize that the fate of their country is in the hands of the military and political elite, but hope that a fresh start will open a new chapter for their ravaged country.

Unfortunately, Guinea-Bissau should not expect a divergence from the current trend of instability and state weakness.  Since achieving independence in 1974, the military has been the dominating force in the political arena.  Until the military is removed from politics, Guinea-Bissau cannot develop politically.  As in many African countries, politics has a distinctly ethnic aspect.  The majority Balanta have a strong presence in the military, whereas former President Vieira belonged to the much smaller Papel ethnic group.  Of the three presidential candidates who could potentially win Sunday’s election,  Kumba Yala has particularly strong ties to the Balanta.  If he is not elected to the top office, the military could instigate another coup, further plunging Guinea-Bissau into anarchy and despotism.


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