The good and the ugly in Bissau
By Ebrima Baldeh
For Bissau Guineans and detached observers, there are so many things to write home about in what I will not hesitate to describe as a decade characterized by a turbulent political period. In October 1998, the Gambia mediated peace talks between rebel leader and former army chief General Ansumana Mané and President Joào Nino Vîerra. Mane, who was widely thought to be Gambian by birth; staged a revolt after his acrimonious sacking by Vierra on allegations of arms smuggling to separatist rebels in the Southern Senegalese province of Casamance which borders Guinea Bissau. A peace agreement was signed in November 1998, and a transitional government was formed in preparation for new elections in 1999. On November 27th, 1998, the National People’s Assembly passed a motion demanding Vierra’s resignation, with 69 deputies supporting the motion and none opposing it.
On May 6th, 1999, a renewed outbreak of fighting occurred in Bissau; Vierra’s forces reportedly surrendered the next day. He sought refuge in the Portuguese embassy and went into exile in Portugal in June. On November 30th 2000 Mane was reportedly assassinated by forces loyal to the then President Kumba Yala. Vierra’s second coming to power in 2005 was marred by infighting within the members of the armed forces. The noose was tightening around Vierraand his ugly divide and rule tactics. From the frying pan to the fire, army chief General Batista Tagme Na Waie, was reportedly killed in an attack on the military’s headquarters. Barely a week after this incident, some elements in the army retaliated; President Vierra was brutally killed in March 2009.
Amid the political upheavals in the country, the army was suspected of aiding and abetting drug barons in the lucrative narco-business. Thanks to the porous borders; corrupt and sometimes unsuspecting security officials gave narco-dealers easy passage at the borders. In Guinea Bissau, it seems the laws or the security apparatus are always on holidays; which perhaps explain the spate of infighting and killings among top cadres of the army and high-profile politicians. The case of the run-away admiral of the Navy of Guinea Bissau turned drug lord, Jose Américo Bubo Na Tchuto who was extradited to the United States to face charges of conspiring to import drugs in the U.S in 2012. Enter, Baciro Dabò the famed army major turned politician, who was tipped to become “the next President” of Bissau. His entry into party politics was fueled by money he allegedly acquired from the narco-trade. Dabò was increasingly becoming more and more famous; sadly, his enemies cut him down on June 5th 2009, after it emerged that he was a close ally of Vierra.
During this period, Bissau was ruled by Malam Bacai Sanha and Josè Mario Vaz; thanks to the efforts of the international community such as Ecowas, the UN and EU, Bissau enjoyed relative peace and political stability.
In June 2011, I traveled to Bissau with the University of the Gambia socio-historical factfinders to further dig into the largely untold history of the greater Senegambia region. The research was designed to gather oral accounts from the elders about the annihilation of the Kaabu empire, and history that binds the people from The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. Traveling in and around the capital, offered us the rare opportunity to witness the impressive vegetative cover, the huge swathe of cashew farm lands.
In Kansala, we visited the site where the epic battle that led to the mysterious disappearance of Mansa Jankeh Wally reportedly took place. The elders explained in detail how the people fled Kansala when marabouts predicted about the inevitable fall of Kaabu. Although, there is a big line to draw when it comes to distinguishing facts from embellished oral historians; one thing that cannot be disputed is that people migrated from one region to the other for various reasons before and after the fall of Kaabu. We visited Bafata, the birthplace of the legendary Pan-Africanist, Amilcar Cabral and Canchungo the manjako heartland. There is a fundamental lesson, The Gambia should learn from Bissau: how to maintain and preserve our forest cover and biodiversity. If you are too dependent on “mainstream international media”, where Bissau is often dismissed as “failed state”, Here is my warning: do not pass judgements too easily.
Indeed, it was a mixed bag of the good and the ugly; at the end of the decade, the country managed to turn a new page. The whole nation is now waiting in calm anticipation of a new President as we usher in 2020.