Guinea-Bissau rambles on, despite coup

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Campaign banners from an election that was violently interrupted still hang in the main thoroughfare of this steamy capital, a reminder that a stable government is far from the country's grasp.

Guinea-Bissau was just weeks away from holding a presidential runoff election when soldiers attacked the front-runner's home in April and arrested him along with the country's interim president. To the 1.5 million residents of this tiny, coastal nation, it spelled yet another upheaval in a history full of them.

No leader in nearly 40 years of independence has finished his time in office in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony on Africa's western coast that has long been plagued by coups.

It comes perhaps as no surprise then that people here are complacent about the latest move by the junta. While the international community has loudly condemned the latest power grab, Bissau-Guineans have had little time to mourn yet another aborted attempt at establishing democracy, worried instead by how to make ends meet during their country's latest political spasm.

A lone sign hangs from a pedestrian overpass in downtown Bissau urging: "Mobilize yourselves! Demonstrate! We are a Democracy!" Most, though, are simply doing their best just to walk across that bridge to make a living each day.

Public workers didn't receive their salaries last month on payday, just after the coup. It's still unclear whether anyone will receive their salaries for May, and the hardship compounds life for those who depend on others getting paid.

Cadidjoto Seide, 28, supports her three children by selling a local milk dish along the roadside. In the months before the coup, she could sometimes make up to 5,000 francs ($10) a day, though much of that would go toward her transport costs. Since the coup, she's lucky to make 1,500 ($3), she says.

"It's really difficult at the moment just to survive," she says, watching commuter buses whirl by her stand in the main market downtown.

The April coup began on a Friday afternoon, just 17 days before the country's runoff election. The first round of voting had largely been described as free and fair, and former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr. was leading by a wide margin, making his victory all but sure. By the night of April 12, the military had blocked off the roads to the candidate's house, and were lobbing grenades at his villa.

Now Gomes has fled the country, and it appears less likely each day that he will ever return.

The country's chances of ridding itself of military intervention are slim, given a booming cocaine trade that has turned Guinea-Bissau into a narcostate, fueled by trans-Atlantic drug shipments bound for Europe. Key members of the military have been named as complicit in the trade, including several army and navy chiefs who are now on the United States' "drug kingpin" list. The infusion of illicit cash has emboldened an already bloated army. Drugs, observers say, played a role in the recent coup.

"All the intelligence Portugal possesses clearly indicates that one of the factors behind the coup was drug-trafficking," Portuguese Foreign Minister Paulo Portas told reporters in Lisbon after meeting with Gomes, who exiled himself there.

"Either Guinea-Bissau becomes a state based on the rule of law, or it will be held ransom by a certain military clique that is open to the drug trade," said Portas.

Gomes told Portuguese radio station TSF that the international community must ostracize the coup leaders by imposing sanctions. Foreign pressure "has to be made to produce results." He added that he had unofficial information that a coup was brewing, but armed forces chiefs "categorically denied" they were planning an uprising when he confronted them. He added that he was not afraid to return to Bissau, but more than six weeks after the coup, the candidate is still an ocean away.

The election was clearly a vote some did not want him to win. Observers say Gomes had become a divisive figure within national politics long before the run-up to the election. Then when military leaders feared Gomes was secretly trying to overhaul the military with help from Angolan soldiers, they burst into action and arrested him.

Even West African regional mediators are backing a one-year transitional government that does not include him in it.

Critics believe the plan by West African regional bloc ECOWAS to now support the junta-initiated transitional government all but legitimizes the military coup. But ECOWAS Commissioner Salamatu Hussaini-Suleiman, has told the U.N. Security Council that immediately restoring the constitutional order that existed before the coup could lead to civil war.

In an effort to put the country back on track, ECOWAS this month began sending a contingent of peacekeepers, who will replace the Angolan troops formerly stationed here, whose presence had become a source of conflict with the military at large.

For now, it seems that the military has gotten away once again with meddling in the country's politics. In 2009, soldiers assassinated then-president Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira, in an unsolved murder that was also rumored to have been linked to the drug trade.

There is next-to-no military presence in the streets of Bissau, which have turned to a river of red mud since the first storms of the rainy season. The army does not need to patrol the streets, because despite the posters encouraging an uprising, people are too beaten down to stand up to the latest military incursion.

In Guinea-Bissau, citizens seem willing to give the junta or a transitional government a chance — if it means restoring some economic stability.

Carlos Hussein Ajau, 62, has lived through it all: Portuguese colonialism, the war for independence, the country's civil war and its successive coups and political assassinations. The last few weeks have been difficult for his business — no one even has money to change.

"The situation is not good, but we in Guinea-Bissau are used to it," he says.


Associated Press writer Barry Hatton contributed to this report from Lisbon, Portugal.