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Guinea-Bissau: Out With the Old, in With the New?

For the first time in two decades, the divisive figure Kumba Yalá is not watching over Guinea-Bissau's elections. But his legacy of corruption and unrest remains.
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Kumba Yalá campaigning in elections 2009. Photograph by Nammarci.

In a one-minute video uploaded in April 2012 and shot at the military fort, which sits like a giant cork atop the centre of Bissau, one watches former president Kumba Yalá standing next to Guinea-Bissau's Army Chief, General António Injai. Surrounded by a small group of onlookers, the former, wearing his trademark red bonnet, hands banknotes one by one to the army man. Afterwards, Yalá and Injai shoot each other wide grins and shake hands before doing the same to some of their associates around them.

As the local correspondent who showed me the video pointed out, this short clip − much of which remains a mystery − encapsulates all the problems with Bissau-Guinean politics: lack of transparency, unaccountability, corruption, and a dubious link between the military and politics.

These have been some of the main ingredients of the country's politics since independence in 1974, and for much of this period, Kumba Yalá, who suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and died on 4 April at the age of 61, was at its centre.

The former president's recent death marks a symbolic break with the past, and Bissau-Guineans may be hoping to mark a more concrete break with the past soon, as they await the counting of their votes from this weekend's general elections.

From prof to politician

Yalá was born into a poor peasant family in 1953 in the western region of Bula. His parents worked the land and young Kumba would have been expected to follow in their footsteps, but his exceptional brightness set him on a path that saw him rise through the Portuguese education system and, against all the odds, go to university. He triumphed academically, became a professor of philosophy, and immersed himself in languages. Besides his mother tongue of Balanta, he became fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, French and English.

Yalá and Guinea-Bissau would arguably have been better off if he had stayed in academia, adding more languages to his repertoire, but the lure of politics and his disillusionment with the government proved too strong.

As a teenager, Yalá had joined the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), the independence movement led by Amílcar Cabral which had gone on to rule Guinea-Bissau after independence. Through the years, however, he became disenchanted with its leadership and what he saw as the exclusion of the Balanta. In 1992, a year after a ban on opposition parties was lifted, Yalá saw his opportunity and founded the Party for Social Renewal (PRS).

The PRS leaned on two main overlapping constituencies: the Balanta people, who make up around 30% of the population; and the armed forces, which is majority Balanta. Yalá made his association with these groups crystal clear by donning his trademark woollen red bonnet; many outsiders saw the hat as a colourful innovation, but Bissau-Guineans recognised it instantly as an inalienably Balanta headdress. Couple this overt expression of loyalties with Yalá's populist, unpredictable and often abrasive style, and one can understand how the philosophy professor turned out to be a profoundly divisive politician.

The president

Numerically, the PRS' base would have been too narrow for it to win an election under ordinary circumstances. But Guinea-Bissau hadn't seen ordinary circumstances for a long time. Political chaos had reigned supreme since 1980, and in 1998-9, the country erupted into a short but vicious civil war. So when elections came round in 2000, Guinea-Bissau's desperate and exhausted population decided to give Yalá a chance. It wasn't long before they regretted it.

Yalá’s presidency took chaos, corruption and unpredictability to new levels. Ministers were erratically appointed and sacked, the state finances became a bigger mess than they already were, and relations with the army top brass deteriorated. Yalá's administration can also be credited with allowing Latin American drugs barons to increase their foothold in the country. These illegal traders allegedly paid government officials to look the other way as increasing quantities of cocaine started transiting the country, and later reportedly paid soldiers for logistical services rendered. In fact, the wad of cash changing hands in the one-minute video could well have been related to drugs too. General Injai is wanted by the US Department of Justice for drugs trafficking, while one of Yalá’s nephews is in an American jail on similar charges.

However, as local analysts always emphasise, cocaine is not the story of Guinea-Bissau. It is a symptom of a profound political crisis, one Yalá contributed to in many ways, not least when he abolished parliament in November 2002.

Kumba's return

In the end, Yalá's presidency did not last long. In September 2003, the army removed him in arguably the only coup the country has seen that earned the putschists heartfelt gratitude from the entire country.

But Yalá did not disappear or fade into the background. Even while his own friends in the military had grown fed up with him, he kept scheming, knowing that, over time, he would be able to lean on his army friends again if he wanted to stir up trouble. And despite the fact he was banned from politics for five years, this opportunity came very soon.

In 2005, the PRS chose Yalá to be its presidential candidate in the June elections, a decision the Supreme Court eventually upheld. However, a month before the polls were even held, the former president shocked the country again by briefly occupying the presidential palace. In the early hours one morning, Yalá and some accomplices overpowered the single soldier guarding the entrance. Yalá announced that he was withdrawing the resignation he had been forced to sign when he was overthrown and demanded his reinstatement.

This power trip, however, lasted just four hours. After an ultimatum from the army, Yalá and his associates left the building, and in the elections the next month, Yalá came third.

For the next few years, Yalá wrestled with his rivals in the PRS, exiled himself to Morocco for a while, converted to Islam in 2008 (changing his name to Mohamed Yalá Embaló), and ran in elections again in 2009.

Yalá's last grand stand came in April 2012. President Malam Bacai Sanhá had passed away in January, triggering fresh elections. Yalá reached the second round run-off, but the PAIGC, led by former prime minister Carlos Gomes Júnior, was looking the more likely to win. Gomes Júnior had particularly strong ties with Angola, which trusted him to protect growing business interests in the country, but he was unpopular with the army, which was suspicious of his attempts to reform it. In the build up to the polls, rumours grew that if Gomes Júnior won, he would invite Angolan soldiers to break apart the army, and on 12 April, General Injai and a group of mutinous troops stepped in and took control of Bissau.

A fresh start?

This past weekend's elections are the culmination of those events in 2012. In the aftermath of the coup, an interim government was put together, excluding PAIGC, and elections were scheduled to take place in two years' time. Yalá went relatively quiet, but most Bissau-Guineans figured he was up to something, and when Yalá announced that he was leaving politics at the end of 2013, few took it seriously. It was perhaps only with his death, which came on 4 April, that the population would ever be able to truly believe they had seen the back of him.

This election, which is the first not to feature Yalá in some capacity for decades, is understood to have had a high turnout. Votes are still being counted, but the PAIGC is expected to fare well in the parliamentary elections. Meanwhile in the presidential polls, the PAIGC's candidate, Jose Mario Vaz, is also anticipated to make it into the second round run-off scheduled for 18 May. PRS' hopeful, Abel Incada, could join him, though some reports suggest the independent candidate, Paulo Gomes, could cause an upset.

The man in the red bonnet and his interference in the political landscape will not be missed by most. But the fundamental problems that he oversaw and contributed have not died with him. Bad governance, corruption, political turbulence, aid dependence and a powerful, unaccountable, coup-prone army all remain. Kumba Yalá was certainly not the man to solve those troubles, but Bissau-Guineans will be hoping the next man just might be.

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