Joao Bernardo Vieira – a turbulent life in a turbulent country

by | Mar 2, 2009

The life of Joao Bernardo Vieira, the President of Guinea-Bissau who was assassinated this morning, was a microcosm of the post-independence history of his country.

Born in 1939 and an electrician by trade, “Nino” rose to prominence during Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence, when he was a trusted comrade of Amilcar Cabral, who as head of a well-organised band of guerrillas led the country to freedom in 1974.  The PAIGC party, which Cabral formed and which Vieira led until his death, began as a revolutionary group whose goal was to expel the Portuguese colonialists and set up a socialist state. The party was both idealistic and pragmatic, its ethos summed up in a famous speech by Cabral:

Always remember that the people are not fighting for ideas…they fight and accept the sacrifices demanded by the struggle in order to gain material advantages, to live better and in peace, to benefit from progress, and for the better future of their children. National liberation, the struggle against colonialism, the construction of peace, progress and independence are hollow words unless they can be translated into a real improvement of living conditions.

Cabral and Vieira gained recruits by persuasion, convincing fearful peasants of the justness of their cause and instilling such belief in them that they were able to fight off a vastly more powerful Portuguese army. The Portuguese tortured and killed hundreds of innocent civilians and their planes napalmed villages. The PAIGC, on the other hand, treated its prisoners of war so well that thousands of Portuguese soldiers deserted their army and many others fled the country to avoid being conscripted. The Guineans were instrumental in bringing down the Portuguese dictatorship, and despite Cabral’s assassination in 1973 they proclaimed their independence a year later.

Vieira was on the four-man leadership committee that steered the country through its formative years as an independent state. The freedom fighters’ dreams, as in so much of Africa, were quickly dashed, however, and the economy tanked as industrial development plans failed and agriculture collapsed. In 1980 Vieira stepped in to overthrow Cabral’s brother Luiz in a coup (like many of his continental peers, Vieira lived and died by the sword).

Where Luiz Cabral had been corrupt and repressed opponents, Viera promised a return to true democracy. Where Cabral had invested in white elephant industry projects, Vieira promised a return to agriculture.

He stayed in power for four years, before surprising many observers by returning the country to civilian rule and stepping down as president.  In 1994, he came back to power, winning a narrow majority in a democratic election, but after four years a quarrel between the president and the army (a quarrel seemingly being repeated now) resulted in a year-long civil war and led to Vieira fleeing the country and being expelled from the PAIGC for treason.

He did not return until 2005, when he again won the presidency, this time as an independent candidate. By now, however, the cocaine trade had hit Guinea-Bissau. A country starved of natural resources had acquired an extremely valuable subsitute. Colombian dealers had begun using the country as a staging post on the route from South America to Europe.  Those who could gain access to the trade would become rich, those who could not would remain destitute. Army and police factions began to angle for a share of the bonanza, while politicians realised that the stakes had suddenly ratcheted up. Power meant wealth, and the potential to consolidate power. A failure to access the wealth would mean political oblivion, and having to scratch around for a meagre living like ordinary citizens.

In November 2008, Vieira received his first warning that others were ready to resort to the most extreme measures to dislodge him from his prime position as what his political opponent Kumba Yala called “the country’s top drug trafficker.” An attack by a group of soldiers on the presidential palace left two guards dead but Vieira escaped unscathed. His reprieve didn’t last long, however, and his country is again plunged into turmoil.

(Sources include: Patrick Chabal, Wikipedia)


  • Mark Weston

    Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and consultant working on public health, justice, youth employability and other global issues. He lives in Sudan, and is the author of two books on Africa – The Ringtone and the Drum and African Beauty.

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