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The child soldier who became president

[Guinea-Bissau] General Verissimo Correia Seabra.
Le général Verissimo Seabra Corriea a été tué aux premières heures de la mutinerie (AP Photo)

Many young Liberian fighters might dream of following in the footsteps of General Verissimo Correia Seabra - the child soldier from Guinea-Bissau who became president on Sunday.

Correia Seabra, who seized power in a bloodless coup on 14 September, joined the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) as a guerrilla fighting against Portuguese colonial rule in 1963 when he was just 16.

Three years later he was sent to study electronic engineering in Bulgaria. And in 1971, Correia Seabra went to artillery school in the Soviet Union. On his return to the bush war in Guinea-Bissau he was put in charge of an artillery unit near the southern border with Guinea-Conakry.

In 1976, three years after the PAIGC proclaimed the independence of this small and swampy country on the coast of West Africa, he was sent for officer training in Portugal.

On his return, Correia Seabra, like many military commanders, became embroiled in the strained internal politics of the PAIGC as it underwent a difficult process of transition from armed liberation movement to civilian-led political party.

He played a key role in the 1980 coup which overthrew president Luis Cabral and led to a purge of government leaders of Cape Verdean origin. A new government headed by General Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira took power which continued governing the country in the name of the PAIGC.

A political source said Correia Seabra was put in charge of media and telecommunications during the 1980 coup.

Promoted steadily through the ranks, he became deputy head of the Guinea-Bissau miltary contingent of the United Nations mission in war-torn Angola from 1991 to 1992. Two years later he was appointed head of operations in the military high command.

In June 1998, Correia Seabra joined a military uprising by General Ansumane Mane against Vieira, who had by then been in power for 18 years. He became the rebel leader's number two commander in the brief, but bloody civil war which followed.

The rift in the military was papered over by a peace agreement in February 1999, but three months later Correia Seabra played a leading role in a fresh coup which forced Vieira to quit as head of state.

Vieira was replaced by the speaker of parliament, Malam Bacai Sanha, who led an interim civilian government charged with organising fresh elections. Correia Seabra, now a four-star general, became chief of staff of the armed forces.

He remained in this position after the elections in December 2000 and January 2001 which brought to power Kumba Yala.

Mane, the army general who led the successful drive to oust Vieira from power, lost his life in a failed attempt to overthrow Kumba Yala in November 2000. But this time Correia Seabra remained loyal to the head of state and was kept on as the country's top military commander.

However, as time went on and Kumba Yala's government grew more erratic in its behaviour, Correia Seabra's patience wore thin.

Now aged 56 and close to retirement, he was forced publicly to deny rumours in May this year that a fresh coup was in the offing.

But diplomats said Correia Seabra warned Kumba Yala privately that the army would be forced to intervene again unless the president managed to pay several months of wages owed to soldiers and civil servants, hold parliamentary elections that were repeatedly delayed and replace three judges of the supreme court who he had sacked.

The bloodless coup, when it finally came, drew widespread sighs of relief at home, even though it provoked a chorus of condemnation from abroad.

Correia Seabra said he had acted to "put right a confused intolerable situation."

"We were in a country with no constitution, no judiciary, no parliament - a crazy country in other words," the general told reporters two days later as he argued with a delegation of ministers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent to persuade him to hand over power quickly to a civilian administration.

Correia Seabra pledged in his first statement after the coup that he would only serve as interim president for a short while until fresh elections were held. However, he refused to set any deadlines for holding a new poll.

His first act as the head of a 32-member Military Committee for the Restoration of Constitutional Order and Democracy was to convene a meeting of political, religious and civil society leaders to choose a new civilian-led government that would be charged with organising fresh elections.

Correia Seabra was born in the capital Bissau on 16 February 1947. He belongs to the minority Pepel tribe, which accounts for less than 10 percent of the country's 1.3 million population.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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