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Nino Vieira says he will contest presidential election

[Guinea-Bissau] Remnants of Guinea-Bissau's 1998-1999 war.
Remnants of the 1998-1999 war (IRIN)

Former president Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira has announced plans to contest the 19 June presidential election in Guinea-Bissau, pitting himself against another controversial former head of state, Kumba Yala.

Political analysts in this small West African country reckon that both men are likely to garner more votes than any of the other candidates who have so far thrown their hat into the ring, providing they are allowed to participate.

Vieira and Yala are both controversial figures currently banned from seeking political office in this former Portuguese colony of 1.3 million people.

However, a draft amnesty law, which is due to come before parliament in early May, could change that.

Vieira is a former army general who seized power in a 1980 coup. He ruled Guinea-Bissau for nearly 19 years until he was ousted in 1999 during a civil war.

Vieira returned from exile in Portugal on 7 April and a spokesman for his election campaign announced on Saturday that he would file his nomination papers with the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

However, these may be rejected since Vieira still faces court charges that he ordered the execution without trial of five senior military officers following an attempted coup in 1985.

Yala, a former philosophy teacher, was elected president in 2000 after the civil war on a platform of national reconciliation, but his government degenerated into chaos and bankruptcy. It dismissed parliament and failed to call new elections.

Yala was overthrown by a bloodless coup in September 2003 and was banned from political life for five years under the terms of a transitional charter adopted by all of Guinea-Bissau's political parties to return the country to constitutional government.

Nevertheless, Yala was adopted as the presidential candidate of his Social Renovation Party (PRS) at the end of March. The PRS is the largest opposition party in parliament and commands strong support from the Balanta, Guinea-Bissau's largest ethnic group, which is heavily represented in the army.

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior last weekend announced a cabinet reshuffle, which appeared to be aimed at improving relations between his government and Guinea-Bissau's restless armed forces.

He appointed a new Defence Minister, Martinho N'Dafa Cabi, who belongs to the Balanta ethnic group and is widely considered to be a hardliner in the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

N'Dafa Cabi replaced Daniel Gomes, whose personal relations with the military high command had become strained following an army mutiny in October. The uprising led to the assassination of the chief of staff of the armed forces and the appointment of a new team of military chiefs chosen by the mutineers.

A new minister of the interior was also appointed during the weekend reshuffle. He is Joaquim Mumine Embalo, a veteran PAIGC leader with a reputation for astute political manoeuvring.

The prime minister's campaign to woo the security forces also included a decision to upgrade Isabel Buscardini, the Secretary of State for Former Combatants to the rank of full minister.

Former soldiers who have been demobilised are a sensitive group for the government to deal with. In the past, pensions and benefits packages promised to them have often failed to arrive, provoking unrest.

Making sure that promised benefits are delivered will become even more important in the coming months as the government embarks on military reforms to slim down the size of the army from more than 10,000 to a targeted 3,000. The army became bloated during the 1998-1999 civil war.

So several thousand more soldiers are likely to be demobilised soon and must be kept happy as they leave their guns and uniforms behind.

Finding enough money to pay government employees is a perennial problem in Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest countries in the world.

The present government has managed to reduce the arrears owed to civil servants and soldiers, with the help of budget support from western donors, but Guinea-Bissau's teachers began a four-day strike on Monday to protest at the fact that some of them had not been paid for the past six months.

The strike, by the teachers' union SINAPROF, closed down schools throughout the country.

The return of Vieira, a hero of the guerrilla war that led to independence in 1975, has embarrassed the present leadership of the PAIGC, in whose name he once ruled, and has raised the spectre of a major split in the party.

The PAIGC has already chosen Malam Bacai Sanha, who served as interim vice-president between 1999 and 2000, as its own presidential candidate. But Bacai Sanha came a poor second to Yala in the 2000 presidential election, winning 28 percent of the vote, compared to Yala's 72 percent.

However, many influential leaders within the PAIGC have openly backed the bid by Vieira, a member of the small Papel ethnic group, to return to power.

The United Nations has expressed concern at the recent turn of events in Guinea-Bissau, warning that the ambitions of Yala and Vieira to run for president again could destabilise the still fragile peace in the country.

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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