Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Guinea-Bissau president, army chief assassinated; private broadcasters silenced

The Guinea-Bissau army has claimed it's not seeking power following the assassination of the country's president Joao Bernardo Vieira by members of the military. Earlier the same day, the army chief of staff, a rival of the president, was also slain. Observers believe Vieira's murder was in retaliation for the earlier killing.

The West African regional group ECOWAS is holding an emergency summit on the Guinea-Bissau crisis. African and Portugese diplomats flew into Bissau today to try to head off a possible military coup.

"The African Union appeals urgently to the political parties and actors of this country to exercise restraint and refrain from plunging the country once again into a spiral of power struggle," said a statement from the continental body.

Guinea-Bissau has been virtually taken over by cocaine traffickers, who use the country as a transit point between South America and Europe. It has been described as Africa's first narco-state and regional observers fear that cartels will overwhelm other West African countries with weak state institutions. In neighboring Guinea, the son of the country's late dictator (a long-time ally of Vieira) as well as several senior police officials were recently arrested on drugs trafficking charges.

I've seen nothing yet to suggest that the drugs barons were implicated in either assassination but the resulting power vacuum is sure to embolden them ever further.

The constitution, if respected, stipulates that the parliamentary speaker becomes acting president and must organize elections within 60 days.

Update: The army chief was killed by a remote-controlled bomb. Analysts have noted that this means of assassination is almost unheard of in Africa but very common in Latin America, which leads one to suspect the cocaine cartels.

Further update: Radio Netherlands Worldwide's Media Network is reporting that the all of Guinea-Bissau's privately-owned radio stations have been ordered to cease broadcasting. RNW quoted Media Foundation for West Africa's correspondent in the country as saying that the radio stations were ordered to cease broadcasting because they could spread false information about the mutiny. However, Samuel Fernandes, the army spokesman told the BBC that the closure was to ensure the security and safety of the journalists.

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