Global News Journal

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Drugs fuel turmoil in West Africa

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“Nino” Vieira’s past as an old soldier was never far from the surface. It can have surprised few in Guinea-Bissau that the old coup maker’s death came at the hands of troops who turned against him in a country perpetually on the edge of failure because of military squabbles driven by centuries-old ethnic rivalries and the newer influence of drug smuggling cartels.

Covering the campaign for Guinea-Bissau’s first multiparty election in 1994, I found President Joao Bernardo Vieira far from being the most talkative of politicians. Sometimes actions said more. After one campaign stop, and in view of attendant dignitaries, Nino grabbed a military aide by the ear after he had caused offence and twisted it until he squealed in pain.

President Vieira emerged in the 1960s and 70s as one of the leaders of the fight to drive Portuguese colonialists from Guinea-Bissau, a country of swampy inlets, a scattering of islands and a scrubby interior that sent little to the outside world but cashew nuts – before the coming of drug traffickers in recent years made cocaine a more lucrative export for the few involved.

Vieira seized power in a bloodless coup in 1980, took Guinea-Bissau away from a Marxist path and was elected in 1994 when donors started demanding democratic reforms across Africa. Trouble came when he fell out with an army chief in the late 1990s, prompting a rebellion that forced him from power.

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