Slain Guinea-Bissau President's Funeral Raises Questions About Legacy

10 March 2009

A mourner carries wreath to express sympathy during state funeral of slain Guinea-Bissau president Joao Bernardo Vieira (10 March 2009)
A mourner carries wreath during state funeral of slain Guinea-Bissau president Joao Bernardo Vieira (10 March 2009)
Long-time Guinea-Bissau President Jaoa "Nino" Vieira has been laid to rest in a state funeral in the capital, amid doubts over the future of the country, and the long-time leader's legacy.

Large crowds of Bissau-Guineans and a smattering of foreign diplomats paid their last respects to Mr. Vieira in Bissau. The slain president, whose life was integrally intertwined with the brief and violent history of the small West African country, was laid to rest at the Bissau cemetery in front of a large number of his countrymen.

The funeral was scheduled to be attended by only one foreign leader, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who arrived on a plane that also brought members of the slain president's family, many of whom reside in Portugal.

A handful of other ambassadors and foreign dignitaries were also present, though many African leaders preferred to skip the ceremony, leading to speculation that some feared for their own safety following Mr. Vieira's assassination.

Mr. Vieira had served as Guinea-Bissau's president for all but five of the past 27 years, before his death at the hands of mutinous soldiers last week. The revolutionary turned politician, who played an integral role in Guinea-Bissau's war of liberation from colonial power Portugal, leaves a country in desperate need of stability and reform, says International Crisis Group's West Africa Program Head Richard Moncrieff.

"I am afraid to say he does not have a very good legacy in that respect. Guinea [Bissau] is really a broken country," he said. "The infrastructure is virtually non-existent, certainly outside the capital. Other issues such as security sector reform, reform of the administration, and even democracy and voting issues have not really been dealt with at all under Vieira's presidency, or indeed before that. So I am afraid he leaves his country in a very poor state."

Moncrieff says there is hope for calm and progress after the dual assassinations of Vieira and his long-time rival, former armed forces chief of staff Batista Tagme na Waia. Moncrieff says the peaceful transition of power after last week's upheaval is a hopeful sign for violence-plagued Guinea-Bissau.

But Moncrieff says though events in recent days have been encouraging, meaningful reform will be needed for things to improve over the long term.

"What really needs to happen is the antagonisms and the intense and violent rivalries among the top elite in Guinea-Bissau really need to stop," Moncrieff said. "I think people are fed up with the fighting between the elites constantly dragging the country down, constantly scuppering the efforts and preventing the country from moving forward."

Vieira served as president of Guinea-Bissau for nearly 20 years after taking power from fellow revolutionary leader Luis Cabral in a bloodless coup in 1980. Vieira was toppled by a coup in 1999, and went into exile in Portugal, before returning in 2005 to win a second term as president in openly contested elections.

The constitution of Guinea-Bissau stipulates new presidential elections be held within 60 days of last week's swearing in of National Assembly speaker Raimundo Perreira.