By Sheriff Bojang
Yesterday I read a factoid; a curious statement attributed to Mbarodi aka the Lion of Niamina. Wasn’t this king of beasts declared extinct in this part of the world 180 years ago? Anyway, our Mbarodi drew parallels between The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau as twins conjoined by being failed states led by failed leaders. Yes, not all is well in Banjul, but the comparison of Banjul and Bissau, Yala and Jammeh isn’t fair.
Those who know the tales of the two cities and of the two kings will tell you; it is like comparing the candle to the noonday sun. But one can excuse the incidental vulgarities of politicians. Most politicians, with the exception of Sedia Jatta, are actors, who can’t resist the temptation to sex-up things a little sometimes. In my free time over the past many years, I’ve dedicated myself to the study of these two countries and invariably of the two leaders. I have met Yala three times: once in his house and twice in his Presidium. There is simply no comparison between the two men.
The ouster of Koumba Yala as president of Guinea-Bissau was an event waiting to happen since that day on January 20, 2000 when the eleven-party coalition he led polled 72 per cent of votes in a runaway second-round election. Where he needed to be strong, Koumba Yala showed debility; where he needed to speak out he kept mum; where he should have looked and acted he chose to drink his Cristal beer and go to sleep. Instead he touched what he shouldn’t have touched; chose the wrong friends – the kind of friends you can’t trust to hold the snake’s tail for you. He fought the wrong war and lost. That is why no one mourns his fall on the streets of Bissau. On Wednesday, he read his resignation speech on radio: ‘On behalf of national unity, of my known dedication to peace and a peaceful and brotherly resolution of our problems, I have decided to relinquish the presidency.’
There was neither poignancy nor anything near even the Nixonian or even the mock Tayloric grandeur of a departing president in Yala’s speech. It was banal. He ended it thus: ‘Lastly, I thank the people of Guinea Bissau. To whom I reiterate my honesty, loyalty and total willingness, yesterday, today, tomorrow and always, because the political struggle will continue. Viva Guinea Bissau, Viva Ecowas, Viva African Union, God bless us!’
Plaintive, almost eerily beautiful words, but, the curtain has come down on Koumba Yala, and deservedly so. Now he is where he belongs: buried in the footnotes of history books. When Koumba Yala came, all Bissau watchers thought he was the one. His pedigree and civive tells of a cultured African leader who has potential to become a truly ‘people’s president’. But all Yala succeeded in doing in the intervening four years of his presidency was to prove one point: that he was a fool of Falstaffian wit, a maverick who bites what he could not chew.
Guinea-Bissau, or at least the regions that constitute it today – Gabou, Bafata, Mansoa etc were people by a collective of tribes who were steeped in the ancient cultures of war with its attendant chivalry, blood-shedding, death and destruction- all in the name of vainglory codified in the term ‘Nyancho-ya’. Many years later, in one of his celebrated sermons, the late preacher of Gunjur, Umar Bun Jeng, uttered the memorable line, ‘Nyanchoya is Jahilliya’.
But like the medieval Norse, Saxon and Anglo knights of Europe, Janké Wally and the Mané and Sané warlocks of Guinea-Bissau believed in the redemptive power of war. To them, man was born to war, and war he must. About the middle of the 17th century, the Portuguese followed the sea route and arrived at what is now known as Guinea-Bissau. They stayed for 157 years and only left at the cost of thousands of lives in an eleven-year epic war of independence.
The Portuguese, who are only worse off as colonisers than only the British, bequeathed nothing as a legacy to help Guinea-Bissau transform itself into a modern state. Luis Cabral became the president. His brother, the charismatic Amilcar Cabral – a man cast in the image of East Timor’s Xanana Gusmano, would have fared better as head of the new nation, but the former agriculture engineer was killed in his base in Guinea Conakry in mysterious circumstances as the war of liberation was nearing its end.
On 14 November 1980, after six years of pursuing highfalutin adventurous policies, and crony capitalism and corruption, two Gambians, one born in Kombo Sukuta and another in Basse Fatoto, who were decorated for heroism during the war, ordered troops on the streets of Bissau and dislodged Luis Cabral from power. He fled to Portugal. Joao Bernado Vieira, who was commander of operations during the war of liberation, was named new head of state. Five years later, senior military officers belonging to the dominant Balanta ethnic group rose up against ‘Nino’ Vieira’s regime.
The two Gambians, General Yafai Camara and Brigadier Ansumane Mané, who commanded unrivalled respect among the influential war veterans, the ancien combattants and the regular soldiers, went to Nino’s rescue. The coup was foiled but it sowed the seeds of a division that has continued to, like gangrene, spread ugly pockmarks on the body politic of the country to this day.
Fearing a surge of Balanta militancy, Nino systematically purged out the Balantas from the military. Hundreds of them were executed on spurious, trumped-up charges by kangaroo military tribunals. Camara was appointed Minister of Defence and Vice President while Mané was made army commander. Camara was to remain in his position – even serving as acting president on a number of occasions – until he suffered a stroke that left him paraplegic and had to retire to his home in the Bairu Militaire estate. But Nino, fearing the popularity of Brigadier Mané removed him, replacing him with his cousin, Jose Marques Vieira.
Meanwhile, a year before Paolo Correia’s 1985 foiled Balanta coup, a young man, regarded as even brilliant by his peers called Koumba Kaode Yala, joined the ruling revolutionary PAIGC, founded by Cabral in 1966. Nino, realising the potential of young Yala, sent him to study political science in communist East Germany and the Soviet Union. On his return, he picked up a job as a teacher of philosophy in a high school. In 1989, he was expelled from PAIGC for preaching ‘perestroika’ (changes). In May of 1991, Nino succumbed to international pressure and allowed political pluralism in Guinea Bissau. The young communist ideologue joined the FDS party of Rafael Barboza. But two years later, Yala split ranks when the elderly Barboza said he wanted his son, Kwame Barboza, to succeed him as FDS leader.
Finally gladiatoring on his own, in 1993, Koumba Yala formed his Party for Social Revolution (PSR). Due to his common touch, the people regarded him as the new kid with the big punching gloves in the Guinea-Bissau political area. A man of promise. The little people of the country identified themselves with him – he was not a scion of any of the political dynasties, he was not tainted either by staleness or association with the establishment. He felt comfortable with his ‘Africanness’ and as a distinct mark of his acculturation, the red woolen hat of the Balanta ‘man’ became a hallmark of his dress, and he never misses an opportunity to join in a side-street cultural dance. He was a man of the people.
In 1994, Nino called snap elections. The people turned out and voted for Yala, but Nino refused to go. In an attempt to legitimise his mandate, he invited Yala to become prime minister, but Yala refused, saying: ‘I will only rule with a mandate from my people.’
Nino stole the elections but lost the respect of his people including those serving in the army. In 1996, the soldiers conditioned him into reinstating General Mané. Two years later, Nino again ordered the removal of Mané, following pressure from Senegal, which accused the general of gun-running and aiding the separatist fighting in the Casamance. In February 1998, a commission of enquiry exonerated General Mané but the Senegalese were adamant in their demand and after some horse-trading during a tripartite meeting in Paris with the leaders of Senegal and France, Nino unwittingly sacked the popular general.
War ensued and on 5 June 1999, Nino, who had to seek sanctuary in the Portuguese Embassy compound in Bissau, was allowed to leave and flown to Banjul as guest of President Jammeh. He has since been living in Portugal like Luis Cabral before him. Speaker of Parliament, Malam Bacai Sanha (pronounced Sagnia) was appointed interim leader but real power was wrested by General Mané. When elections were called in 2000, Yala and his eclectic coalition of eleven parties won.
If Koumba Yala was the de jure president, General Mané was the de facto ruler. It was an uneasy dyad. In order to break his power base, Yala unilaterally promoted twelve officers to the rank of general. General Mané, who saw himself as the guardian of the Bissau military, saw this as a personal affront and a direct challenge to his power base, and in a show of unwitting bravado typical of Nyancholu, he summoned the twelve newly promoted mainly Balanta generals and in the full glare of TV cameras, stripped them of their new stars and epaulets, and put them in detention.
Among them was General Verissimo Correia, a man who played a key role in the coups against Luis Cabral and Nino Vieira. General Mané was too brave even for a Nyancho. Posturing for a final showdown began. His tomfoolery in beating the drums of wars and refusing to war led to the desertion of his troops. He used to enjoy the unquestionable fealty of 25,000 soldiers. In the end, he had only twenty-three standing behind him. General Verissimo was made head of the army and he mounted a nationwide manhunt for Mané who fled Bisssau and was trying to make it to the safety of the Casamance border. Verissimo’s men led by Major Anicete Na Flaque found Mané holed in a church in Quinhannel (pronounced Kinkamel) and bayoneted him before shooting him and breaking up his skull and long limbs.
At last, the Ansumane Mané tumour was removed. It could have offered a fresh start for Yala. Instead, he lost his focus. He could not do anything to jog his highly impoverished country into moving forward, politically, economically or socially. The bricks of the bombed buildings remained where they landed when they fell in the bombing of the war years. Civil servants including teachers went without pay for more than six months at a time. The soldiers, police and customs officers had to improvise their remunerations. Because the government couldn’t pay them, they kept the tolls they collected and used it to pay themselves at the end of the month.
Koumba Yala could not build any road, school or hospital. His coalition partners, beginning with the RGB in 2001, deserted him. Since Caetano Intchama, Yala has hired and fired four other prime ministers and millions of dollars simply disappeared into thin air from development funds leading the IMF to suspend aid. Supreme Court judges were sacked and put in prison as well as journalists. Koumba Yala said he was a democrat but he did not allow dissent. When his foreign minister, Antonieta Rosa Gomes, as much as uttered a word smacking of criticism, Yala sacked him and threatened him with death. Last November, while I was in Bissau, I attended a session of parliament when a vote of no confidence was passed against the president, but Yala, in the style of the maverick he is, went on the radio, heaped insults upon the députés and announced the suspension of the parliament for ten years! Asked for the justification, Yala shouted: ‘They said they want democracy, I will teach them democracy!’
During another of his tantrums, Yala said he will ‘crush the Gambia in two minutes’. And if you do not know what got him puffed up to make such a bellicose threat, I will tell you. Koumba Yala has a ‘nephew’ who is a sometime minister-at-large, sometime a security-in-chief, sometime a guitar player and cabaret singer. A giant man with a balding crown, Baçiru Dabo was suspected by agents of the Gambia’s external intelligence directorate of involvement in the murder of General Mané. Well, this guy for one reason or the other, later vote wrote, composed and recorded a full album in praise of President Jammeh. He brought the tapes to Banjul together with a bevy of Bissau girls and instrumentalists.
They stayed at Banjul’s Carlton Hotel for three days but could not see the president and left with a severely bruised ego. A few weeks later, crazy Yala announced that The Gambia was training soldiers to topple him. He was later to retract his statement. It took the Gambian intelligence agents a day-and-a-half to trace the origin of that spurious claim: hurting Baçiru Dabo!
Koumba Yala was even unable to hold elections. He kept on procrastinating. The last time he announced another postponement of the election was Saturday. On Sunday, the soldiers removed him. Guinea Bissau is a cursed state, but the departure of one devil who wears a bright red woolen bobble hat can only be for good. Juwara, you may not consider Jammeh to be good, but he certainly is not failed as Yala. There is no comparison.
Published on the Daily Observer on 22 November 2003.
Editor’s Note: General Verissimo Correia Seabra who overthrew Yala later died in a putsch against him. Meanwhile, Nino Vieira has since returned from exile in Portugal contested and won the election as the new president of Guinea-Bissau. He was later killed and dismembered. The Bissau political roulette is still headlessly spinning.