Introduction: Guinea-Bissau Today-The Irrelevance of the State and the Permanence of Change

By Bordonaro, Lorenzo I. | African Studies Review, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Guinea-Bissau Today-The Irrelevance of the State and the Permanence of Change


Bordonaro, Lorenzo I., African Studies Review


The Disposability of President Nino

As I was writing this introduction, Guinea-Bissau was rocked by yet another "political crisis." On the night of March 1 and 2, 2009, the army chief of staff, General Batista Tagme Na Waie, and the president of Guinea-Bissau, Joäo Bernardino "Nino" Vieira, were killed in the space of a few hours. As was to be expected, articles mushroomed in the international press in the following days, sporting headlines that we have long since become accustomed to, such as "Guinea-Bissau Collapse Deepens after Leader Killed" (Pitman 2009) or "Guinea-Bissau Threatens Return to Bad Old Days in Africa" (George 2009). An article by the Economist Intelligence Unit was entided - with a literary touch reminiscent of Conrad's Heart of Darkness "Edge of the Abyss." These days Guinea-Bissau, particularly since the 199899 civil war, seems to be the poster child for all the negativity generally attributed to African countries, an overlapping of political, economic, and humanitarian crises, in blatant confirmation of the picture of "shadowy Africa" that James Ferguson pinpoints as one of the features of international discourse on Africa today (2006:15,190).

Despite these clichéd articles (identical in tone to those that have appeared during the various crises that have characterized the last decade of Guinea-Bissau's history) and pessimistic forecasts from international experts, these violent events have not triggered any real political or civil turmoil. The following morning the capital city, Bissau, was calm. The army leaders declared that they had no intention of intervening in the upcoming elections. Raimundo Pereira, the parliamentary speaker, was appointed interim president the following day, while new elections were to be held in the next sixty days (though they were postponed to June 28), with the support of the European Union. The government appointed Commander José Zamora Induta interim chief of the armed forces on March 15. The president's funeral was held rapidly and no international leaders showed up. On March 5 an article by the Associated Press writer Todd Pitman remarked on the "apathy surrounding the slaying of President Joao Bernardo 'Nino' Vieira."

This is even more surprising considering that both Nino and Tagme were two key figures in the country's postindependence history. If indeed these measures show the government's wish to avoid a power vacuum, the speed and apparent smoothness with which these high state offices were replaced nonetheless inspire some thought and reflection about recent politics in Guinea-Bissau and the nature of the state in this country. It is obviously too early to predict what, if any, consequences this event will have. We are, however, left with the feeling that the president was somehow disposable. A gloomy analysis put forward by Henrik Vigh (2006 and this issue [143-64]) - who sees in Guinea-Bissau's recent history the tremors of a chronically unstable but fundamentally inert political system, in which political leaders can be replaced without any real political change - seems to have received further confirmation. What we should question, therefore, is not Nino and Tagme's actual assassination or the conflict of power that probably led up to these violent events but rather the lack of consequences we have observed. The apparent disposability of President Nino, the relative lack of response to an event that commentators regarded as having the potential to trigger cataclysmic consequences, is something we have to address in theory.

The deliberately provocative argument I would like to make here is that these apparently destabilizing events do not reveal a crisis of the state; neither are they symptomatic of its collapse. What this new event, and particularly its easy solution, seems to show instead is the contemporary irrelevance of the state in Guinea-Bissau. President Nino's disposability is the ultimate illustration of the disposability of the state itself. …

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