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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Monday 9 May 2005

GUINEA-BISSAU: Supreme Court delays approval of presidential candidates

BISSAU, 9 May 2005 (IRIN) - Tension is growing in Guinea-Bissau as the Supreme Court delays a key decision on whether to allow former presidents Kumba Yala and Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira, to contest presidential elections due on 19 June.

The court was supposed to have announced its decision last week, but its vice-president, Paulo Sanha, told reporters on Wednesday that the panel was still concerned about "irregularities" in the nomination papers of several candidates.

Political analysts said Yala and Vieira were likely to be the front runners in the election if they were allowed to stand, even though both men had brought so much division and controversy to the country when they previously held power, that they were both overthrown.

Yala, elected in 2000, but deposed by a bloodless coup in September 2003, has been selected as the presidential candidate of his Social Renovation Party (PRS), the largest opposition party in parliament.

The PRS overwhelmingly backed its former leader for the presidency even though Guinea-Bissau's 2003 transitional charter for guiding the country back to constitutional rule, banned Yala from political activity for five years.

Vieira, a military strongman who ruled this former Portuguese colony for 18 years until he was forced to quit by the outbreak of civil war, meanwhile faces murder charges for allegedly ordering the extra-judicial execution of five senior military officers in 1985.

Vieira, who has lived in exile in Portugal since his overthrow in 1999, also faces a technical ban on standing for re-election.

The constitution and laws of Guinea-Bissau forbid anyone who has the status of political asylum in a foreign country from seeking elected office.

Officials of Vieira's election campaign said the former president was currently in Lisbon negotiating with the Portuguese government for his political asylum to be suspended temporarily.

Concerned by the possibility that this small West African country could slide back into conflict after emerging from a year-long civil war in 1999, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano as his special envoy to Guinea-Bissau at the end of April to promote the holding of "peaceful and credible" elections.

Chissano flew into the capital Bissau on 2 May and has been holding consultations with the country's main political parties, the armed forces and civil society groups since then.

Yala, a former philosophy teacher, whose government ended in near bankruptcy, political deadlock and administrative chaos, said last week that he would refuse to accept any Supreme Court ruling that prevented him from contesting the election.

And his campaign director, Rui Alberto Pinto Pereira has stated repeatedly that unless Yala is allowed to stand there will be no election.

These threats are being taken very seriously. Yala is a member of the Balanta ethnic group, the largest ethnic group in Guinea-Bissau, which in turn provides bedrock support for his PRS party.

And the Balantas, who account for a third of Guinea-Bissau's 1.3 million people, dominate the armed forces.

They account for 90 percent of the army's rank and file soldiers and hold all the key positions in the military high command.

The Balantas' control of the army was entrenched following a military uprising in November last year. This led to the assassination of General Verissimo Correia Seabra, the chief of staff of the armed forces who had overthrown Yala a year earlier.

Correia Seabra belonged to the same Papel ethnic group as Vieira, but was replaced, at the insistence of the mutineers, by General Tagme Na Wae, a Balanta.

Na Wae told reporters following a meeting with Chissano last week that the armed forces of Guinea-Bissau would never again go to war unless Guinea-Bissau were invaded by a foreign enemy.

But public unease remains and the capital Bissau is alive with rumours that a large number of guns have been distributed to private hands.

Meanwhile, the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) has suffered an internal split between supporters of Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, who back Mallam Bacai Sanha as the party's presidential candidate, and dissidents who are openly campaigning for the return of Vieira.

Although Vieira had a military rather than a political background when he first came to power, he was a hero of the PAIGC's guerrilla war against Portuguese colonial rule from 1961 to 1974. He ruled Guinea-Bissau through the PAIGC after deposing the country's first president in a military coup.

Vieira remains popular with many senior figures in the party.

The powerful central committee of the PAIGC decided on Saturday at the end of a four-day meeting, to suspend for 12 months, 37 of its 351 members because of their open support for Vieira's re-election.

Those frozen out included the PAIGC's first vice-president Aristides Gomes, Helder Proenca, a veteran party ideologue, and four of the party's 45 members of parliament.

Their suspension will make it even more difficult for PAIGC to push through legislation since the party failed to obtain an absolute majority of the 100 seats in the single chamber legislature in parliamentary elections in March last year.

Political sources said the political crisis could come to a head during the course of this week.

They predicted that the Supreme Court would rule within a few days who was eligible to stand in the elections and that Vieira, who visited Guinea-Bissau for three days in early April to register himself as a voter, would return from Lisbon shortly.


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