Tuesday, 27 March 2012

From Our Own Correspondent: Guinea Bissau

Here's the text of a FOOC I wrote this weekend for the Radio 4 programme (25/04/2012)

Within five minutes of arriving in Guinea-Bissau, you realise why this sleepy backwater has become a favourite spot for Latin American cocaine smugglers. After a flight over the mangrove swamps, creeks and rice paddies, we arrive at the main airport, where the customs officer doesn’t even glance at our meticulously filled-in arrival cards before stamping our passports and letting us through. We’re met as soon as we get off the plane by a friend of a friend, Carlos, who doesn’t seem to have any trouble moving in and out of the airport’s so-called secure zones.

We jump in his 4x4 and within 15 minutes we’ve seen much of the capital Bissau. Carlos leaves us at the hotel and heads off for a coffee with Colonel Samba Djalo, until recently the nation’s intelligence chief. It was to be the last time they meet.

Bissau has a completely unexpected charm. What immediately strikes you is the small town feel – almost everyone seems to know everyone else. You can’t take a taxi or bus ride in this city, without the driver shouting out to old friends that he’s spotted along the road or in passing cars. The only time anyone pestered me in the street, it was to tell me that the pockets on my rucksack hadn’t been closed properly.

People sit out in the small front gardens of their homes and shout greetings and jokes at the passersby as the Portuguese colonialists might once have done. The pastel-coloured houses they left behind, many with broad verandas and balconies, look unchanged in decades. There are numerous fine art deco buildings as well in a well preserved city centre – there’s not been much development here to replace them. At night the city centre’s almost pitch black – electricity here is a rare commodity. But people are still out and by the lights of passing cars and small shops lit by generators you see people walking home, chatting with friends and romantic couples strolling hand-in-hand along the uneven pavements.

In almost every measure this is one of the world’s very poorest countries. The infant mortality rate is nearly one in ten and according to the World Health Organisation the country’s 1.6 million inhabitations have access to only 72 doctors.

It’s an irony of history that the only West African country to fight and win its independence, has finished up in the worst state. I spent a few hours in the countryside walking through areas littered with tens of thousands of bombs and rockets left from the colonial war. Young children don’t know better than to use ancient hand grenades to try and knock down mangoes. The army continues to hold much of the power and frequently intervenes in civilian life - every year recently there seems to be some sort of mutiny, attempted coup d’├ętat or upheaval. In 2009 a remote controlled bomb blew up the head of the army, and a group of soldiers from the interior of the country immediately made for Bissau and attacked the home of the president, blaming him for the assassination. The president was tortured, killed with machetes and then – military sources tell me – his heart was eaten to make sure his spirit wouldn’t seek revenge.

In the recent presidential election there were nine candidates. The eventual winner will know that no elected president has ever completed his term in office without dying or being overthrown or assassinated. On the Sunday night I was there after the first round of the presidential election, the aforementioned Colonel Djalo was gunned down by armed men in military uniform, not far from his home.

But what violence there is concentrated among the elites – the people at the very top. You see plenty of people in the city who seem to be doing very well – driving the latest models of the world’s most expensive luxury cars and 4x4s on Bissau’s few tarred roads.

In the last few years, progress has been made. The electricity supply is a little better, though everything is relative here. The government’s no longer nine months behind on civil servant salaries. And there are new roads – some so straight you can land drugs planes on them.

To reassure us that Colonel Djalo’s assassination would not jeopardise the electoral process, the army summoned us to their headquarters inside a crumbling Portuguese fort still littered with ancient canons – almost the only weapons on display. Several of the buildings lack roofs and no-one stops us going in. Resources are thin on the ground – one soldier I see on patrol in the city has only one boot, so wears a flip flop on the other foot.

Guinea-Bissau may frequently appear on the lists of failed states. The nation has indeed failed its citizens, but this is not a failed country. It’s one of most beautiful places in West Africa with sacred forests, uninhabited islands and a manageable and friendly capital. You can eat prawns the size of your hand, dance at the carnival or the carnevalesque political rallies – and eat the freshest cashew nuts in one of Africa’s major producers. Election day was peaceful and well-organised – they can do certain things well here.