Within five minutes of arriving in
We jump in his 4x4 and within 15 minutes we’ve seen much of the capital
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’état 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
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
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.