Malam Bacai Sanha, president of Guinea-Bissau, dies

January 9, 2012

President Malam Bacai Sanha, who was elected in this tiny, coup-prone nation on Africa’s western coast more than two years ago after the previous leader was assassinated, died Jan. 9 at a hospital in Paris.

No immediate cause was given, but the 64-year-old president was known to have diabetes and had undergone medical treatment in both France and neighboring Senegal during his time in office. National radio announced his death.

The head of the National Assembly, Raimundo Pereira, is expected to take over until new elections can be organized. He served as interim head of state after the 2009 assassination of former President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira.

Since gaining independence from Portugal, Guinea-Bissau has been wracked by coups and has become one of the main transit points for drug traffickers ferrying cocaine to Europe. Just two weeks ago, the army said a top military official had attempted unsuccessfully to seize power while Mr. Sanha was ill.

Mr. Sanha won the presidential election held in 2009 after Vieira’s death, a peaceful transition of power that marked a rare bright spot for Guinea-Bissau. He became less known for what he did as president than for his frequent hospitalizations abroad, which were always described by aides as routine checkups.


President Malam Bacai Sanha, who was elected in the tiny, coup-prone nation of Guinea-Bissau on Africa’s western coast more than two years ago after the previous leader was assassinated, died Jan. 9 at a hospital in Paris. (SEYLLOU DIALLO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon paid tribute to Mr. Sanha’s leadership, noting in a statement that he guided Guinea-Bissau “at a particularly difficult time in its history.”

Mr. Sanha was born May 5, 1947, in Dar Salam, Guinea-Bissau. He began his political career as head of the youth wing of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, which waged a war for independence from the 1950s until Portugal withdrew in 1974. Mr. Sanha went on to become a member of the party’s executive committee and then served as a governor of a province.

Mr. Sanha was thrown to the fore after Vieira was gunned down inside his home in March 2009.

The circumstances of Vieira’s death have never been fully explained, but many speculated that his killing was related to issues surrounding drug trafficking.

In recent years, Guinea-Bissau has become a hub for drug smuggling. Cocaine is flown from South America to the islands that dot the country’s coast. The drugs are moved to Europe by boat or by “mules” who ingest the drugs and attempt to carry them north on commercial flights.

Mr. Sanha had pledged to combat the flow of narcotics. Nevertheless, he appointed Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, labeled by the U.S. Treasury Department as a drug kingpin, to head the navy in early October.

Carlos Vamain, a political analyst and former justice minister, called Mr. Sanha’s presidency difficult and complex.

“Difficult in the context of narco-trafficking and also the unchanging socioeconomic problems of the country,” Vamain said. “His presidency did not bring the results people had hoped.”

— Associated Press

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