Guinea-Bissau Swears In New President

Raimundo Pereira, Guinea-Bissau's former parliament speaker who is now the interim president, is required to call elections within two months.
Raimundo Pereira, Guinea-Bissau's former parliament speaker who is now the interim president, is required to call elections within two months. (By Rebecca Blackwell -- Associated Press)
By Todd Pitman
Associated Press
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau, March 3 -- The speaker of Guinea-Bissau's parliament took the oath of office as president Tuesday, a day after the man who ruled this tiny, coup-prone West African nation for 22 years was gunned down in front of his wife inside their villa.

Lawmakers stood to observe a moment of silence for President João Bernardo Vieira, 69, and his longtime rival, Gen. Batiste Tagmé na Waié, the head of the armed forces.

The two were assassinated in back-to-back attacks beginning Sunday night, when a bomb hidden under a staircase killed the army chief in his office. His inner circle blamed Vieira, and hours later, the president was shot dead.

In line with the country's constitution, parliament speaker Raimundo Pereira was sworn in Tuesday and is required to call elections within two months. Earlier in the day, Pereira told parliament that Guinea-Bissau "is facing a very delicate situation" and urged lawmakers "to assume their responsibility toward the nation" in ensuring calm and the rule of law in the former Portuguese colony, which is struggling to stem a booming cocaine transit trade.

The military has blamed an "isolated group" of soldiers for Vieira's killing and denied it was retribution for Waié's assassination.

Vieira's home, a modest bungalow near the presidential palace in the capital, Bissau, had a rocket hole in its door Tuesday, and several cars parked outside were riddled with bullet holes.

Guinea-Bissau has suffered multiple coups and attempted coups since 1980, when Vieira himself assumed power in one. He was forced out 19 years later at the onset of the country's civil war and returned from exile in Portugal to run successfully in the country's 2005 presidential election.

A member of the minority Papel ethnic group, Vieira had always had a tense relationship with the army, which, like the country, is made up primarily of officers from the majority Balanta ethnic group.

In the 1980s, after renegade soldiers attempted a coup against him, Vieira systematically purged the top Balanta officers, including Waié, who was dropped off on a deserted island off Guinea-Bissau and left there for years.

Vieira's death creates a dangerous opening in light of the country's appeal to cocaine smugglers.

Guinea-Bissau, ringed by uninhabited islands, has become a key transit point for Europe-bound cocaine worth billions of dollars annually to the country.

It is unclear how the assassinations of the two powerful figures will affect the drug trade. Many observers have long suspected that the army chief and the president were complicit in the trade. Others, including the U.N. drug czar for the region, have argued that they were powerless to stop it.

Although the twin assassinations do not appear to be related to the drug trade, analysts point out that the use of a bomb to kill Waié is highly unusual in West Africa, where assassinations and coups d'etat are still the domain of the Kalashnikov, and that it could indicate a contract job led by foreigners.

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