The Quiet Coup

In Guinea-Bissau's tropical capital, residents welcome bloodless coup

At right, the author shakes hands with coup leader, Gen. Verissimo Correia Seabra in 2003. Seabra was killed a year later by angry soldiers demanding their salaries be paid.

September 17, 2003


BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau (AP) _ Like so many coups in Africa, the news came over state radio after dawn: A military junta had overthrown the president and put him under house arrest.

Sunday's ouster of Guinea-Bissau President Kumba Yala was condemned by governments around the world for what it was: An affront to democracy, and a bad precedent for a continent struggling to shake off decades of instability.

But in the languid, leafy streets of this tiny Atlantic Coast country's tropical capital, most residents reveled in the change.

"Nobody is sad to see him go," said Fernando George, a 45-year-old painter walking along one of Bissau's crumbling boulevards. "The country was sinking. He was bringing us down."

Footage broadcast on state-run television showed army chief of staff Gen. Verissimo Correia Seabra _ who later declared himself interim president _ arriving at the aging yellow presidential mansion and shaking hands with his boss.

Correia Seabra informed Yala he was being deposed. Yala was shown laughing _ in apparent disbelief.

Yala's guards did nothing and the incredulous president was taken under light military escort to army headquarters in the center of town.

Cabinet members were detained, then informed they too were out of a job.

As far as the junta leaders were concerned, it couldn't have gone smoother: No bloody fighting, no humanitarian crisis, no looting sprees or violence in the streets.

Troops who patrolled Bissau with rocket launchers and automatic weapons were gone by Monday, a nighttime curfew was lifted and life for most residents was back to normal.

"We've never seen this kind of coup before," George said. "It was quiet though, and we are thankful for that."

Guinea-Bissau, a country between Senegal and Guinea, is almost entirely lacking in natural resources or other wealth. It got off to a bloody start with a 1960s war against colonial ruler Portugal _ leading to independence in 1974 _ and never made much progress since.

The country's last major uprising in 1998 lasted 11 months, killed thousands and ended only after the man who launched it, Gen. Ansumane Mane, seized the presidency.

Under international pressure, Mane held democratic elections that saw a victorious Yala embark on a five-year term in January 2000.

Mane, however, tried to snatch power from Yala in another failed coup in November that year _ only to be killed by loyalist troops.

"When Yala came to power, everybody liked him, but now nothing works well," said Alia Bangura, 27, selling furniture and couches on a dirt plot to passers-by. "Our faith now is in Seabra. I'm hoping this change will be good for business."

Residents said Yala had become increasingly autocratic and unpopular over the last year.

He reshuffled his Cabinet repeatedly and in November 2002 dissolved the national assembly, promising to hold parliamentary elections which have been delayed several times since _ despite international warnings only a fair vote could spark a resumption of substantial foreign aid and investment.

The country garners little from its main industries, fishing and peanut production, and government coffers have run dry. Soldiers and civil servants haven't been paid in half a year. There's no money to pay teachers either, and public schools have been closed for over a year.
¶ Bissau is an uncrowded place dominated by two-story buildings and a mix of paved tarmac and red dirt roads overgrown with grass.

In streetside cafes, Portuguese military officers _ a hundred of them are here training the military _ sip beer with their Guinean counterparts, gossiping about the coup.

At a roundabout in Bissau's city center, the former presidential palace stands neglected, its roof blown off from past fighting and grass sprouting from second-story balconies.

Blue and white Mercedes taxis, a chic touch in this woefully impoverished city, cruise the roads slowly, looking for customers. Smiles are ubiquitous and the atmosphere is distinctly laid-back.

On Tuesday, the nation's top military brass greeted one another warmly on an army headquarters balcony, its peach-colored paint peeling off in the humidity.

Correia Seabra emerged with a small team of lightly armed guards, headed for a meeting with West African foreign ministers pressuring him to reverse the coup.

"They're putting pressure on us to let him come back," junta spokesman Zamora Induta said, referring to the ousted president. "But it's out of the question."

Correia Seabra has promised to hold new elections, but no date has been set.

Yala was still under house arrest at his former home in the capital, and will remain so until military leaders appoint a new prime minister and government, Induta said.

For now, Yala's face can only be seen publicly in pictures _ like the one hanging on the wall behind Pinto Abna, a receptionist at Yala's Party for Social Renovation office.

Yala fell out with many members of his party and his popularity even here is slim.

"For me, it's all the same," Abna said. "It's as if nothing has changed."

Copyright 2003 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.