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Requiem For Bissau
By Michael Lambert (Univeristy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

1998 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

This summer we lost a city. Although I had never been there, I understood that Bissau was a sleepy town, some 200,000 people spread over several coastal islands. I remember lying in bed, listening to the local BBC broadcast, and hearing what seemed at the time to be an unremarkable report. A handful of soldiers had attempted a coup d’etat in Guinea-Bissau. It seemed so banal--yet another coup attempt in an African nation. I brushed it aside. Surely this coup had already been suppressed. How wrong I was. In just weeks Bissau was emptied of its civilian population. They were chased out by soldiers fighting for control of the city. On one side were soldiers loyal to President Joao “Nino” Vieira (including troops from Senegal and Guinea Conakry). On the other were troops loyal to General Ansoumana Mane, the leader of the coup.

I was in Dakar, Senegal at the time. I had rented an apartment from a Cape Verdian woman. A few days after the fighting had erupted I happened upon her wandering through the streets, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was going to the phone center once again to try to call her sons who, for all she knew, were still in Bissau. Several boats evacuating refugees had arrived in Dakar’s port the previous day. Madam B __ said she had gone to see whether her boys were on these boats. She did not see them. Later, another friend described the scene when the boats had pulled into the port. They were overcrowded, and the refugees had passed at least two days on the boats without food. In my mind I tried to imagine their other privations--how would they sleep or use the bathroom on a boat that was so crowded. According to my friend they were literally screaming to get off the boat. I tried to console Madame B __ as she wandered in the direction of the phone center, but I dared not mention that a boat bearing refugees had capsized. Some 200 civilians had died.

The coup had its roots in Senegal, which perhaps explains why the Senegalese government felt entitled to intervene. Since 1982 the Mouvement des Forces Democratique Casamançais (MFDC) has been fighting for the independence of Senegal’s southern Casamance region. The fact that the Casamance is wedged between Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia has made it difficult for the Senegalese government to control the situation. Several MFDC bases are allegedly located along the border in Guinea-Bissau. Throughout the war Senegal has worked to convince Guinea-Bissau to help eradicate these rebel bases. Eventually economic incentives, such as support for Guinea-Bissau’s inclusion in the CFA franc zone, enticed Vieira’s government to abet Senegal’s military efforts.

Despite this alliance many believed that elements in Guinea-Bissau’s military continued to funnel arms to the MFDC. While Senegal believed that Vieira was not involved in this arms trade, they, along with Vieira, suspected that Ansoumana Mane, commander of Guinea-Bissau’s military, was deeply involved. By January Mane knew that he was to be replaced. Nonetheless, Vieira waited until June 7 to remove Mane from office. Mane killed the soldier Vieira had sent to disarm him, and the rebellion began.

Within days Guinea Conakry sent troops to support Vieira. Shortly afterwards Senegal, too, had troops on the ground. Exactly when the Senegalese intervention began is not clear. What is clear is that the Senegalese considered this a quick cleanup operation: the deployment was to last no more than 72 hours. As of this writing, almost two months later, Senegalese troops are still in Bissau, and the Senegalese people have been left shaking their heads, wondering how they could have gotten themselves into such a mess. In retrospect Vieira’s actions and the Senegalese intervention appear frighteningly shortsighted. Why, one wonders, did Vieira wait so long to replace Mane? Why did he give him from January until June to prepare his uprising? Many with whom I spoke with said that Vieira should not have fired Mane. Mane, they said, was too powerful. Vieira should have appointed him to a post very far away--he could have been made Ambassador to China, for example.

As for the Senegalese government, they, too, misread the situation. Mane had six months to plan his rebellion and garner the support of the Bissauian troops, a task that could not have been very difficult: Mane is admired in Guinea-Bissau as a hero of the revolution. The Senegalese pieced their response together in a matter of days. They probably believed that they would be aiding a large contingent of loyalist troops. Many with whom I spoke believed that all of Guinea-Bissau’s military had abandoned their President. They believed that what could have begun and ended as a coup d’etat has escalated into an interstate war between Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

Shortly after I saw Madam B __ wandering distraughtly through the streets, her first son told me that one of her other sons had called. This second son had made it to Kolda, a town in Senegal. His employer, a cigarette company, arranged to bring him to Dakar; he was to arrive that evening. Over the next few days refugees from Bissau started moving into the apartment building in which I was staying. Madam B __'s second son told me that not that long ago an American had told him that he loved Bissau because it was so laid back. Crime and violence were not a problem. That statement had been made on Saturday. Sunday the fighting began. Apparently it had happened like that. He said that there had been no warnings, no rumors, nothing. The fighting, it seemed, had come out of nowhere.

A few days later Madam B __’s third son arrived. He owned the only printing business in Bissau. From what he told me, his business was doing quite well. He said that he stuck it out in Bissau as long as he was able. Eventually, however, conditions deteriorated to the point that he really had to get out, not because of the fighting but because there was no electricity, no water, no food, nothing. He had helped a neighbor, he said, patch together a makeshift stretcher with which they had carried a disabled man twenty miles to the road that leads to Senegal. He spoke at length about his business and about how he wanted to get a new machine that would allow him to do multi-color printing. He showed me some of his work, a religious motif he had done for a church in Bissau. I could see why, despite the danger, he had wanted to stay in Bissau through the fighting. I doubt that he believes that he will ever have his business again, that is, if he ever gets to return to Bissau. He told me that he was particularly worried that Nigerian troops would be sent in. “Everyone knows they are thieves,” he said.

This man was not alone in the belief that this was an internal matter for the Bissauians to resolve on their own, a matter in which the Guinean, the Senegalese, or anyone else had no business getting involved. He shared the view that, had Senegal not sent troops, the matter would have ended in a few days. He was probably right. He shared his fear that the people of Guinea-Bissau would never forgive the Senegalese for destroying their country. He had every reason to believe that, as a Senegalese national, he would never again be welcome in Bissau.

When I returned to the States, I tried to find news reports on the situation in Bissau. I did not come across any televised reports on the war. Nor did I come across reports in the press. The only news I found on the web was stashed away in the archives. It was and is hard to believe that a city was swept away, and the American press did not even find time to take notice.

The press silence over the death of Bissau probably suited the Senegalese government well. When I met with Kaaw Sow, a Senegalese journalist who has dedicated his career to reporting on the Casamance, he was trying to get into Guinea-Bissau. He managed to report on the first few weeks of the uprising, but since returning for what he thought would be a brief visit to Dakar, he has not been able to get back across the border. He told me that he had already arranged for a plane. The problem, though, was that the Senegalese government had sealed off the small coastal nation ostensively to isolate Mane’s rebels forces. I can understand why the Senegalese would want to seal possible supply routes (rumor has it that the MFDC is fighting side-by-side with Mane’s troops) and even why they would want to restrict the access of journalists to the region. Still, I cannot understand why they prevented a Medecins sans frontieres mission from entering the war-ravaged nation. Kaaw Sow told me that he was no longer reporting on Guinea-Bissau. As long as he could not get into the country, he had nothing to report. Several people with whom I spoke said that Portuguese news agencies were providing the only reliable reporting on Guinea-Bissau. When, on July 15, Senegal’s official newspaper Le Soleil printed an article denouncing Portuguese press reports on the war, I found this claim even more credible

For its part, the Senegalese government has been virtually mute. They have yet to explain the intervention to the Senegalese people. They have, however, worked hard to win the international community to their side. The Senegalese government has packaged their invasion as an effort to restore the democratically elected government to power. I did not meet anyone from Bissau who believed the electoral process in that country was fair or democratic. The impression I got from my small and unrepresentative sample was that they thought that Vieira had been President long enough and that they would be happy to see Mane take over.

The British government (albeit lukewarm) and the Organization of African Unity have spoken in support of the Senegalese invasion. I wonder, however, if the Senegalese government, in all honesty, still believes that they did the right thing. In hindsight neutrality appears as though it might have been the shrewder choice. Senegal might then have tried to forge an alliance with whichever leader prevailed. If the MFDC is fighting with Mane, a rebel victory will put Senegal in a real pickle. They will have to contend with a southern neighbor that openly supports the MFDC. On the other hand, if Senegal restores Vieira to power, they will probably have to occupy the nation through brute force, a formidable task in light of the fact that Guinea-Bissau successfully fought itself out from under the yoke of colonial domination and that Senegal has been unable to control the MFDC. It is little wonder that Senegal is eager to pass this problem onto ECOMOG. I am sure that Senegal wants to wash its hands of this before her citizens call their government to task for allowing their sons to fall on foreign soil.

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