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by Ambassador (ret.) Edward Marks

Our intrepid correspondent (see “Letters from Praia”, 1978 and 1979) continues his tales in another letter from his West African, former Portuguese colony postings in the late 1970s. No doubt there will be more to come. –The Editor

The Republic of Guinea-Bissau is now entering its fourth year of independence and the desegregation of its component elements is the most interesting new development. Installed as it was after a successful war fought by a unified political movement, the new Government of Guinea-Bissau (GOGB) presented at first the image of unity — of a disciplined organization consciously pursuing a coherent program. Like most, if not all political movements of the 20th century (and maybe most centuries), the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde) believes that political truth is self-evident and that only essentially corrupted personalities would cavil at its pronouncements of policy and goals. This endemic religiosity of current political activity was — and still is — enhanced in the case of the PAIGC by the strong feeling of wartime camaraderie shared by most of the leadership. However, time passes. The Guinea-Bissau leadership is unusually frank in admitting that national management is much more difficult than liberation struggle derring-do. Their willingness to admit this does not make the problems less onerous or the irritations less irritating. And so — slowly, quietly, so far peacefully and in a very relaxed manner — the various disparate elements of the Guinea-Bissau political, social and economic scene begin to reveal their separate natures. Internal politics is being reinvented.

1978 was a worrisome year for the GOGB. The previous year had been unusually poor and the hoped for production of sufficient rice to meet internal needs was not achieved. In January the Government turned frankly and openly to the international community for food aid, convoking the resident diplomatic corps in a rather naïve little gathering. Government representatives openly explained the problem and formally asked the assembled diplomats to forward the request for food aid to their governments. The appeal was made to the international community as a whole — otherwise the presence of the representatives of the PLO, Polisario, Senegal, Guinea-Conakry could have been embarrassing. In any case their presence plus the Cubans, the East Germans, the Soviets, the Egyptians, and the Nigerians proved to be largely ceremonial.

In any case the food aid was forthcoming and, as the 1978 rains proved to be very healthy, the prospects for self-sufficiency in rice production are once again promising. Achievement of this goal is not merely desirable for its economic benefits. The GOGB has the usual desire and need to produce results. Independence has not brought the millennium — everybody fervently denies they really thought it would — but some results should be forthcoming to justify the struggle. Self-sufficiency in rice would be such an accomplishment, and the relatively easy nature of the achievement would not detract from its value. As time passes, the need for a noticeable success becomes more urgent, what with the embarrassing situation in the fishing sector and the continuing shortage of food and consumer goods in the face of comparatively massive flows of foreign aid.

And all of this affects the basic unavoidable political fact of this new country — most of the leadership is racially, culturally, and socially similar to the dispossessed colonial leadership and racially, culturally, and socially different from the vast majority of the population. One of the more interesting aspects of Guinea-Bissau’s history is the historically unusual development in which a part of a society’s “outcast elite” conceived of and led a revolution, which resulted in their becoming the new leadership. It has been remarked that Guinea-Bissau was a Cape Verde, not a Portuguese, colony. In the event some Cape Verdeans conceived of and fought the rebellion and, as an identifiable class or community, reaped the rewards by assuming the leadership roles in Guinea-Bissau as well as Cape Verde itself. The contradictions inherent in this situation are now beginning to surface and the implications are becoming the primary topic of the professional gossip of the expatriate community. What are those contradictions and implications?

The desegregation mentioned earlier is taking place on a number of levels and in various sectors. On the broadest level composed of the Party-State — which is itself a mystical amalgam of One Party and Two States — one can begin to sense the inevitable strains between the two national governments and the mix of institutional loyalty, inertia, careerism, and ideology which the two governments, by their very existence, foster if not create. The strains are not yet public but are beginning to be sensed by outsiders as the political elite of both governments protests continuously their undying loyalty to the PAIGC and its commitment to unification. This loyalty is tied up with the social character of the ruling leadership — all Cape Verdean in Cape Verde and mostly Cape Verdean in Guinea-Bissau.

At the national level in Guinea-Bissau, the various elements showing signs of self-identification and self-consciousness are more numerous. The overriding political “fact” is still the Party; its successful struggle for independence — the Luta (struggle or fight) — and the resulting legitimacy. (Not all senior officials of the government — as compared with the party — are veterans of the struggle, hence the occasional whispered hint that the official was actually a clandestine member of the Party in the colonial days. The party itself has made an effort to remove membership cards acquired rapidly on the eve of victory.)

However, as the months since independence pass, differing political tendencies or perspectives have begun to appear among the politically active. First, a group of radical or “Soviet-Bloc” adherents, dithering between Soviet and Cuban allies it is true, but generally interested in retaining and expanding ties with the Soviets, deploring the new links with the West and generally desirous of a more radical and ideologically pure governmental policy and orientation. Cuba Si, Yankee No and up the PLO.

There is also a number, not insignificant, of other leaders who are showing signs of a rather liberal cast of mind, a la Senghor or Houphottet-Boigny. Nothing very open yet, but clear interest in foreign aid (the more the merrier and therefore inevitably Western) investment if possible, and a firm conviction that Western European cities are clearly much nicer than their Eastern European counterparts.

The largest group is a bit more difficult to define. It is clear their major orientation is rather classic African nationalism; independence from the Portuguese was the goal and now the siren call of pure African nationalism preoccupies. President Cabral clearly exemplifies this viewpoint (although he shows tendencies as time passes of a more liberal leanings) The current Principal Commissioner (Prime Minister) apparently shares this attitude.

Now this is where other political, social, racial and economic factors begin to play a role. While Cabral and Principal Commissioner Nino may share a similar political or ideological perspective, there are differences between them of potential import. Cabral is a Cape Verdean; Nino is a pure African. Cabral was a political leader during the Luta while Nino was and is the favorite leader of the largely African army. Finally, there are rumors that Nino is not happy with the predominance of Cape Verdeans in the GOGB.


Being a proper, accredited, modern, progressive liberation movement, the PAIGC is fully opposed to all forms of racism and special privilege. Nevertheless Guinea-Bissau is made up of identifiable groups which show signs of eyeing each other suspiciously. The Cape Verdeans and the pure Africans have already been mentioned, but there are other groups: mulattos not Cape Verdeans; and the former assimilados — detribalized Africans who had achieved full legal status as Portuguese citizens. We do not know how these groups relate to each other or how serious any tensions, which exist, might be. The foreign community in Guinea-Bissau increasingly believes that intergroup tensions are growing. This is probably truer in the capital city rather than in the countryside, as Guinea-Bissau is uniquely the place where the Cape Verdeans in the middle and lower levels of the administration flourish. It is in Guinea-Bissau where the African former guerilla fighter is confronted with a situation, which does not appear to have changed, despite his victory.

It is just these concerns, which give some importance to the little affair of the disaffected former freedom fighter, Malam Sanha, last November. Sanha’s effort to infiltrate the country and initiate resistance to the present government was itself of little import. His reputation is poor at best, his connections appear minimal, his supporters largely disreputable, and his timing — just two months after the most popular African military leader was promoted to prime minister — laughable. Nevertheless, and despite the government’s calm and efficient reaction, Sanha’s effort did create a frisson of fear.

It is also these observations that give added import to the changing composition of the top level of the government. The four most senior leaders present at the annual New Year’s Day ceremony for the diplomatic corps were: President of the Council of State (Cape Verdean), Principal Commissioner (African), Commissioner for Security Affairs (African), and the Commissioner for Foreign Affairs (assimilado). They represent a subtle reorganization, following the death of the former principal commissioner last July, at the very top level. Apart possibly from the foreign affairs commissioner, they represent real political power, and therefore significant political representation for the pure African population. However, the bulk of the senior government officials below them (the rest of the commissioners, the senior bureaucrats and party officials) are still largely Cape Verdean.

The above comments are not those usually forthcoming from the majority of foreign observers who have come to inspect and comment upon the PAIGC in power. The party has long been the darling of intellectual circles in Western Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries, and it has a completely voluntary claque of academics and journalists. They come periodically for visits, sit at the feet of various leaders (notably Commissioner of Economic Development and Planning Vasco Cabral whose charm, Communist Party background, and combination of verbal ability and ministerial incompetence make him the perfect guru), and return home to write glowing apologias for radical periodicals on the PAIGC-led rural development approach. These treatises have little to do with reality, as the government itself is well aware. Witness the recent report on foreign economic assistance, prepared by Vasco Cabral’s department, which was withdrawn and burnt prior to public release when top leadership discovered that over 70 percent of all development projects are located in the capital city area.

Meanwhile, throughout the past year, while the government worried about weightier matters, certain attributes of life in a capital city began to manifest themselves in this hitherto rather austere little city. The number of foreigners has grown markedly in the past year, most of them young specialists or volunteers sponsored by the UNDP or bilateral economic assistance programs. The Diplomatic Corps, in a modest way, began to bloom. Most diplomats have now obtained some sort of permanent housing, wives have begun to reside in Bissau, staffs are being beefed up, a modest social life has begun, and the French Embassy and the French Cultural Center are no longer on speaking terms.

In November the wives of most of the resident Ambassadors held the first ever charity affair in independent Guinea-Bissau, an international buffet dinner-dance under the patronage of the President who attended with all of his cabinet. The Mainland Chinese participated with evident gusto while the Soviets and Cubans stayed away (to the delight of the Chinese Ambassador who commented that perhaps their absence was explained by their dislike of spending money).

However, the Soviet Ambassador made up for his absence on the occasion of the second Diplomatic Corps social event in Guinea-Bissau, the Corps’ first annual dinner for the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Having failed to reply to all queries from the Senegalese Dean of the Corps as to whether or not he would attend, our Soviet colleague showed up at the appointed hour without spouse but with interpreter, and demanded two places at the head table. The Dean granted the Russian’s right to a head table seat on the grounds of diplomatic precedence, but refused all attempts to place the interpreter alongside. The dinner then proceeded more or less normally; the failure of the city power system shortly after the serving of the first course struck all present as appropriate, and, as the dinner was being given in the open air next to the swimming pool at the hotel, in fact provided an opportunity for a charming dinner by moonlight. The Corps was quite satisfied with its efforts to introduce diplomatic standards to Bissau, and even the Brazilian Ambassadress’ concern over the possibility of rabies after she was bitten by one of the numerous cats roaming around was taken in stride.

Lawrence Durrell would have felt right at home.End.

Ed Marks
Ed Marks

Ed Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and attended the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board.


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