by Ambassador (ret.) Edward Marks
Our West Africa correspondent (see “Letters from Praia”, 1978 and 1979 and “Letter from Guinea-Bissau, 1978″) continues his tales in another letter from his postings in the late 1970s. One more from 1980 is to come. –The Editor
1979 was a quiet year for Guinea-Bissau; no dramatic failures or successes. The rains were spotty and the government was forced to appeal for international food aid. The most visible development projects continued to make varying degrees of progress;. Tthe Citroen assembly plant tuned turned out its first cars by the end of the year. Whether or not these projects are economically viable remains a subject of much debate among the foreign expert community in Bissau. However, at the same time a number of less dramatic projects : – rice irrigation, secondary school construction, soil and bug research and control, artisanal fishing, etc., appear to be moving ahead; showing modest promise for the future. Nevertheless the country continues to be heavily, subsidized by its foreign friends.
The Government has used new commercial credits from Portugal and Brazil to import a large quantity of consumer goods for the holiday season, thereby creating at least the facade of prosperity. The end-of-the- year mood was quite jovial and relaxed and the old custom of holiday festivity a – severely subdued since independence – surfaced with great openness this year. Tthe general mood of relaxation and openness is a reflection of the increased confidence of the ruling elite, an interlocking directorate of government and party leaders. Coordinated, not ruled, by President Lids Cabral, the collegial character of the government became more evident during the past year. Internal political tensions and rivalries are remarkable only by their absence. At the same time the ruling elite have begun to show open evidence of privilege in their general style of living as the almost priggish austerity of the early independence days is permeated by a growing preoccupation with today and the problems of everyday life. Guinea-Bissau’s elite has discovered that rank hath its privileges — and does not appear to be spurning them. Whether this development will eventually grow into abuse of power and general corruption is a question for the future. At the moment it is not yet offensive and the Bissau population at least appears to accept it with a sort of good-humored cynicism. In external relations, the Government of Guinea-Bissau (GOGB) has successfully pursued the policy which has slowly taken form over the past three years, combining three essential themes: retain the fraternal links with the Soviets, Cubans; expand all ties, particularly economic, with the West; and generally play down rhetoric in pursuit of a genuine, low-keyed non-alignment. Relations with the United States in particular continued to improve in all aspects, and the ties between Guinea-Bissau and Senegal became every day more evident, resulting from President Senghor’s deliberate policy of rapprochement and the GOGB “being willing.”
In conclusion, it was a quiet year. Nothing was resolved, and the country remains poor and undeveloped. The leadership is increasingly preoccupied with the real day-to-day problems of government and increasingly uncertain that they know what to do with them. Meanwhile, political life is calm and no insurmountable problems were expected to show up in the in-basket on January 1, 1980.
After what seemed an eternity of discomfort — pounding, drilling, sawing, and other assorted inconveniences associated with construction — Embassy Bissau’s chancery renovation was completed in September. By November the dirt, dust, and noise were only a memory and the dignified calm appropriate to a chancery had settled upon us. During the same period, the drive to find and renovate appropriate housing for Embassy staff came to fruition.
And so three and one-half years after the opening of the post, the end of 1979 finally established Embassy Bissau in adequate work and living facilities. This welcome achievement marked the end of another year of improving relations between Guineans and the United States. The ‘”suspicions”, to say the least, with which the first official Americans had been greeted in in Bissau in 1976 has long since been changed into a relaxed and even warm reception of Americans by local officials as well as private individuals. The Voice of America reports that the number of letters from listeners in Guinea-Bissau (and in Cape Verde) is remarkable, given the size of the country. A USIA sponsored basketball coach was enthusiastically received, and the second visit by a United States Navy ship was a great success (to the point where the seven-person official delegation invited to luncheon aboard the USS Trippe was augmented by seventeen assorted wives, children, and assistants in a holiday mood). In 1979 the International Visitor program took off, and those members of the Guinea-Bissau cabinet who have not yet traveled are now lined up for their visits to the New World. Several who have gone are making plans to return with their families for on personal visits.
The country itself finished the past year in reasonably good mood, although the expected poor harvest preoccupied the government. The rains had been erratic and although the prediction of an agricultural catastrophe made by certain international organization experts and officials now appears somewhat exaggerated, it is also clear that a shortfall in local rice production will occur. The GOGB and the USG and other governments have requested food aid from the international community. The shortfall in local production of basic foods is also slightly embarrassing politically to the government, which has since independence proclaimed food sufficiency as its primary short-term goal. That goal is clearly achievable, and would only be a return to the situation which obtained in colonial days before the independence struggle. The social, commercial and physical damage incurred by the country during the war is, of course, an acceptable excuse as to why self-sufficiency has not yet been achieved in the five years since independence, particularly in a year where the rains have been disappointing. Nevertheless there are growing suspicions that the government’s economic management may also be at fault. The farm-to-market system is clearly inadequate, as the government persists in the implementation of a largely state-owned commercial structure. In any case, the combination of war-afflicted damages, poor rains and the inefficient, if not actually incentive-discouraging government commercial policies, have resulted in disturbing reactions by Guinean farmers. In the north, many are reported to have shifted their farming activity across the border into southern Senegal. This export of labor merely increases the flow of Guinean production, which moves north in search of Senegal’s hard currency and consumer goods.
In other parts of the country, notably the south, there are reliable reports of farmers limiting their activities to subsistence agriculture on the grounds that crops grown for sale are not worth the effort (even if government buyers arrive punctually, there is little to buy with Guinean pesos in the poorly stocked state-owned stores). Nevertheless, the countryside is sufficiently productive and the population density low enough that real famine is unlikely. The food shortage falls largely on the capital city of Bissau and sufficient food aid from the country’s friends should resolve that problem for the coming year.
Meanwhile in the city, the government has utilized some new commercial credits from Brazil and Portugal to bring in large supplies of consumer goods and create a facade of prosperity for the holiday season. Two new government-owned supermarkets were opened in November and the small privately owned shops are full — by Bissau standards — of shaving cream, textiles, children’s clothes, toys, and foodstuffs including vines and liquors. The prices are horrendous by local standards and the pricing is puzzling — why should a Portuguese wine cost twice in Bissau than what it sells for in Cape Verde? Nevertheless, the stores are full of shoppers and not just the governmental elite. It would appear that people do have money in their pockets, maybe because there has been little to buy up to now.
Another reason for the heavy buying may be a resurgence of the entrepreneurial instinct, as city people buy in order to resell in the black market in the countryside. To the degree this happens, the government – worried about what to do with its own badly managed and money-losing People’s Stores — will be unhappy.
The major industrial and infrastructure projects — the automobile assembly plant, the agora-industry complex at Cumore, the new road to the airport, etc., appear to sake continued if not dramatic progress throughout the year. The Citroen assembly plant actually began to turn out small numbers of the modernized version of the Deux Chevaux by December. Many foreign advisors here earnestly debate whether any of these projects will actually become viable economically. Nevertheless progress in these projects is a sign of developmental activity pointed to with pride by the government.
Meanwhile, of course, the government and the country’s monetary economy continue to be subsidized by foreign economic assistance. The Swedes agreed in November to increase their annual aid to approximately $14 million to make up for inflation and the Dutch have reportedly also agreed to increase aid. All the other donors are at least maintaining the generous aid levels of previous years. The annual total, exclusive of Eastern Bloc military assistance, must be at least $50 million and possibly as high as $70 million.
What with fully stocked stores, the streets full of people careening around on the numerous bicycles imported during the past year, the numerous parties, and the holiday spirit, the mood in Bissau in December was relaxed and even jovial. The first few years following independence were marked by the sobriety considered appropriate for serious and self-consciously progressive regimes, but cheerfulness has recently been breaking out. Last year’s carnival was enthusiastically celebrated for the first time in ten years with a mammoth street parade and many parties. In 1979 Christmas and New Year’s signs and symbols were widespread for the first time since independence, modified to read (in translation): “Merry Christmas, Comrades.”
The cheerfulness referred to above is evident among the ranks of the ruling elite, the interlocking directorate of government and party leaders that directs this country. Increasingly over the past two years, and most particularly throughout 1979, the foreign observer could watch this class — no other word applies — gingerly come out of its Liberation Movement uniform. Increasingly confident of its political position and individually of their positions, this group of people and their wives (important point) has begun to surface socially and publicly. The somewhat austere living habits of the first few years of independence have begun to be replaced; houses are being remodeled; stereos, radios, records and cassettes, and imported drinks and goods are available to the directing elite. Particularly in the past year, the improvement in the style of dress of the feminine members of this class has been noticeable. Increasingly well dressed for evening affairs, the prevalence of chic European-cut jeans and similar apparel is now becoming common in the city streets, offices, and stores. Some aspects of this rise of a consumer class are potentially disturbing. Special arrangements are apparently available to elites at the new government-owned supermarkets and through the national airline which weekly imports supplies of foodstuffs and drinks from Dakar. There are more reports or rumors of creeping corruption among senior officials — more related to living standards rather than bank accounts it must be said. The habit of official overseas travel has taken root, and it is an unusual week when it seems that at least half of the cabinet is not “swanning” around somewhere in the world. A typical sight at the airport nowadays is the returning official or delegation, loaded down with bulging suitcases and carry-on luggage.
One amusing sign of the times is the sudden popularity of tennis. At least half the cabinet, including the President and the Prime Minister and their spouses and children, has taken up the sport. A common sight at the three decaying courts in town is the former freedom fighter and Liberation Movement dignitary dressed in Jerry Jimmy Connors-type tennis costume and carrying several rackets under his arm. (The number of available courts in town decreased by one-quarter when the Party appropriated the former Chamber of Commerce building, together with its tennis court, which is now reserved for the President and a few other senior officials.)
What price egalitarianism?
All of thense developments amount to a form of RHIP — rank hath its privilege. It does not yet constitute widespread or serious corruption and may never come to that. However, the discipline of the liberation struggle days has clearly been significantly reined in.
In any case, these new manners do not appear to have seriously disturbed the general population, at least in the capital city. Most people view this development with a combination of mild envy and good-humored cynicism. As the new expansion in elite living style has been accompanied by a general atmosphere of relaxation, the ordinary Bissau Citizen who was after all at least a de facto supporter of the colonial regime – appears content to let the victors take their ease without much concern.
The loosening of the collective belt is equally apparent in the country’s increasingly restrained political, style. Although a one-party state — legally and actually — the prevailing mood is a form of political laisse faire. Despite the official rhetoric about the need for discipline — “A Luta Continua” or The Struggle Goes On — in actual fact the Party and government leadership (same people) show all the signs of old hounds turning around on themselves prior to settling down for a good nap.
The Party is organized formally by the principles of democratic centralism — with emphasis on the latter. The Government is organized along similar principles — with the National Assembly replacing the Party Congress — headed by a double-headed organizational monster composed of a Council of State whose President is the Chief of State, and a Council of Commissioners or Ministers headed by a Principal Commissioner or Prime Minister. Most senior personalities hold two or more hats, party and government. The true organization therefore is much more informal and collegial, particularly as the President and Deputy Secretary-General of the Party, Luis Cabral, acts as board chairman rather than dominant leader.
Cabral’s prominent but not predominant role stems both from his history and his personal characteristics. Although a founding father of the PAIGC he was, after all, only Amilcar Cabral’s kid brother and never played a prominent military role. In addition1 he lacks the drive and the arrogance and probably the desire to play the maximum leader.
A sense of comradeship still pervades the top leadership; in some respects any meeting – formal or informal, or even merely accidental – somewhat resembles a chapter meeting of American Legion vets from the Big War. Confident in their cause, proud of their success, and full of good feeling for each and every buddy from the old days, the GOGB leadership is relaxed about themselves, their colleagues, and their future.
As implied previously, President Luis Cabral directs but does not control this process. He is well liked and respected in the Party and in the country as a whole, but he is not a dominant leader and must constantly convince his colleagues and adjust to their views. Apart from everything else, he must always be aware of the latent tensions between those of Cape Verdean origin and pure Black Africans. Cabral appears to perform this coordination task quite well.
The Principal Commissioner (Prime Minister), Nino Vieira, was elevated to this present rank in mid-1978 following the death in a car accident of the country’s first chief of government. Nino had, and still has, a reputation as the country’s most formidable military leader and stern disciplinarian. It was rumored, and hoped by some, that in his new position he would take hold of the day-to-day administration of the government and bring some order into the house. So far, Nino has failed to do so. In fact, there is an increasing suspicion that he is proving to be a failure; that his lack of formal education and general sophistication are proving to be handicaps too large for him to surmount. There are those who say he is merely getting ready and soon will exert himself. Similar comments are made about other ministers, giving rise to occasional rumors of a government reshuffle.
Certainly, almost all members of the government, either openly or by implication, give the impression that the harsh realities of governing a poor country are more daunting than they had imagined in the heady days of the independence struggle. The old slogans appear increasingly irrelevant. The more serious ministers appear to be burying their uneasiness with this situation by active involvement in their daily tasks but on an individual uncoordinated basis. Some government reorganization does seem to be in the wind, but the still strong fraternal ties of the liberation struggle place very severe limitations on the extent to which senior personalities can be removed from office.
In this atmosphere, every government minister more or less pursues his own policies. There is remarkably little governmental discipline at the highest levels, and this lack is inevitably reflected down through the bureaucracy. Five years after independence, this allegedly socialist government has yet to produce an economic development plan, despite the efforts of Commissioner of Plan and Economic Development Vasco Cabral. The other ministers go on their merry way, ignoring Vasco Cabral and his efforts to centralize government economic activity. Their opposition to Vasco is political (he is a rather romantic radical), practical (he is a terrible administrator and manager), personal (each is building his own fief), and very effective.
There seems to be a widespread realization among the leadership that their earlier dreams of rapid change under a regime of strict austerity must be abandoned, and that the realities of their situation and their country require more modest plans and achievements. An interesting decision released in December announced that all taxicabs belonging to the government-owned monopoly would be sold to individual drivers. Government officials admit that the bureaucrat-taxi driver has been a complete failure and that they are returning the industry to the private sector. In light of the persistent stories of problems in the administration of the state-owned commercial activities, foreign observers wonder whether the taxi reversion is not a straw in the wind.
Most foreign observers and experts, for all the obvious reasons, bemoan this lack of government discipline and central control. Certainly a number of projects currently underway (the industrial project at Cumere in particular) probably deserve criticism. With each minister pursuing his own policies, except of course for those who do not appear to be doing anything but enjoying the limited fruits of victory in this poor country, the criteria applied to development projects certainly vary with each ministers’ personal interpretation of the government’s overall development strategy. As that strategy has never been defined in very specific terms, each minister is pretty much on his own, limited only by what he can get foreign donors to agree to finance.
Nevertheless, this situation – so regrettable in the eyes of professional development experts – may have its advantages. First of all, it is part of a political atmosphere remarkably free of tension and competition. Each and every leader is secure in his position and obviously feels no need to conspire against others. Therefore, the country’s political life is quite free of plotting and squabbling. President Cabral is the president and chief of state, but directs a collegial form of government and his colleagues are clearly those — colleagues. As a result the political rumor mill in Bissau is dull and the resident diplomatic corps is generally quite bored with local politics. Five years may not be long in the life of a new country, but somehow to-date rampant political ambition has been avoided in Guinea-Bissau and this in a reasonably open system without the inhibiting influence of a strong dominant leader. This situation is not without its beneficial affects on the human rights situation in the country. Although a one-party state, the lack of internal political tensions within the party contributes to a loose and easy style of government. There is, of course, a security policy and overly aggressive criticism of the Party and the government is not permitted. On the other hand, people are quite free in their private lives and discussions, where comment about and criticism of the government is common. There is little feel of oppressive political rule.
The only political prisoners kept in custody, apart from one or two leaders of the African commandos organized by the Portuguese prior to independence, are the twenty or so individuals connected with an abortive armed uprising in late 1978. These prisoners have been tried and the leaders condemned to death but the leadership is apparently unable to bring itself to implement the death sentence even though one of the alleged leaders has already previously benefited from a death sentence commutation. The reluctance to inflict harsh penalties may be seen from the recent handling of the death sentence imposed on two young men charged with rape of minor children. One rapist, himself a minor, had his sentence commuted by a review authority to fifteen years Imprisonment. The other, charged with rape of a two-year-old and a nine year old, had his death sentence confirmed by the Council of State at a special meeting. As Arthur Koestler wrote, the manner in which the judicial death of a single human being is treated in a country tells you much about the character of the country and its society. Finally, it is a moot point whether or not this form or style of reined government leadership is in fact harmful to the process of economic development. Certainly, the record of other new poor countries, all equipped with maximum leaders and detailed economic development plans, is not encouraging. Perhaps Guinea-Bissau’s more eclectic approach, adopted however inadvertently, may in the long run prove more effective by permitting greater experimentation and step-by—-step development. 1979 ended with a flurry of highly publicized meetings and speeches on the state of the nation. The Third Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Intergovernmental Conference was held in Cape Verde and to no one’s surprise announced that the process of unification of the two countries was proceeding apace. A new executive secretariat was created to backstop the Conference, and a schedule of mixed commission meetings was announced for 1980 to further ever-closer coordination and cooperation between the two governments. The personalities appointed, however, to fill the newly created positions to implement the stepped-up policies only convince us that the commitment is still more rhetorical than real.
The Guinea-Bissau National Council of the PAIGC also met in December to review the year with pride and reveal with confidence the plans for the coming year. They mainly revolve around a renewed drive to recruit and train more and better party members and officials. The Council of State also met in December. Nothing was announced about its deliberations except the decision to uphold the death sentence on a convicted rapist.
Presumably, the Council also approved the subject and tone of the final event of the year – the President’s reception of the diplomatic corps, government and party officials, and other notables in the Palace of the Republic on December 29. That event was moved from early January to late December and somewhat altered in composition and character. Whereas in the previous year only the Dean of the Corps and the President spoke, this year the Dean was preceded by the Principal Commissioner (Prime Minister) and the Secretary-General of the National Trade Union. All three, the Principal Commissioner, the Trade Union Secretary General, and the Dean of the Corps spoke briefly and in generalities and concluded by offering their best wishes and hopes for a happy and prosperous new year to the President, his new wife, and the people of Guinea-Bissau.
President Luis Cabral then replied with a relatively long discourse, in the form of a review of the developments of the past year and a summary of the current state of the nation. His essential message was that while enormous problems and tasks faced the nation, a certain amount of progress and development had occurred and should be recognized with pride. He announced that priority areas for the coming year would be agriculture, fisheries, and natural resources. He also announced the elections for the Third Legislature of the National Popular Assembly would be held in 1980. It was a statement to the nation about today’s practical problems. The President spoke with even less recourse to ideological language and to traditional PAIGC slogans than in the past — a tendency we have been observing for several years now. Only at the very end did he even refer to international developments and foreign affairs. At that, half of his comments on the external world were an expression of gratitude to the various members of the international community who have contributed so much assistance to Guinea-Bissau. Cabral’s reference to international developments was a brief and perfunctory reiteration of the PAIGC’s and GOGB’s continued opposition to “colonialism, imperialism, Zionism, and racism.” No countries, movements or individuals were named. Following the conclusion of the President’s speech, the diplomatic corps was invited to pass through a reception line composed of the President and several of his senior colleagues, at the end of which we found ourselves outside of the hall without the glass of champagne with which we had been rewarded in previous years.
In sum, 1979 ended in Guinea-Bissau on a consciously restrained, serious, and sober note for the government combined, with a more relaxed and gay atmosphere in the country’s private life.
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.