Diplomats from African and fellow Portuguese-speaking countries like Angola and Cape Verde rushed to the capital Bissau on Tuesday to ease concerns the army may seize power in the confusion after President Joao Bernardo Vieira was killed.
Vieira’s wife took refuge in the Angolan embassy in Bissau, and supporters fears further reprisal attacks against Vieira’s associates, particularly by members of Na Wai’s Balante ethnic group which dominates the armed forces.
Gomes Junior said the army had given its commitment to obey the civilian authorities.
“Democracy can not go hand in hand with persecution and violence. We are in a law-abiding state,” he said.
The delegation from Portuguese-speaking countries, who have been meeting various senior Guinea-Bissau officials since Tuesday, said their countries stood ready to help establish peace and democracy but that Bissau itself needed to pursue reforms.
The delegation said in a statement that a meeting of Portuguese-speaking countries agreed last November that support for Bissau would depend on effective measures against drug trafficking, reform of Guinea-Bissau’s relatively large and officer-heavy armed forces and the availability of foreign aid.
Like other West African countries, impoverished Guinea-Bissau has been targeted by Latin American drug smuggling gangs who regard its virtually unpoliced coastline and corruptible officials as an easy route to traffic Colombian cocaine into Africa and on to lucrative markets in Europe.
UN narcotics experts say the drug trade has exacerbated insecurity and corruption in a country already racked by years of coups and civil conflict, and threatens to turn West Africa into a “Coke Coast”.
But a series of coups, mutinies and, more recently, involvement in the drug trade have tarnished its image and destabilised the country despite European Union-led reform efforts.
“With Pereira now in power, pressure will mount to reform and reduce a top-heavy military, which has 3000 officers in a force of 4500. But few officers want to retire to civilian life in a nation racked by poverty, whose main export is cashew nuts,” Reuters said in an analysis.
Optimists cite as reasons for hope the army’s public commitment to respect the constitution and the end of the intense Vieira-Na Wai rivalry, which involved torture and the killing of family members and was central to the nation’s power struggles.
“This is no coup d`état. This was a problem between two people and that has now been solved … I think this will help provide a new start,” said one diplomat.
Concern was high after recent events in neighbouring Guinea, where military officers took power when long-standing President Lansana Conte, a close ally of Vieira, died in December.
The junta there has countered criticism of its coup by unravelling a network of senior officials, including the late president’s close family members, who have admitted taking thousands of dollars in bribes from Latin American drug dealers.
The United Nations has long warned of the likelihood of the drug trade further destabilising a string of weak, corrupt West African nations through which hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cocaine pass en route from Latin America to Europe.
Senegal’s foreign minister called for an international investigation into the Bissau killings, saying the use of a timed bomb to blow up the army headquarters followed by the cold-blooded execution of a head of state was unprecedented in the region.
Narcotics experts agreed, saying the killing was clinical by local standards, where previous clashes between Vieira and Na Wai loyalists have involved little more than gunmen spraying bullets at each other, and pointed to external influences.
A UN spokesman said it was too early to made a direct link but others are more categoric about the threat.
“The assassination reflects also Guinea-Bissau’s increasing capitulation to international drug-trafficking cartels,” Jonas Horner, Africa Associate at the Eurasia Group, said.
Parliamentary elections held late last year were deemed a success, offering signs of progress, but they were followed by a series of attacks that culminated in this week’s assassinations.
As a result, hopes for rapid and sustained change in the tiny, impoverished nation are tempered.
“The problems of Guinea-Bissau are rooted in corruption and the manipulation of politics and the military … it’s not just Tagme (Na Wai) or Vieira,” said Mario Sa Gomes, an exiled human rights activist and drug investigator, from Paris.
“Poor soldiers have become drunk with power and money … They will be replaced.”