BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — The man who ruled this small African nation for nearly a quarter-century was assassinated Monday just hours after a bomb killed his longtime rival, the armed forces chief, leaving behind a precarious power vacuum as the country struggles to stem a booming cocaine trade.
Analysts fear the back-to-back assassinations could shake up drug cartels that use the country as a transit point for shipping cocaine to Europe, leading to new alliances.
President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira had ruled Guinea-Bissau for 22 of the past 29 years, surviving numerous attempted coups, including one four months ago when gunmen opened fire on his home. Vieira later complained that the military had failed to intervene, leaving his body guards to fend off the attackers alone.
Tension between him and the head of the army escalated further in January, when Gen. Batiste Tagme na Waie received a call from the president's office, asking him to come at once, said his chief of staff Lt. Col. Bwam Namtcho. Waie rushed outside and was nearly killed when assailants opened fire on his car, a sequence of events that prompted Waie to believe the attack had been ordered by Vieira.
On Sunday, the army chief was killed when a bomb hidden beneath the staircase in his office exploded, said Namtcho.
Hours later, volleys of automatic gunfire rang out for at least two hours before dawn outside Vieira's palace. Military spokesman Zamora Induta denied the military had killed Vieira in retaliation for Waie's assassination, instead calling the attackers "an isolated group" and vowing to pursue them.
The former Portuguese colony has suffered multiple coups and attempted coups since 1980, when Vieira himself took power in one. His relationship with the army was always an uneasy one, fueled by a continuing power struggle as well as ethnic differences. Whereas most army officers are Balanta, the country's dominant ethnic group, Vieira is Papel, a far smaller ethnicity representing just 5 percent of the population.
After an attempted coup in the mid-1980s, Vieira established a military tribunal and systematically purged the top Balanta officers, condemning many of them to death. One of the country's top lawyers — who was also Balanta — was among those executed and Vieira did not back down even when Pope John Paul II asked for clemency.
While Waie was not killed, he was dropped off on a deserted island miles off the coast of the tiny nation and left there for years along with other coup plotters before being allowed back, according to country experts and Namtcho.
Vieira's death creates a dangerous opening in light of the country's appeal to cocaine smugglers.
While demand for cocaine has leveled off in America, it continues to rise in Europe, forcing Latin American drug cartels to aggressively seek new routes to smuggle cocaine to Europe. In recent years, they have begun flying small, twin-engine planes to Africa's West coast, where they land on deserted islands or on dirt runways and then parcel out the drugs to dozens of smugglers who ferry them north.
Guinea-Bissau, ringed by an archipelago of uninhabited islands, has become a key transit point for Europe-bound cocaine, with the government estimating that as much as 1,750 pounds of the drug is transiting the country's borders each week. It's an amount worth billions of dollars per year, dwarfing all other economic sectors.
"Like many countries in West Africa, Guinea Bissau has seen an increase in the amount of cocaine being trafficked over its borders during recent years," Interpol's Drugs and Criminal Organizations Unit said in a statement to The Associated Press, which detailed a special project launched by the agency to address the issue.
The power vacuum in the country could make it even more attractive for drug cartels, who under increasing pressure in neighboring countries. But Antonio Mazzitelli, West Africa director of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, argues that the cocaine trade could not have flourished as it did without the approval — if tacit — of the head of state.
"I always believed that Nino (Vieira) was a good ally of the traffickers, so at the end of the day they might find themselves penalized by this situation," said Mazzitelli.
"If Nino was not part of the drug trafficking, then there was a kind of silent agreement to allow the traffickers to make their money and allow him to continue running his country."
Under this scenario, his death could lead to a reshuffling of political alliances with drug lords trying to create new partnerships.
Vieira's death comes at the same time that the leader of a recent coup in neighboring Guinea appears to be cracking down on that country's cocaine trade, which flourished after the international community pressured Guinea-Bissau to take action.
Although numerous country experts stressed that the twin assassinations were not linked to drugs, Mazzitelli also points out that the method used to kill Waie — a bomb — is highly unusual.
Coup d'etats and assassinations are common throughout the region, but they are typically carried out with kalashnikovs — not explosives. The sophistication of the bomb, which most likely was detonated from afar, raises the question of whether the killers of the army chief received expert help. Colombian cartels, for example, are known for using car bombs in their own turf wars.
Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based intelligence service, said while a commission of military chiefs has been established to rule the country for the present, it "expects the stuggle over control of the drug trade to continue to make Guinea-Bissau an unstable and violent country."
Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua, who heads ECOWAS, a regional bloc of 15 African states, said he is dispatching a delegation to investigate. "The fragile political situation in Guinea-Bissau has been further weakened by these events," he said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr. praised the military, calling them "patriots" for not seizing power in a coup. The constitution calls for parliament chief Raimundo Pereira to succeed the president in the event of his death.
"In the shorter term, this is bad news," said Richard Moncrieff, the West Africa director for the International Crisis Group. "Vieira wasn't a particularly good president but there's a real problem of a security vacuum, and I think there's a strong chance of ongoing factional fighting following his death and possibly the emergence of a military strongman."