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Malam Bacai Sanha: President of the troubled state of Guinea-Bissau


Malam Bacai Sanha was president of the tiny, impoverished West African state of Guinea-Bissau, who came to power following the assassination of the country's previous leader. Although he took over promising to clean up the troubled country's drug trafficking, crime and corruption, little was done.

He became known for his frequent visits to hospitals in Senegal and France, which were always described as "routine check-ups," but it was an open secret that he suffered from severe diabetes and a haemoglobin problem. He was admitted to the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris in mid-December for an unspecified ailment, and before he died Sanha was in a coma. The head of the National Assembly, Raimundo Pereira, is expected to take over until new elections can be organised.

In a country with a long history of internal conflict, Sanha's death has caused many to fear for Guinea-Bissau as it now faces a power vacuum with pretenders to the presidency jostling for position. However, peaceful transitions are rare and there was a suspected coup attempt two weeks ago in which more than 100 military personnel, many high-ranking, were arrested.

Since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974, with Cuban assistance, after a long struggle spearheaded by the left-wing African Party for theIndependence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), the country has been plagued by corruption, coups and assassinations. Sanha won the 2009 elections with two-thirds of the votes after his predecessor, Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira, was killed in his home hours after the head of the army died in a bomb explosion. Sanha's victory, in a peaceful transition of power, marked a rare bright spot for Guinea-Bissau. Less than a year after Vieira's murder, mutinous soldiers seized the head of the armed forces and placed the prime minister under house arrest in another apparent coup attempt.

Though it was once considered a potential model for African development, Guinea-Bissau's fortunes have declined. Violence and instability have taken their toll on the country's economic development, and it sits at the bottom of most economic and health indices. Two-thirds of its 1.6 million population live below the poverty line on less than $1.50 per day. It has huge debts and relies heavily on foreign aid.

Born in Dar Salam in the Quinara region in the west of the country, Malam Bacai Sanha, a long-time member of the PAIGC, was a guerrilla in the Marxist-led war of independence against Portugal. He served as regional governor to Gabu and Biombo and held several cabinet positions before becoming President of the National People's Assembly in 1994. The same year saw the country's first free elections with Joao Vieira becoming president, supported by General Mane.

Four years later, with Mane not receiving his reward for supporting Vieira, a crippling civil war ensued in which thousands were killed, wounded and displaced. Vieira was deposed in 1999 and Sanha was appointed acting President by the military junta. The war ended after foreign mediation led to a truce, policed by West African peacekeepers, and free elections followed in 2000. Promising peace and an end to political persecution, Sanha stood, but lost to the Mane-backed Kumba Yala. Yala was ousted in a bloodless military coup in September 2003. In the 2005 elections, Sanha lost again to Vieira, but his rule was brought to a bloody end in March 2009.

In such a lawless country, with many high-ranking officials believed to be involved in trafficking narcotics, it is perhaps not surprising that Guinea-Bissau, with its archipelago of islands that sprinkle its coastline, has become a hub for drug-smuggling from Latin America to Europe. This has prompted fears that the drugs trade could further destabilise an already volatile country; Sanha had pledged to combat the flow of narcotics. According to the UN drugs agency, some 27 per cent of the cocaine consumed annually in Europe passes through West Africa, and Guinea-Bissau is the worst culprit.

The former justice minister and analyst Carlos Vamain called Sanha's presidency "difficult and complex. Difficult in the context of narco-trafficking and also the unchanging socio-economic problems of the country. His presidency did not bring the results people had hoped."

Malam Bacai Sanha, politician: born Dar Salam, Guinea-Bissau 5 May 1947; married Mariam (one child); died Paris 9 January 2012.