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Guinea Bissau's Former President Nominated to Run in June Elections

  • Gabi Menezes

Guinea Bissau's main opposition party has chosen former head of state Kumba Yala as its candidate in forthcoming presidential elections. Democracy groups warn the choice heightens ethnic tensions, and increases the likelihood of violence prior to the polls.

Guinea Bissau's Social Renovation Party overwhelmingly chose Kumba Yala to run in June elections, even though the former head of state is banned from standing in politics for five years, after being overthrown in a non-violent coup in 2003.

African and European observers say that the controversial nomination will exacerbate ethnic tensions amongst Guinea's population of nearly 1.5 million people. Mr. Yala, who won the presidency in 2000 in a landslide victory, comes from the majority Balante ethnic group which also controls Guinea Bissau's army.

The director for the Nigerian based Center of Democracy and Development, Kayode Fayeme, says that his organization is sending an observer team to Guinea Bissau after hearing reports of armed ethnic groups being formed.

Mr. Fayeme says that although he doesn't agree with the choice of Mr. Yala as a candidate, it is important to respect the people's choice and not impose candidates on a country.

"The challenge is for us, as I insist, is to ensure that there is a level playing field and given the delicate balance that we are confronted with in Guinea Bissau I just hope that a free and fair democratic electoral process will be allowed to reign," he said.

Support for another former head of state, Joao Bernardo Vieira, to stand as a rival candidate is also growing. Mr. Vieira is a retired army general who took power is a 1981 coup and is also banned from participating in politics.

The bans for both men could be lifted by parliament under a controversial amnesty law that is to be debated in May.

A London-based Africa analyst, Richard Reeve, says that it would be a step backwards for Guinea Bissau to elect either of the two men, who he says mismanaged the country during their time in office.

"They really need some younger people," he said. "Maybe they need some people to come back from the diaspora because politics within Guinea Bissau at the moment is quite tainted by people who have been involved in various conflicts over the last decade or two, and looking further back to the liberation war and the legacy of that."

Guinea Bissau's interim government, which was given power by the military in 2003, pushed back elections by a month, saying that technical reasons prevented them being held as scheduled in May.

Presidential elections in June are expected to restore full democracy to the country, which held parliamentary elections last year.

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