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Guinea-Bissau Government Attempts to Curb a Powerful Military

Guinea-Bissau's military has long dominated the course of the country's history. Soldiers control many of the country's economic interests. Elections in 2005 brought back to power a previous president, former independence guerrilla commander and army chief Joao Bernardo 'Nino' Vieira. But with pressure from donors, leaders of the cash-strapped government are trying to undertake military reform. Phuong Tran has more from the capital, Bissau.

Jorge Malu was president of the national assembly from 1999 until the 2003 military coup that ousted President Kumba Yala of his Social Renewal Party. He says the military is feared in his country, and holds much of the power in Guinea-Bissau, even in times of civilian rule.

It has also been a constant source of instability. The last civil war, which began in 1998, was triggered when Joao Bernardo 'Nino' Vieira dismissed his then army chief of staff, accusing him of corruption and mismanagement. Mr. Vieira first came to power in his own coup in 1980.

In recent years, military unrest has led to various other coup plots and mutinies stemming from unpaid salaries, poor living conditions and ethnic tensions among soldiers.

To resolve this situation, the government has undertaken a multi-million dollar, donor-funded plan to restructure its military. The plan aims to reduce the current army to 3,000 men in the coming years, with only 1,000 full-time soldiers.

The government is waiting for results from a U.N.-funded army census to find out exactly how large of a cut this will be.

Current soldier estimates range from 5,000 to 15,000. According to the British-based Economist Intelligence Unit, the government spends about 30 percent of its annual budget on the military.

Planned reforms include enforcing a constitutionally mandatory draft, converting some military barracks into prisons, police stations and schools, buying new uniforms for the coast guard, and creating a small peacekeeping force.

Officials at the defense ministry have also said they plan to convert some soldiers into helping with new programs to develop ethanol fuel for the country.

But Malu, the former National Assembly president and current deputy, says it is important to carry out any changes with caution, and not provoke a backlash from within the military. He says it is important that soldiers accept the changes willingly, and make sure a violent reaction is avoided. He says he wants to see his country move forward and to develop in peace like other countries in the world.

The army's chief of staff Baptista Tagme Na Waie, who has a long history in the country's turbulent military affairs and spent several years detained on an isolated island, has pledged to be behind the plans to reform the military.

He has also said this will include making it more ethnically representative of the country. The Balanta is the largest ethnic group in Guinea-Bissau, but there are other large ethnic groups like the Fula, Manjaca, Mandinga and Papel, who often feel marginalized.

The Balanta control the highest positions in the military. The last chief of the armed forces who was not a Balanta, former General Verissimo Correia Seabra, a Papel, was killed in an army mutiny in October 2004. The mutineers stopped their action when they were given amnesty for abuses dating back to 1980 and a Balanta, General Na Waie, was selected as army chief of staff.