The small state of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, with a population of a million and half, known as Portuguese Guinea in colonial era, is once again in the news with another change of regime by force. On 2 March its President Joao Bernardo Vieira was assassinated, in retaliation, by a group of soldiers close to chief of staff Tagme Na Waie, who was killed at the President's behest.
Bissau won its independence from Lisbon in 1974 after an epic liberation struggle by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) under Amilcar Cabral 's leadership , triggering the collapse of the vast Portuguese empire built over centuries by naval buccaneers and colonialists. An important naval station for refueling and slavers, Bissau's interior was never fully pacified and the eleven year long bloody struggle for independence convinced the Portuguese governor and military commander Gen Antonio Spinola that the days of colonialism were over. In a historic blowback Gen Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's four decades old repressive fascist structure itself was dismantled in Lisbon. Beginning with Bissau, independence dawned on Cape Verde and other Portuguese colonies soon after.
Guinea-Bissau was helped by Cuban military instructors who fought with the resistance and Cuban doctors treated their wounds. The Guinean paper N' Pintcha declared, 'The Cubans' solidarity was decisive for our struggle.' From 1966 to 1974, this was the longest Cuban assistance in Africa before it helped out Angola. USSR supplied via Nigeria arms to the rebels including rocket launchers to target Portuguese planes and Ilyushin II-14 aircrafts for bombing.
Curiously Frederick Forsyth, author of 'The Day of the Jackal ', whose 1974 book 'The Dogs of War ', chronicling a failed plan by a group of European mercenaries to topple the government of a fictional African country and inspired by his own role in financing the 1973 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, happened to be in Bissau But he denied any role. He added that the two Bissau leaders were violent, belonged to two contending tribes and loathed each other. There were reports that the role of Bissau as a transit point for Latin American drugs to Europe might have also played a role.
Gen Vieira had usurped power in 1980 from Amircal Cabral's half brother Luis Cabral, who became President in 1974 as Amircal was assassinated in 1973 by Portuguese agents in neighboring Guinea Conakry, where legendry Seiku Toure had extended all help to PAIGC and other liberation fronts and organizations in Africa and elsewhere. Gen. Vieira, was toppled in a 1999 rebellion but after many coups and changes he was returned to power again in 2005. Bissau's history like many others who won freedom by sword has seen many changes by force or coup d'etats.
I had been waiting for a year to present my letter of credence to President Luis Cabral while resident in Dakar, Senegal in 1978-81.Apart from Bissau and Cape Verde islands , I was concurrently accredited to former British colony Gambia and former French colony Mali (where I visited the legendry medieval city of Timbuctou.) To be operational in a receiving state, the head of the state accepts letters of credence from the Indian President in the name of his Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, titles which had great significance and real power in olden days but now with air transport, telephones and internet, Excellencies and staff have been reduced to being postmen, travel and hospitality agents for visiting ministers, MPs and other sundry delegations.
In New Delhi, the credentials ceremony for foreign ambassadors is a grand affair which is organized at the magnificent Rashtrapati Bhavan (RB),the President's Palace, built by Great Britain in early twentieth century for its Viceroy to impress the native princes and the Indian subjects. The Indian Chief of Protocol (COP) and his staff have meetings with the ambassador designate and go over the details of the ceremony with painstaking care. On the appointed day the ambassador is escorted by COP from his residence and by a mounted horse guard from the main gate of the RB situated at the end between South Block and North Block housing major ministries on the Raisina Hill. Before entering the main Palace, national anthems of the two countries are played and the ambassador presented with a guard of honor. The ambassador and his suite are then solemnly escorted through a maze of imposing logias and stairways with tall soldiers on security duty along the way. The ambassador then awaits in the large Audience Hall. The Indian President then enters and receives the letters with Ambassadors' suite and equivalent number of external affairs officials in attendance. The Envoy is then invited for a brief talk and tea, where others also join in. The regal surroundings and the solemn atmosphere leaves first timers truly impressed and in awe. Mahatma Gandhi had suggested that RB be converted into a hospital.
While waiting in Dakar I had tried to fix a date for the credentials ceremony through President Cabral's ambassador in Dakar. I had sent him many note verbales and copy of my speech to be delivered after the presentation of the letters. I also reminded him verbally. Unfortunately there never was a firm response .In the mean time I had presented my letters in Bamako (Mali) , Banjul (Gambia) and Praha, capital of Cape Verde islands. During my second visit to Praha, I met with the Egyptian ambassador, who was resident in Bissau and visiting Praha. I wondered why things were not progressing. He laughed and advised that I should just make sure that President Cabral was in town. Then turn up and take my chance. I asked why it was so, he replied that I would understand when I reached Bissau.
So on return to Dakar, I enquired from the Bissau envoy if during the next week his President would be in town. He said, yes. Bissau is just south of Banjul 300 kms away, where I would sometimes motor down to interact with the Indian community of over a hundred , half experts and teachers and other half businessmen ,mostly Sindhis. I would switch from French to English and Hindi and baguette to toast bread. Next day with my very versatile driver Sambha Kande in tow, who could speak apart from French, English, some Hindi words, local regional language Wolof and few other west African dialects, I took off for Bissau. We crossed by ferry by now a narrow strip of Gambia and a narrower river Gambia at Farafenni back into south Senegal. (The book 'Roots' by Alex Haley, an Afro-American writer gives a fictionalized account of tracing his family roots on Gambia river where his great-great-grandfather Kunta Kinte was captured more than 200 years ago and brought to America as a slave. The account turned out to be somewhat plagiarized but it made Gambia well known in USA.) The nation of Gambia is a strip of land along the two banks of river Gambia intruding into Senegal. We motored on bypassing Ziguinchor an important political centre in south Senegal and then to Sao Domingos in Guinea Bissau.
I had not consulted any other ambassador accredited to Bissau for advice on the road conditions. Up to the border to Bissau the roads in Senegal were well maintained under President Sedar Senghor. But once we entered the territory of Bissau it was another story. The first surprise was the Customs House a few kms inside the border. Two ill kempt youths were lolling on what in India we would call takhats, rectangle wooden planks supported on wooden sticks, one on just bricks. We certainly startled the Customs Officers. They had perhaps not encountered a Flagged Mercedes limousine coming along the bumpy and uneven pathway. We did not stop as per practice when crossing over into Gambia from Senegal and vice versa. But soon the road morphed into bullock cart trodden paths one comes across in Indian villages in backward regions. The last sixty kilometers took us 4 hours. It was quite a driving feat to navigate the ditches and valleys. Some kilometers before reaching the capital Bissau, the road did become normal. Later, on return to Dakar when I told some ambassadors which four wheel drive I had dared take, their jaws dropped. What if there was a breakdown! Driver Sambha Kande settled the matter. Not again, Excellence. Next time I took a plane, which lost cabin pressure on the return journey.
Fatigued and shaken we reached Bissau around lunch time. At the only reasonable hotel I was told there was no reservation. I insisted that I had sent a telegram, which I had not. Soon they relented and agreed to accommodate me in one of the fancy villas next door but with a high tariff, where I learnt later diplomats were put up otherwise they went a begging .The complex of villas had been constructed for the heads of delegations for the recently concluded Africa Summit. In those days of foreign exchange shortage, a generally disgruntled representative of the Indian Finance Ministry laid down the rates for board and lodge in each capital abroad. Unfortunately the revolutionaries took no notice of that and even changed the prescribed currencies, which meant months of correspondence with the ministry to settle the claims of expenditure.
Any way I had a somewhat frugal lunch and went for siesta as the Foreign Office would be on lunch break. After siesta I went over to the Foreign Office. It was smaller than a C type accommodation for mid-level civil servants in New Delhi. There was a small entrance hall leading into a largish reception room ,occupied by the Chief of Protocol .When I introduced myself, he said, so you have come to present your letters of credence. I said, yes. After some polite conversation he said that President Cabral was visiting Ziginchor in Senegal and would be returning by the evening .After a day he would leave for Mozambique on the East coast of Africa. Perhaps after that the ceremony could be fixed. Politely I responded that apart from Senegal I was accredited to Mali, Cape Verde and Gambia too, so it would be difficult for me to hang around for a week. He promised that he would try to fix the ceremony the next day and his deputy would confirm the exact position in the evening .He then took me around the office. There were around five or six rooms in all and a small number of officers and staff to deal with all complex international political and economic relations. Later I visited the new foreign Office building under construction.
As the nation had emerged after a revolution with support from Soviet Union and its allies ,many communist states had resident Missions in Bissau and extended economic assistance and know how .One Ambassador told me that as rule bound apparatchiks at home (equally true in New Delhi) insisted that all aid must be requested and acknowledged by note verbales and as the Bissau Foreign Office was short staffed he used to carry typed requests and replies, get them signed to satisfy his foreign ministry. By now it was clear why there was no reply to my many formal demarches from Dakar.
I then went over to the Egyptian Embassy to renew my contact. Cairo was my first foreign posting in 1962 during Nehru-Nasser era, where I learnt Arabic and found Egyptians very friendly, perhaps because like Indians they are very hospitable and easy going. Abroad ,I would invariably call first on the Egyptian diplomats and found them always very helpful. The Egyptian ambassador briefed me about the diplomatic corps and the political situation.
Later he came over to the complex which appeared to be a place for rendezvous for the post revolution glitterati and diplomats. By seven PM, a music band had materialized and started pounding out some excellent dance music, the exhilarating mixture of African and Latin rhythms and melodies .Soon everyone was swaying and dancing. I could not resist and joined in. Among others I met with a Belgian lady, European intellectual type who try to compensate for European horrors done to Africans by helping out freedom movements. She had started in Burundi and then shifted to Bissau .She taught at a school and wrote serious revolutionary fiction. But like other African colonies, there were many Cuban personnel too, mostly Afro-Americans, including military officers and soldiers who had stayed on after the revolution. In fact in some African nations, they formed the personal guards of the new rulers, somewhat like US mercenaries for President Hafiz Karzai's security in Kabul.
After half an hour the somewhat taciturn Deputy Chief of Protocol, who I was told also doubled as deputy intelligence chief came over and confirmed that the credentials ceremony was fixed for 4 PM the next day, much to my relief. The following day, President Cabral received me with great warmth and affection.The ceremony was very simple and brief with a guard of honor and my handing over the President's letter recommending me as his trustworthy envoy. Unlike most heads of state, who receive the Letters in ceremonial formal attire, Cabral, a revolutionary was dressed in a Safari Suit .
We talked about the situation in India and Africa and bilateral cooperation. What India could do in training their technical personnel and assistance in small scale industry. Apart from funds, the other constraints were the language and the distance. He enquired about Indira Gandhi, although she was out of power. In the Afro-Asian world, India was known by its tall leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Krishna Menon for his speeches in the United Nations, New York against colonialism and imperialism and now Indira Gandhi. Africans still cherished Indian support for colonized nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Throughout the 1960s, during the wars of liberation in Portugal's colonies, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the fascist dictator ruled firmly (since 1932), but had to resign after suffering a stroke in 1968 and soon died. He was replaced by Marcello Caetano. But the grip of Salazar's National Union's party over the country and in particular over the military leadership steadily weakened. The wars to hang on to the colonies in face of fierce resistance created dissent among the ranks of the military. Gen Antonio Spinola who was the military commander and governor of Portuguese Guinea from 1968 to 1972, became the deputy chief of staff of the Portuguese army. In his 1974 bookPortugal and the Future he asserted that Portugal could not win a military victory in Africa. This led to his dismissal. But after an army coup by left leaning officers which ousted Premier Caetano Gen. Spinola became the provisional president. He welcomed liberals and socialists into the cabinet. But soon young coup officers wanted to take an even more radical direction. Gen Sp'nola resigned as president and was forced to flee Portugal after being accused of having organized a counter-revolutionary coup in 1975. But his book had served as a beacon for young officers. In 1975 almost all the remaining Portuguese colonies gained independence and in April 1976 Portugal held its first free general elections in more than 50 years which resulted in Gen. Antonio Ramalho Eanes being elected as the President .He appointed Mario Soares as Prime Minister. The winds of independence and freedom blowing among the oppressed people of Asia, Africa and Latin America were breaking the shackles of slavery and exploitation. The Portuguese were the last to hold out in their colonies . But the spark for freedom ignited in Portuguese colonies in Africa led to the dismantling of the repressive Salazar regime in Lisbon and freedom for the people of Portugal.
K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Copy right with the author. E-mail:Gajendrak@hotmail.com