Vieira, Joáo 1939–
Joáo Vieira 1939–
President of Guinea-Bissau
When Joáo Vieira became president of Guinea-Bissau by means of a nearly bloodless coup in 1980, he inherited the leadership of one of the world’s poorest nations. The tiny West African country, sandwiched between Guinea and Senegal, has a population of about one million, the vast majority of which is engaged in subsistence farming. Throughout his presidency, Vieira has been faced with an enormous challenge—to create an economy that functions adequately in a country still reeling from centuries of colonial rule. Moreover, he has had to attempt this while stuck between two conflicting philosophies.
On one side is the blueprint for a socialist society conceived by Amílcar Cabral, the main architect of Guinea-Bissau’s battle for independence from Portugal. Cabral, who was murdered in 1973, is considered by many to have been one of the most important political thinkers to emerge in Africa since World War II. The other path is the one proffered by organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Western sources of assistance that Vieira has been forced to court in the face of harsh economic realities.
Vieira was born in 1939 in Bissau, the capital of what was then known as Portuguese Guinea. Although he was trained as an electrician, Vieira became interested in politics at an early age. By the end of the 1950s, the climate in the nation was ripe for rebellion. The central figure in Guinea-Bissau’s revolutionary movement was Cabral, whose theories on class relations and the connections between culture and liberation movements have been influential across Africa. In the mid-1950s, Cabral founded the Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), a party committed to the liberation of Guinea-Bissau and the neighboring island nation of Cape Verde from Portugal. Vieira joined Cabral’s PAIGC in 1960, and he soon became a key player in the uprising that ensued.
Led by Cabral, a guerrilla war against the Portuguese was launched in 1961. The Catió region in the southern part of the country came under PAIGC control quickly, and it became the party’s base of operations. Vieira, who had already demonstrated a great deal of skill as a leader and military strategist, was placed in charge of both political and military operations in the region. He served in this capacity for roughly four years, during which he spent some time in China learning the finer points of guerrilla warfare. Vieira was known to his comrades as “Nino,” and this remained his nom de guerre for the duration of the struggle.
In 1964 Vieira was appointed chief of military operations for the entire southern front, an important arena of conflict. Over the next decade, the PAIGC gradually gained control of Guinea-Bissau’s countryside, and Vieira
At a Glance …
Born Joáo Bernardo Vieira (pronounced “VYAY-ra”-rhymes with “Ira”), April 27, 1939 in Bissau, Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau); known during guerrilla war for independence from Portugal as “Nino;” Education : Originally trained as an electrician; attended revolutionary leader Amícar Cabral’s Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine a Cabo Verde (PAIGC) Party school, Conakry, 1961; received subsequent military training in Nanking, People’s Republic of China; Politics : Socialist.
Joined Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), 1960; political commissioner and military chief, Catió region, c. 1961-64; military commander, southern front, 1964; became member of PAIGC political bureau, 1964-65; Council of war, vice president, 1965-67; Southern front Political Bureau delegate, 1967-70; became member of war council executive committee, 1970-71; PAIGC permanent secretariat, 1973–; named PAIGC deputy secretary-general, 1973; president of People’s National Assembly, 1973-78; named minister of armed forces, 1973-78; prime minister, 1978-84; became president, 1980; gained control of defense and security cabinet posts, 1982; reelected president, 1989, 1994.
Addresses: Office —Office of the President, Bissau, Guinea-Bissau.
established himself as a military hero along the way. In some areas, tales of his exploits were turned into songs by local musicians. As greater portions of the country fell into PAIGC hands, new administrative bodies were formed to replace their Portuguese counterparts and to organize efforts to fix the agricultural problems caused by the war. After the PAIGC’s First Party Congress was held in 1964, Vieira became a member of the party’s political bureau.
From that point on, Vieira’s ascent through party ranks was rapid. From 1965 through 1967 he served as vice-president of the party’s war council. For the next few years, Vieira was assigned to the southern front as the ranking member of the political bureau. He gained responsibility for military operations on the national level in 1970, and the following year he earned memberships on the war council’s executive committee and on the PAIGC’s permanent secretariat.
The revolution, as well as Vieira’s career, began to pick up even more steam in 1973. In January, Cabral was assassinated by what were believed to be Portuguese agents. The death of Cabral created a void in the revolutionary movement’s leadership. In the shuffle that followed, Vieira was named deputy secretary-general of the PAIGC. Shortly thereafter, the Republic of Guinea-Bissau unilaterally declared its independence under the leadership of Luiz Cabral, Amílcar’s brother. Elections were held in the parts of the country that had already been liberated, and Vieira was chosen president of the People’s National Assembly.
Portugal officially withdrew from Guinea-Bissau in September of 1974, following its own military coup. Guinea-Bissau’s transition to an independent state, however, was not entirely peaceful. In the absence of Amílcar Cabral’s unequivocal leadership, the PAIGC was plagued by internal power struggles for the next several years. The question of unity between Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, which was also under PAIGC rule, was the source of much of the tension. To a large degree, this was rooted in racial and cultural differences between black Guineans on the mainland and Cape Verde’s mixed-race population, much of which was of Portuguese descent, better educated, and light-skinned.
In the first government of Guinea-Bissau’s independent era, Vieira was made one of four members of the PAIGC’s permanent secretariat, the highest-ranking body in the country’s decision-making process. He was also named minister for the armed forces. In the summer of 1978, Prime Minister Francisco Mendez died in a car accident. Vieira was chosen as his replacement. Over the next few years, the debate over plans for the unification of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde intensified, as did the power struggle between Luiz Cabral and the increasingly powerful Vieira.
Many Guineans resented being ruled by Cape Verdeans, who maintained a powerful presence in the government after having served as the local administrators of the Portuguese colonial government. In 1979 Cabral removed Vieira from his post as head of the armed forces, fearing that he had become too powerful. By 1980 the country’s economy had deteriorated enough to generate widespread discontent with the Cabral government. In an attempt to further erode Vieira’s influence, Cabral proposed a new constitution in November of 1980 that increased his powers as president while reducing those of Vieira’s prime minister position.
Four days after the passage of the new constitution, Vieira led a coup that ousted Cabral from power. Since he had maintained the nearly complete loyalty of the military, bloodshed was minimal, and the change was cheered throughout most of the countryside. Once in power, Vieira reaffirmed his commitment to the socialist policies first outlined by Amilcar Cabral. He then scrapped the country’s existing state council and council of ministers, replacing them with a nine-member revolutionary council. All of its members were black Guineans, and seven of them were military officers. Over the next year or so, Vieira worked to solidify his control over the nation. A reshuffling of the government in 1982 gave him control of the defense and security cabinet posts in addition to his roles as head of state and commander-in-chief of the military.
A series of challenges to Vieira’s leadership took place over the next several years. In 1983, amid rumors of an impending coup attempt, Vieira had several members of the pre-coup leadership arrested. In addition, three cabinet members were fired for embezzlement. This was apparently part of a power struggle between Vieira and Prime Minister Vitor Saú de Maria. Maria was opposed to Vieira’s proposed constitutional changes, which would eliminate the position of prime minister, a situation eerily similar to the one that preceded Vieira’s own overthrow of Cabral.
Maria was relieved of duty in 1984, as were several other party members who had supported him. Another attempted coup was thwarted in 1985. This one was led by Paulo Correia, the first vice-president and the second-highest-ranking PAIGC officer. Correia, who was opposed to Vieira’s economic stabilization program, was brought to trial and subsequently executed along with five of his accomplices.
Through the second half of the 1980s, Vieira focused on liberalizing the economy of Guinea-Bissau, working in cooperation with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In 1987 he instituted a set of austerity measures supported by these organizations, including a 41 percent devaluation of the country’s peso. The resulting hardships led to rumors of another coup attempt and the arrest of about 20 army officers, though Vieira denied that any attempted overthrow had taken place. Elections were held in June of 1989, and Vieira was reelected to the presidency for another five years.
In 1990 Vieira announced that a multiparty system would be established in Guinea-Bissau, and commissions were organized to facilitate the necessary constitutional changes. Plans were outlined in January of 1991 for a transition to be completed by 1993 that would end the PAIGC’s role as de facto government and separate the armed forces from the party. Meanwhile, another coup attempt was widely reported toward the end of 1990, though again it was vigorously denied by Vieira. New parties began springing up in 1992 in preparation for the promised free elections. In October of that year, Vieira again reshuffled his cabinet, firing eight ministers who had been in the government since its 1974 independence.
Vieira announced the following month that elections would be postponed until March of 1993 due to conflict over the process. Just prior to the new date, however, elections were again postponed because of another attempted coup that included the murder of Major Robalo de Pina, commander of Vieira’s elite guard, the Rapid Deployment Force. Fifty people were arrested, including Joáo da Costa, leader of the Partido de Renovacáo e Desenvolvimento (PRD), the leading opposition party. Vieira then announced that the long-awaited elections would take place in March of 1994. Da Costa meanwhile emerged as the leading opposition candidate against Vieira. In February, da Costa was acquitted of charges that he was involved in any coup attempt when several witnesses retracted their statements. By this time, however, the elections had been delayed again due to a lack of preparation. When they were held, Vieira emerged victoriously though he only garnered 52 percent of the popular vote.
In the dog-eat-dog world of Third World politics, Joáo Vieira has been the model of resilience. His ability to muster the support of powerful people and consolidate it at the most crucial moments has been remarkable. In this respect, his training and expertise in military strategy have paid off handsomely. Nevertheless, the nation that he leads is still among the world’s poorest, and his attempts to modernize the economy of Guinea-Bissau have yet to prove fruitful. Vieira has perhaps given up on the socialist dreams of his political mentor, Amílcar Cabral. Whether his own dream of a thriving and economically independent Guinea-Bissau can become a reality remains to be seen.
Forrest, Joshua, Guinea-Bissau: Power, Conflict, and Renewal in a West African Nation, Westview Press, 1992.
Lopes, Carlos, Guinea-Bissau: From Liberation Struggle to Independent Statehood, Westview Press, 1987.
Africa Report, March/April 1994, p. 6.
Journal of Modern African Studies, 1987, p. 95.
New York Times, November 16, 1980, p. 3; November 17, 1980, p. A7; November 23, 1980, p. 4.
Washington Post, November 16, 1980, p. A16.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the CIA’s World-Wide Web site, specifically the “Guinea-Bissau” entry from The World Fact Book 1995, last updated February 10, 1997, http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/95fact/pu.html(accessed February 13, 1997).
—Robert R. Jacobson
"Vieira, Joáo 1939–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/vieira-joao-1939
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