BISSAU, July 13 (Reuters) - While many African leaders opt for canes, batons or even fly whisks as symbols of authority, the former president of Guinea-Bissau insisted on a red woollen cap despite the tropical sunshine.
Many in the former Portuguese colony cheered the end of Kumba Yala's rule when he was overthrown by the army in 2003, hoping that promised elections would deliver a less eccentric president to rescue them from deepening poverty.
With the tiny West African country due to hold the second round of those polls this month, Guineans are nurturing dreams of a new era of enlightened rule against formidable odds.
"I don't care who will run this country, all we need is peace and stability above all else," said 32 year-old taxi driver Ibrahima Bangoura, driving a battered blue and white car.
"How do you expect our cars to be in good shape with all these big holes in the roads?" he said, negotiating one of the craters in the streets of the capital Bissau. "But even that is nothing compared to the chronic instability here."
Bearing the scars of a liberation struggle that led to independence in 1974 at a time when Portugal was leaving its better known, much bigger colonies Angola and Mozambique, Bissau bears witness to years of decay and civil strife.
Creole music blaring from bars in a city perched on the edge of the Atlantic fails to lift the sense of neglect in a town with hardly any buildings higher than a few storeys, chronic power shortages and ubiquitous peeling paintwork.
Campaign posters for the various presidential candidates plaster the walls, but they cannot paper over the fear of many residents that the military will again stifle efforts to install a credible civilian government in the country of 1.4 million.
"All we need in our country is peace, peace and peace. Everything starts with peace," said Evora Dasylva, 37, selling cashew nuts at the city's central market.
Like many of its neighbours in West Africa -- where countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone have endured periods as classic "failed states" -- Guinea-Bissau's recent history is a story of dictatorship, military takeovers and treachery.
Leading the anti-colonial struggle since 1956, the African Party for Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) set up the country's first post-independence civilian government under Luis Cabral, promising a future of freedom and prosperity.
Just six years later, in 1980, liberation war hero Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira toppled the government, establishing an iron-fisted autocracy that only ended when a civil war in the late 1990s forced him into exile in Portugal.
The pendulum swung back to civilian rule when Yala, a philosophy professor whose red cap is a symbol of authority in his Balante tribe, won a landslide victory in 2000 elections, but hopes of improvements were again dashed.
Yala failed to deliver better living standards, while election delays, capricious appointments to the military and judiciary and frequent ministerial sackings reinforced fears he was just another dictator in civilian clothes.
While the international community felt duty bound to condemn the soldiers who kicked him out in a bloodless putsch in 2003, many people in Guinea-Bissau were overjoyed to see the back of a man regarded as eccentric and incompetent in equal measure.
Yala disputed the results of the first round vote in June that put him in third place but has said that he will now back former ruler Vieira in the run-off against Malam Bacai Sanha of the PAIGC.
Whoever wins the July 24 ballot, residents in Guinea-Bissau will be anxious to see democratic principles take root, and above all for the army to stay in the barracks.
"They number of soldiers is disproportionate to the country's security needs," said analyst Peter Karibe Mendy. "The demilitarisation of Guinean society is critical for the establishment of a culture of peace," he said.
Despite the challenges, there are some encouraging signs, including campaigning by members of Guinea-Bissau's small circle of educated activists who want to see real change.
"We are tired of poverty, we want to open a new chapter in this country's history," said Macaria Barai, coordinator of the Citizens of Good Will, a civic group promoting democratic ideals.
"During these elections we drew up a code of conduct for all the candidates, to carry out very responsible campaigns, to accept the results of the elections and to use the judiciary for any complaints regarding the elections," Barai said.
Whoever wins the presidency will face a serious challenge in delivering the kind of economic improvements needed to cement stability and end do-or-die competition for state power among politicians who see few other avenues to wealth.
Cashew nuts and fish earn most foreign exchange, while gross national income per capita fell to $130 in 2003 from $230 in 1997, ranking Guinea-Bissau as one of the world's poorest states.
Revitalising the economy will be crucial for placating the army, which has a deep-rooted sense of entitlement.
Many retired soldiers fought the Portuguese while more recent recruits battled troops sent by neighbouring Senegal and Guinea to help Vieira quell an army uprising in 1998, although no election candidate has tabled detailed plans for reform.
"As long as the economic problems of the army have not been solved, there will not be any stable institutions in this country," said Tcherno Djalo, political analyst and rector of the country's Amilcar Cabral public university.
"The next President should tackle the problem of the army," he said. "If he succeeds then it will be a great achievement."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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