Riding in the back of his chauffeured SUV through the streets of Guinea-Bissau’s capital, Fresno State alum Domingos Pereira listed the signs of progress in his country. Since he became prime minister last year, his government has paved roads, installed solar street lights in villages, and attracted new investors.
But Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest countries in the world, is still the Wild West of West Africa. Politicians here tend to have short careers – and sometimes short life spans.
“This job is not easy,” Pereira told me. “The danger is real.”
Pereira knows what he signed up for. The last legitimate prime minister was dragged from his home and held hostage by the army when he tried to run for president in 2012 with a pledge to reform the military. The army left a giant blast-hole in the front gate of his downtown villa as a warning: We get to decide who will be president, not the people.
I had jumped in the back of Pereira’s SUV on a typical hot and humid afternoon in May for a 15-minute ride to the sprawling government complex that China built for Guinea-Bissau a few years ago. It was only my second time meeting Pereira, but it felt like seeing an old friend. I had followed his rise in the country’s ruling political party over the last two years and we had kept in touch by email.
We also had a mutual friend, Alfredo da Silva, who was Pereira’s roommate when they studied at Fresno State in the early 1990s. West African Vocational Schools is based in Fresno, where Alfredo still lives. According to Fresno State, Pereira is the university’s first alum to become the head-of-government of any country.
I looked out the backseat window as we passed crowded markets, potholed roads, and a ménage of rusty Mercedes taxis, shiny UN Land Cruisers, and swerving motorbikes. We weren’t far from where Pereira’s predecessor was captured by the military.
My thoughts turned inward: Is it really such a great idea to ride in the same SUV as Guinea-Bissau’s prime minister? How well-trained is his security detail? Are these windows bullet-proof?
Pereira is different than almost any politician Guinea-Bissau has had in the past. He’s educated and has years of experience working for international organizations. He could work almost anywhere in the world, but instead he has a job that probably should come with hazard pay.
I had lots of questions for him: How are you going to reform a country that has had more military coups than any other country in Africa? How are you going to cure endemic corruption? How are you going to rebuild Guinea-Bissau?
Pereira said his strategy was simple: He would keep making deep, systemic changes that have real, long-lasting results. Fire the wrong people and hire the right people. Restore electricity. Pave the roads. Open up trade. Collect taxes. Eventually, people will realize that his reforms are working and won’t allow the country’s power-brokers to undo them.
This won’t be easy in a country where 60% of the population is illiterate. Here, rumors are used to turn actual heroes into imagined villains – and vice versa. Still, I told Pereira, it seemed like the best strategy.
“Yes, but I hope it works,” he said.
Pereira had invited my wife, Holly Collins, and I to meet him so he could hear more about the WAVS School in Canchungo, a town about 40 miles outside the capital. It’s the only vocational school in a region of about 40,000 people. The school’s courses in auto mechanics, welding, computer basics, English and French are all designed to help young women and men get jobs in Guinea-Bissau – a country with no safety net – so they can support their families. Since opening in 2007, the school has served more than 550 students, many of whom have gone on to find jobs.
“This is exactly what our country needs,” Pereira told us.
In the three months since our meeting, the tensions in Guinea-Bissau have grown. Last week, Pereira posted a message on his official Facebook page calling for calm as rumors swirled that the president of Guinea-Bissau, Jose Mario Vaz, was upset with Pereira’s reforms and wanted to fire him.
How long will Pereira last as prime minister? Several foreign diplomats that I spoke with in Bissau said they were thankful he had lasted even a year.
It will take courageous reformers like Pereira to bring real change. Our job is to support such leaders and do all we can to invest in the country’s future.
Will you join us?