Kumba Yala, the colourful figure who held power in the tiny west African nation of Guinea-Bissau from 2000 to 2003 before the army ousted him, has died, aged 61.
The former president “had a malaise on Thursday night” and died in the early hours of Friday morning, his personal security chief, Alfredo Malu, told AFP.
The government released a brief statement reporting that Yala had died of a heart attack and announcing a “special session of cabinet” at 9am.
“He died at 2am this morning. We took his body to the Bra military hospital” in the capital Bissau, a weeping woman member of the family said, asking not to be named.
Malu said that Yala’s sudden illness late on Thursday prevented him from meeting candidates in his Party for Social Renewal (PRS) who are campaigning ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due on April 13.
On entering politics, Yala gained a reputation as a determined character who at first won the hearts of many of the people of Guinea-Bissau, which was born of a rebellion against the Portuguese and has since endured civil war.
Yala frequently appeared in public wearing a trademark red woollen bonnet, an won the nickname “Red Bonnet”.
He was elected civilian president in 2000 in a country where the all-powerful army pulls many strings and which has in recent years become a hub for drugs trafficking between South America and Europe.
Some of Yala’s policies began to cause political and social turmoil. Three years later, the military removed him from office in a bloodless coup. Later in life, he ran twice in polls to regain the presidency, but was unsuccessful.