Guinea-Bissau’s political system has been hampered in recent years by divisions between the president and the parliament, and within the main political party. Conditions for civil liberties have gradually improved as the country has recovered from the aftermath of a military coup in 2012, though police continue to disrupt some demonstrations. Corruption is a major problem that has been exacerbated by organized criminal activity, including drug trafficking.
- Activists and journalists who criticized the government reported facing harassment, arbitrary detentions, and physical assaults during the year. Those reporting such violations included Luís Vaz Martins, the former president of the Guinean League of Human Rights (LGDH), who was the target of an assassination attempt in August; Martins later accused the president of ordering the attack.
- Several strikes took place throughout the year, with workers protesting against unpaid wages and poor working conditions. In September, hospital workers went on strike, severely impacting the operations of Guinea-Bissau’s main hospital; in October, authorities briefly detained several union leaders in what critics deemed an attempt to intimidate striking healthcare workers.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The president is elected through a two-round voting system for up to two consecutive terms of five years. The prime minister is appointed by the president “in accordance with the election results” after consulting with the parliamentary parties, and the government must be dissolved if the parliament rejects its proposed budget.
Umaro Sissoco Embaló of the Movement for Democratic Alternation (Madem G15) party, supported by former president José Mário Vaz—who placed fourth in the first round—and a coalition of opposition parties, won the December 2019 presidential election’s run-off with 53.6 percent of the vote, defeating Domingos Simões Pereira of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde (PAIGC) who won 46.4 percent of the vote. According to the National Election Commission (CNE), voter turnout was 72.7 percent. The African Union’s (AU) election observation mission found that the administration of the run-off vote was free and transparent, despite challenges with the first round of voting. International bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) acknowledged Embaló’s victory in April 2020.
However, in January 2020, Pereira contested the results in the Supreme Court, alleging widespread fraud. The CNE refused to conduct a full audit of the results. In February, Embaló held an inauguration for his presidency despite the ongoing court appeal. Meanwhile, the parliament appointed an interim president, Cipriano Cassamá, resulting in a two-day period during which there were two presidents before Cassamá stepped down, saying he feared for his safety. The court was unable to meet due to the COVID-19 pandemic and because the presiding judge had fled the country, also saying he feared for his safety. The court ultimately rejected Pereira’s appeal in September.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
Members of the 102-seat National People’s Assembly are elected by popular vote for four-year terms. In the March 2019 elections, the PAIGC remained the largest single party with 47 seats, though it lost its outright majority. Madem G15 won 27, the Party of Social Renewal (PRS) took 21, the United People’s Assembly–Democratic Party of Guinea-Bissau (APU-PDGB) took 5, and the Union for Change (UM) and the Party for a New Democracy (PND) each secured a single seat.
The United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) praised the 2019 parliamentary elections as peaceful and orderly, and an observation mission from the AU deemed them free and fair, though it noted some flaws in the process.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
There are some problems with the country’s electoral laws and framework, including weak controls on campaign spending, vote buying, and a lack of legal provisions for domestic poll observers. Elections have been subject to delays in recent years, due in part to lack of funding and stalled voter registration processes.
In the run-up to the first round of the 2019 presidential election, the PAIGC-led government decided to review the voter registry in order to include some 25,000 people who were not able to vote in the parliamentary elections due to technical errors. The PRS and Madem G15 claimed that the changes were fraudulent, but ECOWAS rejected the opposition’s demand for a new registration process.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
There are no major constraints on party formation. Dozens of political parties are active in Guinea-Bissau, and 21 competed in the 2019 parliamentary elections, up from 15 in 2014. However, the political crisis since 2015—when former president Vaz dismissed then prime minister Pereira—has led to some instances of violence and intimidation among partisan groups.
PAIGC leader and former presidential candidate Pereira fled the country in May 2020, and in December of that year, the prosecutor general issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of corruption. Pereira returned to Guinea-Bissau in March 2021, where he remained at year’s end, prevented from leaving the country by the government.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
Guinea-Bissau has a limited record of democratic power transfers between rival political parties, as the PAIGC or military rulers have governed for most of the period since independence. In 2014, Vaz succeeded an independent who had served as acting president in the wake of the 2012 coup. Nevertheless, opposition forces increased their representation in the 2019 legislative elections. President Embaló of the new party Madem G15 succeeded former president Vaz of the PAIGC, who lost in the first round of the 2019 presidential election. However, Embaló’s use of the military to complete his installation in office raised concerns.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
The military has apparently refrained from interfering in politics since 2014, though it was used by President Embaló to complete his installment in office. The choices of voters and politicians continue to be influenced by corruption and patronage networks. Organized crime linked to drug trafficking and money laundering has contributed to the country’s political instability in recent decades.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Women enjoy equal political rights, but cultural obstacles limit their participation in practice, and they are underrepresented in leadership positions. Just 14 women won seats in the March 2019 parliamentary elections, the same number as in 2014. A 2018 law requires 36 percent of candidates on party lists to be women.
Ethnicity plays a role in politics, reducing the extent to which all groups’ interests are represented. For example, one of the country’s larger ethnic groups, the Balanta, has traditionally dominated the military and cast votes for the PRS.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Governance has been impaired by the political crisis that began in 2015, and election delays have undermined the democratic legitimacy of incumbent officials. The original term of the parliament that was replaced by the March 2019 elections had expired nearly a year earlier. The full legislature has convened only sporadically in recent years.
In late February and into March 2020, a constitutional crisis emerged when Embaló organized his inauguration unconstitutionally. The PAIGC, which has a slim parliamentary majority but lost the presidential election, ignored Embaló’s inauguration and appointed an interim president, Cipriano Cassamá. However, Cassamá resigned after one day in office, saying he feared for his safety. Embaló was eventually recognized by the parliament.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption is pervasive, including among senior government figures. Both military and civilian officials have been accused of involvement in the illegal drug trade. Critics of past corruption investigations targeting former high-ranking officials have argued that they were politically motivated.
In February 2020, minister of justice and human rights Ruth Monteiro and director of the Judiciary Police Filomena Lopes—who had been instrumental in the country’s anticorruption efforts and praised by the United Nations for their work—were fired by President Embaló.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
There are no effective legal provisions to facilitate public access to government information, and government officials do not disclose their personal financial information as required by law. The political impasse and related parliamentary dysfunction have further obstructed oversight of government spending in recent years. The lack of transparency contributes to chronic budget shortfalls, frequent delays in public-sector wages, and doubts about the management of foreign assistance.
|Are there free and independent media?
The constitution provides for freedom of the press, and there is some media diversity. However, journalists regularly face harassment and intimidation, including pressure regarding their coverage from political figures and government officials.
In late February and early March 2020, soldiers occupied the facilities of the state radio and television broadcasters for several days. The stations were closed and under armed guard at the request of President Embaló. In July 2020, armed men in national guard uniforms smashed equipment and vandalized the property of the privately owned Radio Capital FM station, which is allied to the opposition PAIGC, temporarily silencing the broadcaster.
In March 2021, a group attacked and tried to abduct Adão Ramalho, a reporter for Radio Capital FM. The same month, pro-PAIGC blogger António Aly Silva was also attacked by a group of unknown men; Silva reported that the attack came days after he had received a threatening phone call from the president, allegedly in response to his work with media outlets critical of the government.
In April, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Guinea-Bissau authorities to drop criminal defamation investigations into Radio Capital FM and two of its journalists, and to reform its defamation laws.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Religious freedom is legally protected and usually respected in practice. Government licensing requirements are not onerous and are often disregarded. Some Muslims have reportedly raised concerns about the influence of foreign imams who preach a more rigorous or austere form of Islam, threatening religious tolerance.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom is guaranteed and generally upheld, though the education system is poor in terms of access, quality, and basic resources. Public schools were closed for much of 2018 and 2019 due to ongoing teachers’ strikes, and in 2020 and 2021 as a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Individuals are relatively free to express their views on political topics in the private and social sphere, though some more public figures have faced the threat of arrest or charges in retaliation for their remarks in recent years.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly is frequently restricted. The authorities repeatedly interfere with demonstrations linked to the political tensions between the presidency and the legislature. The state of emergency enforced due to the COVID-19 pandemic banned assemblies of more than 25 people during 2020. The restrictions were prolonged by President Embaló for most of 2021 and prevented protesters from gathering during a period of high political tension.
In July, police arrested three young activists in the city of Bafatá for allegedly planning an unauthorized protest; the activists reported that they were beaten by police before being released later that day.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are generally able to operate. Some groups have faced intimidation and other obstacles, particularly those that are associated with street demonstrations.
Several activists who criticized the government reported facing harassment, arbitrary detentions, and physical assaults throughout 2021. Those reporting such violations included Luís Vaz Martins—a lawyer and the former president of the Guinean League of Human Rights (LGDH)—who was the target of an assassination attempt in August. Martins has accused the president of ordering the attack.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to rising violence and intimidation against activists and NGOs.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Workers are allowed to form and join independent trade unions, but few work in the wage-earning formal sector. Private employers sometimes engage in improper interference with union organizing and other activities. The right to strike is protected, and government workers frequently exercise it, although the prolonged state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic restricted this right.
Several strikes took place throughout 2021, with workers protesting against unpaid wages and poor working conditions. In September, hospital workers went on strike, leading the government to replace striking workers with military medics. Despite the government intervention, the strike severely impacted the operations of Guinea-Bissau’s main hospital, and in October, the authorities briefly detained several union leaders, in what critics deemed an attempt to intimidate striking healthcare workers.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Judges are highly susceptible to corruption and political pressure, and the court system as a whole lacks the resources and capacity to function effectively.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Corruption is common among police, and officers often fail to observe legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention. Very few criminal cases are brought to trial or successfully prosecuted, partly due to the limited material and human resources available to investigators. Most of the population lacks access to the justice system in practice.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Conditions in prisons and detention centers are often extremely poor, and law enforcement personnel generally enjoy impunity for abuses. Because of its weak institutions and porous borders, Guinea-Bissau has become a transit point for criminal organizations trafficking various types of contraband. The armed forces and other state entities have been linked to drug trafficking. In recent years, authorities have made some progress in combating the drug trade and organized crime. Violence associated with political unrest has continued to recede since the restoration of elected civilian rule.
A low-intensity conflict in Senegal’s Casamance region occasionally affects security across the border in Guinea-Bissau, where Senegalese rebels sometimes operate.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Women face significant societal discrimination and traditional biases, despite some legal protections. They generally do not receive equal pay for similar work and have fewer opportunities for education and employment.
There are virtually no effective legal protections against discrimination on other grounds, including ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity, though same-sex relations are not specifically criminalized.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
There are few formal restrictions on freedom of movement, but widespread corruption among police and other public officials can limit this right in practice, as can criminal activity. At times, Senegalese rebel activity may restrict movement in the border area.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Illegal economic activity, including logging, by organized groups remains a problem. The quality of enforcement of property rights is generally poor, and the formal procedures for establishing a business are relatively onerous.
Women, particularly those from certain ethnic groups in rural areas, face restrictions on their ability to own and inherit property.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
There are multiple constraints on personal social freedoms. Early and forced marriages remain common, especially in rural areas. The government, international organizations, and community leaders have worked to eliminate female genital mutilation (FGM), though nearly half of the country’s women have suffered from such violence. Despite the existence of legislation to address gender-based violence, the problem is reportedly widespread; victims of rape and domestic abuse rarely report the crimes to authorities.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest countries, with most families relying on unstable employment in the informal economy or remittances from migrant workers abroad. Public services have deteriorated in recent years amid irregular payment of public-sector workers.
Boys are vulnerable to organized exploitation through forced begging and to forced labor in sectors including mining and agriculture. A rising number of Muslim children from Guinea-Bissau are trafficked by money-making schemes disguised as religious Koranic schools, particularly into Senegal.
Girls are frequently victims of sexual exploitation or domestic servitude. Government officials have been accused of complicity in trafficking activity, including sex tourism schemes in the Bijagós islands.
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Global Freedom Score43 100 partly free