Guinea-Bissau | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Guinea-Bissau's political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to presidential elections deemed fair and competitive.


Ousted military ruler Joao Bernardo Vieira won presidential elections in July 2005, defeating Malam Bacai Sanha, a former interim president, in a runoff vote. The presidential polls were the latest step in efforts to restore democratic rule in Guinea-Bissau following a civil war and six years of political turmoil. Vieira dissolved the government, led by rival Carlos Gomes Junior, in October and installed a political ally.

Guinea-Bissau won independence from Portugal in 1973, after a 12-year guerrilla war. The African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) held power for the next 18 years. Luis Cabral became president in 1974 and made Joao Bernardo Vieira his prime minister; however, Vieira toppled Cabral in 1980. Constitutional revisions in 1991 ended the PAIGC's repressive one-party rule. Vieira, a former guerrilla commander in the war for independence, won the country's first free and fair presidential election in 1994, but he eventually came to be seen as the leader of a corrupt ruling class.

An army mutiny broke out in 1998 after Vieira sacked General Ansumane Mane, accusing him of smuggling arms to rebels in the southern Casamance region of neighboring Senegal, which for years had complained that Guinea-Bissau was backing the rebels. Encouraged by France, Senegal and Guinea sent about 3,000 troops to intervene on behalf of Vieira. The troops were eventually replaced by fewer than 600 unarmed West African peacekeepers, which made Vieira vulnerable to his overthrow in May 1999 by a military junta led by Mane.

In the November 1999 presidential elections, none of the 12 candidates won the first round. Populist Kumba Yala, of the Social Renewal Party (PRS), won a January 2000 second-round runoff over Bacai Sanha of the PAIGC, by 72 percent of the vote to 28 percent. However, fighting broke out in 2000 between military supporters of Yala and those of Mane after Mane declared himself the head of the armed forces; Mane was subsequently killed. In November 2002, Yala dissolved the National People's Assembly. He failed to promulgate a constitution approved in 2001, and Guinea-Bissau was governed by decree.

By the time the military, led by General Verissimo Correia Seabre, intervened in 2003, civil servants had not been paid for nearly a year, there was no constitution, strikes were rampant, and parliamentary elections had been postponed four times. As a result of consultations with a spectrum of political groups, a Transitional National Council (TNC) was established to oversee a pledged return to elected government. A businessman, Henrique Rosa, was named interim president. After the coup, a blanket amnesty was granted to all those involved. Nonetheless, in October 2004, soldiers staged a mutiny, killing Seabre.

In March 2004 legislative elections that were considered free and fair by international observers, the PAIGC won 45 of the 100 seats in the National People's Assembly, followed by the PRS with 35 seats, and the United Social Democratic Party (PUSD) with 17 seats. Smaller parties captured the remainder.

As president for almost two decades, Vieira had introduced multiparty politics and had liberalized the economy, but critics had accused him of human rights abuses. After returning to Guinea-Bissau in April 2005, Vieira contested the presidency as an independent candidate.

There were fears that the July 2005 presidential elections would be marred by violence. Prior to the first round of voting, Yala demanded that he be reinstated as president, and several of his armed supporters briefly occupied the presidential palace; Yala had been barred from taking part in any political activity following his ouster in 2003. Vieira had also been barred from participating in the elections because of his asylum status; he had been living in exile in Portugal for six years. The Supreme Court, however, cleared the way for both Yala and Vieira to contest the presidential polls; failure to do so probably would have fueled further unrest in Guinea-Bissau, where the armed forces have been fractured along the country's political and ethnic rivalries.

More than a dozen candidates vied for the presidency in the first round, but only three made a strong showing. Sanha won 36 percent, followed by Vieira with 29 percent, and Yala with 25 percent. Sanha's PAIGC disputed the results of the first round and demanded a recount in some parts of the country. The electoral commission said there had been some voting irregularities, but the Supreme Court determined that the voting had been free and fair. In the second round of voting, the election was tipped in favor of Vieira after Yala threw his support behind the former military ruler. Yala had the backing of many in his Balanta ethnic group, which is the country's largest.

Both Yala and Vieira are considered divisive figures in Guinea-Bissau, and the country's stability is by no means guaranteed, despite the holding of free and fair elections and the resumption of foreign aid to help rehabilitate the economy. Among the tasks that the newly elected Vieira faces is restructuring the bloated armed forces.

After failing to wait for a confidence vote by the National People's Assembly, Vieira in October replaced Gomes Junior with Aristides Gomes as prime minister. Gomes Junior, of the PAIGC-which holds the majority in the Assembly-had the right to nominate a new prime minister. Analysts said Viera's actions called into question the new administration's commitment to establishing a unity government.

The vast majority of Guinea-Bissau's one million citizens survive on subsistence farming, and cashew nuts are a key export. The country suffers from a heavy external debt and has pervasive underemployment, although there are hopes for substantial oil reserves offshore. A conference of international donors held in February 2005 yielded pledges of millions of dollars to help Guinea-Bissau's economy recover. The successful conduct of the elections will help guarantee that the international financing is forthcoming. Salary arrears owed to civil servants, teachers, and soldiers have been paid.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Guinea-Bissau can change their government democratically. The 100 members of the unicameral Assembly are elected by popular vote to serve a maximum of four years. The president is elected for a five-year term and may serve no more than two terms.

Both direct presidential polls and legislative elections in 1994 were judged free and fair by international observers, as was the presidential 1999 election. Voting in the 1999 legislative elections was declared free and fair by international observers despite widespread delays, isolated cases of violence, and other voting irregularities. The March 2004 legislative elections were marked by strong turnout, and international observers declared the polls largely free and fair despite some administrative problems such as ballot shortages and polling booths opening late. A national electoral commission oversaw the 2005 presidential elections, and at least 200 international observers monitoring the poll said that the elections had been "free, fair, and transparent." More than 80 percent of registered voters turned out in the first round of voting; turnout was lower in the second round.

Guinea-Bissau was not ranked in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. Official graft is a serious problem.

Freedom of speech and the press is guaranteed, but journalists occasionally practice self-censorship and face some harassment. There are several private and community radio stations. Several private newspapers publish sporadically, more because of financial constraints than government interference. Internet access is unrestricted.

Religious freedom is protected and is usually respected in practice. Guinea-Bissau expelled five leaders of the Ahmadiyya sect in 2001 and had just authorized a resumption of the sect's activities in January 2005. But officials said clashes in February 2005 between local Muslims and members of the Ahmadiyya prompted a decision to suspend the activities of the Ahmadiyya in March. The Ahmadiyya profess allegiance to Islam, but are considered heretics by the government in their native Pakistan.

Academic freedom is guaranteed and respected.

The right to peaceful assembly and association is guaranteed and usually respected in practice. Up to 15,000 people participated in a "march for peace" in May prior to the presidential election; the march was carried out peacefully. After the first round of voting in June, a small number of protesters clashed with security forces after demanding that their candidate, former president Yala, be declared the winner of the poll. Reports said three people were killed.

Nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups operate openly. The right to strike is guaranteed. Collective bargaining rights are not guaranteed, but a National Council for Social Consultation has been established, including the government, workers, and employers, to deal with labor issues. Most wages are established in bilateral negotiations.

Freedom of the judiciary was increasingly limited by former president Yala. However, significant strides have been made in restoring a level of judicial independence since Yala's ouster in 2004. The transitional government reinstated Supreme Court judges who had been barred or arrested. However, poor training, scant resources, and corruption remained problems. Traditional law usually prevails in rural areas. Police routinely ignore privacy rights and protections against search and seizure. Prison conditions are poor but generally not life-threatening.

Ethnic identity is strong in Guinea-Bissau, and ethnicity is a serious factor in politics and governance. In December 2004, the new chief of staff of the armed forces appointed 65 senior officers who had been purged in recent years. The move was aimed to provide more ethnic and political balance to the upper ranks of the armed forces. The military has been dominated by the majority Balanta ethnic group. Those appointed included several close associates of Vieira.

Women face some legal and significant traditional and societal discrimination, despite legal protection. They generally do not receive equal pay for equal work and have fewer opportunities for education and jobs in the small formal sector. Women of certain ethnic groups cannot own or manage land or inherit property. Domestic violence against women is common, and female genital mutilation is legal and widespread. The government has formed a national committee to discourage the practice.