Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Guinea-Bissau’s rating for political rights dropped from 3 to 4 due to political instability following President Joao Bernardo Vieira’s decision to dismiss the opposition prime minister, whose party held the most seats in Parliament, in favor of a political ally.
Political infighting and military action along the northern border with Senegal threatened Guinea-Bissau’s fragile peace in 2006. A presidential election held in 2005 was heralded as an important step toward restoring democratic rule after a civil war and years of political turmoil. However, the United Nations and other observers expressed concern in 2006 that the country was headed toward further political instability and that democratic institutions had been undermined following President Joao Bernardo Vieira’s decision, in late 2005, to dismiss opposition Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior and replace him with a political ally. Severe economic difficulties further hampered peace-building in the tiny West African nation.
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 later 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, leaving Vieira vulnerable to his enemies. A military junta led by Mane overthrew him in May 1999.
Populist Kumba Yala of the Social Renewal Party (PRS) was elected president in early 2000. However, fighting broke out the same year between military supporters of Yala and Mane after the latter declared himself 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. Widespread instability led to military intervention in 2003. A Transitional National Council (TNC) was established to oversee a pledged return to elected government, with businessman Henrique Rosa serving as interim president.
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.
There were fears that the July 2005 presidential election 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, while Vieira had also been barred from participating in the election 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 poll; failure to do so could have fueled further unrest in Guinea-Bissau, where the armed forces have been fractured by the country’s political and ethnic rivalries. Vieira ran as an independent candidate.
More than a dozen candidates vied for the presidency in the first round, but only three made a strong showing. Malam Bacai Sanha, a former interim president and the PAIGC candidate, won 36 percent, followed by Vieira with 29 percent, and Yala with 25 percent. The 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. Vieira won 52.4 percent of the second round vote, to Sanha’s 47.6 percent, after Yala threw his support behind Vieira.
Vieira dismissed Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior in October 2005 and replaced him in November with a political ally, Aristides Gomes, despite the fact that Gomes Junior’s PAIGC was the largest party in the Assembly and therefore had the right to nominate the prime minister. The move, which was undertaken by decree, sparked concern among international observers. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned in a December 2005 report to the Security Council that “lingering political instability” in Guinea-Bissau was hampering democracy and causing donors to withhold urgently needed assistance. The country’s Supreme Court, responding to a challenge brought by the PAIGC, ruled in February 2006 that the appointment of Aristides Gomes’s government was constitutional. The opposition party announced the same month that it would continue its opposition to Aristides Gomes’ government nevertheless. In March, Annan issued a second report expressing concern that political tensions had undermined democratic institutions in Guinea-Bissau, including the judiciary.
Also in March 2006, the military launched an offensive against Senegalese separatist rebels based in northern Guinea-Bissau. Thousands of civilians were displaced in the fighting. A month later, the military pronounced the mission successful in driving the rebels back over the border into Senegal, and troops withdrew from the area.
A UN report in July noted that the lack of financial resources was a critical obstacle to peace-building in Guinea-Bissau. The country is among the world’s 10 poorest. The vast majority of Guinea-Bissau’s citizens survive on subsistence farming, and cashew nuts are a key export. The country suffers from a heavy external debt and has pervasive underemployment, though possible offshore oil reserves could help alleviate those problems in the future. The European Union agreed in December 2005 to contribute 9.6 million euros (US$11.5 million) to Guinea-Bissau’s budget, contingent on political stability and good governance. However, the government continued to experience difficulties in paying state employees throughout the year. The start of the 2005-2006 school year was delayed for months following a teacher’s strike over unpaid wages, combined with an outbreak of cholera.
Guinea-Bissau is an electoral democracy. 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; there are no term limits.
The March 2004 legislative elections were marked by strong turnout, and international observers declared the polls largely free and fair despite administrative problems such as ballot shortages and polling booths opening late. A national electoral commission oversaw the 2005 presidential election, and at least 200 international observers monitoring the poll said it 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 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. Official graft is a serious problem.
The law provides for freedom of speech and the press, but journalists occasionally practice self-censorship and face some harassment. There are a number of 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. Academic freedom is similarly guaranteed and respected.
The rights to peaceful assembly and association are protected by law and generally upheld by the authorities. Up to 15,000 people participated in a “march for peace” in May 2005 prior to the presidential election; the demonstration was completed without violence. After the first round of voting in June, a small number of protesters clashed with security forces after demanding that their candidate, former president Kumba 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, which includes government, worker, and employer representatives, has been established to deal with labor issues. Most wages are established in bilateral negotiations between workers and employers, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report. In September 2006, police used force to break up a peaceful demonstration by several hundred health workers who were requesting pay raises and other benefits, the same report noted.
Freedom of the judiciary was increasingly limited under Yala. While significant strides have been made in restoring a level of judicial independence since his ouster in 2004, poor training, scant resources, and corruption remain problems. Traditional law usually prevails in rural areas. Police routinely ignore privacy rights and protections against unreasonable 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 at providing 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 current president Joao Bernardo Vieira. According to the U.S. State Department, all major ethnic groups were represented in government in 2006.
Women face significant traditional and societal discrimination, despite some 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. In September 2006, a bill that would ban the practice was introduced in Parliament.