Guinea-Bissau | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

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Freedom Rating
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Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Guinea-Bissau received a downward trend arrow to reflect the erosion of the rule of law, political accountability, and media freedom due to the infiltration of the administration and military by international drug cartels.

Guinea-Bissau’s three major political parties agreed to form a government of national unity in March 2007, including the main opposition party, which had been excluded from the cabinet since 2005. Following a tense political standoff with President Joao Bernardo Vieira, the consensus candidate, Martinho N’Dafa Cabi, became prime minister in April. However, Guinea-Bissau’s fragile institutions were threatened by drug cartels using the country as a transit point between Latin America and Europe. The cartels had reportedly infiltrated the military and the civilian administration, further undermining the rule of law.

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, a former guerrilla commander, his prime minister; however, Vieira toppled Cabral in 1980. Constitutional revisions in 1991 ended repressive one-party rule by the PAIGC. Vieira 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 separatist rebels in the southern Casamance region of neighboring Senegal, which for years had complained of Bissau-Guinean involvement. Encouraged by France, Senegal and Guinea sent about 3,000 troops to intervene on behalf of Vieira. However, a military junta led by Mane overthrew Vieira in 1999 after the foreign troops were replaced by an unarmed regional peacekeeping mission.

The populist Kumba Yala of the Social Renewal Party (PRS) was elected president in early 2000. 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 2002, Yala dissolved the National People’s Assembly, failed to promulgate a constitution approved in 2001, and governed by decree. Following 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 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. While both Yala and Vieira had been barred from running for president, the Supreme Court cleared the way for their candidacies. More than a dozen candidates contested the first round, but only three made a strong showing. Malam Bacai Sanha, a former interim president running for the PAIGC, won 36 percent, followed by Vieira (who ran as an independent candidate) with 29 percent, and Yala with 25 percent. The electoral commission said there had been some voting irregularities, but the Supreme Court determined that the poll 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.

In October 2005, Vieira dismissed Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior 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 and left the PAIGC excluded from the cabinet, sparked concern among international observers. In March 2007, the PAIGC and two parties of the ruling coalition, the PRS and PUSD, agreed to form a government of national unity. Vieira initially rejected the coalition’s consensus candidate for prime minister, Martinho N’Dafa Cabi, causing a tense political standoff. Aristides Gomes resigned as prime minister after losing a no-confidence vote in the Assembly, and Cabi became prime minister in April.

In January 2007, former navy chief of staff Mohamed Lamine Sanha was assassinated, sparking demonstrations in Bissau in which one person was killed by police. Local media quoted Gomes Junior as accusing Vieira of complicity in the murder, causing Gomes Junior to briefly seek UN protection; he said had been misquoted. The public prosecutor announced plans to question Prime Minister Cabi and other officials in connection with the murder. In December 2007, parliament passed a law granting amnesty for perpetrators of political violence between 1980 and 2004, drawing criticism from the Guinea-Bissau League of Human Rights.

Evidence mounted in 2007 that Guinea-Bissau had become a transit point for Latin American drug-trafficking cartels moving cocaine to Europe, with apparent high-level involvement by segments of the government and military. In September 2006, 674 kilograms of cocaine disappeared from official custody, while the suspects captured with the drugs were released without charge; the disappearance remained unsolved despite the formation in 2007 of an official commission of inquiry. The police force was crippled by a lack of resources, including patrol cars and gasoline, and judicial police chief Orlando Antonio da Silva was abruptly fired in June 2007 after winning international praise for his success in pursuing drug traffickers. A UN official warned in September 2007 that without international intervention to contain the drug cartels, the country “is going to explode and it will have a domino effect everywhere.”

Guinea-Bissau is among the world’s poorest countries. The vast majority of residents are engaged in subsistence farming, and cashew exports provide most of the country’s meager foreign-exchange earnings. In June 2007, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund appealed for assistance to keep the country from slipping into chaos, saying help was needed to finance antidrug measures and state employee salaries, which had gone unpaid for four months. The UN Development Programme pledged $116 million in July toward a five-year development plan.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Guinea-Bissau is an electoral democracy. The 100 members of the unicameral National People’s Assembly are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms. The president is elected for a five-year term; there are no term limits. The 2004 legislative elections were marked by strong turnout, and international observers declared the polls largely free and fair despite some administrative problems. A national electoral commission oversaw the 2005 presidential election, which international monitors agreed was free and fair.

Joao Bernardo Vieira won the presidency as an independent candidate but benefited from the support of two parties in the Assembly, the PRS and PUSD. The third major party is the opposition PAIGC. In March 2007, the three agreed to form a government of national unity, and supported the appointment of Martinho N’Dafa Cabi as a consensus prime minister. In December 2007, supporters of President Vieira announced they would form a new political party to support his candidacy in elections the following year.

Guinea-Bissau ranked 147 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. Widespread official corruption has reportedly helped international drug cartels infiltrate the military and the civilian administration.

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. In 2007, a local reporter was criminally charged and several prominent local correspondents for international media went into hiding in connection with their reporting on alleged official involvement in the drug trade.

Religious freedom is legally protected and 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. Nongovernmental organizations operate openly. Workers are legally allowed to form and join independent trade unions; however, since most Bissau-Guineans work in subsistence agriculture, only a small percentage are in the wage-earning sector. The law provides for the right to strike, and workers—particularly teachers and civil servants—frequently exercise this right. 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 U.S. State Department reported.

Poor training, scant resources, and corruption seriously challenge judicial independence. Traditional law usually prevails in rural areas. Police routinely ignore privacy rights and protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Because Guinea-Bissau lacks formal prisons, most prisoners are detained in “makeshift detention facilities” on military bases in Bissau and neighboring cities, according to the U.S. State Department. There were reports that the judiciary had been influenced by drug traffickers after a Bissau judge ordered the release without charge of two suspected smugglers captured in 2006 with over 600 kilograms of cocaine. Coverage of the incident by the Reuters news agency cited unnamed diplomatic and drug enforcement officials expressing concern over Guinea-Bissau’s “weak justice system” and corruption in the judiciary.

Insecurity in northern Guinea-Bissau has periodically affected the population. In 2006, the military launched a month-long offensive against Senegalese separatist rebels based in the area, displacing thousands of civilians.

Ethnic identity is a serious factor in politics and governance; the military has been dominated by the Balanta ethnic group, the country’s largest. According to the U.S. State Department, all major ethnic groups were represented in government in 2007.

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 widespread.