Located in West Africa, the Republic of Guinea-Bissau borders Guinea to the south and east, Senegal to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The country covers 37,000 sq. km. and has a population of 1,941,473 of 2019.
Guinea-Bissau was part of multiple kingdoms including the Gabu, part of Mali. It later became a Portuguese colony known as Portuguese Guinea in the 1800s. Independence was declared in 1973 and recognized in 1974. At that time, the name of the capital city, Bissau, was added to the name of the country to prevent confusion with the Republic of Guinea.
The official language is Portuguese but it is only spoken by 14 percent of the population. Kriol, a Portuguese-based creole language, is spoken by 44 percent. The remaining people speak native languages. Islam and indigenous regions are the most practiced.
Guinea-Bissau is part of the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, the Latin Union, the Organization of Portuguese Language Countries, the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone, and La Francophonie.
Guinea-Bissau has one of the world’s lowest per-capita GDPs.
Guinea-Bissau belonged to the Gabu kingdom, which was part of the Mali Empire. This lasted until the 18th century. The area, while under part of Portuguese Guinea, was known as the Slave Coast.
Europeans first reached the area with the voyages of Alvise Cadamosto, a Venetian whose voyage occurred in 1455, Eustache de la Fosse, a Flemish-French trader who arrived in 1479-80, and Diogo Cao. Cao reached the Congo River and Bakongo lands in the 1480s. This led to the founding of modern Angola.
The Portuguese settled the coasts and rivers in the 16th century but did not explore the mainland until the 19th century. Local rulers prospered from the slave trade and did not want Europeans venturing inland. Local communities fought the Europeans and distrusted their settlers. Portuguese control was limited to the Bissau port and Cacheu.
The British attempted to establish a settlement at Bolama, an offshore island, in the 1790s. The Portuguese secured enough of the area by the 19th century to view the coast as its own territory.
In 1956, an armed revolt by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) consolidated holdings on Guinea under Amilcar Cabral’s leadership. Unlike other guerilla groups, the PAIGC controlled large portions of territory. It reached its allies’ borders easily and received support from Cuba, the U.S.S.R., China, and left-leaning African nations.
In addition to arms, Cuba supplied artillery experts, technicians, and doctors. After gaining anti-aircraft weapons in 1973, the PAIGC was able to defend against airstrikes. On September 24, 1973, independence was declared. This was universally recognized after a military coup in Portugal overthrew the Estado Novo regime on April 25, 1974.
The first president of Guinea-Bissau was Luis Cabral. After independence, the government began slaughtering the local black soldiers that fought with the Portuguese. Many were able to escape to Portugal or other African nations. The government admitted in 1980 that it executed and buried many in graves near Portogole, Cumera, and Mansaba.
A revolutionary council controlled Guinea-Bissau until 1984. The first elections with multiple parties were held in 1994. An army revolt in 1998 ousted the president and sparked the Guinea-Bissau Civil War. In 2000, Kumba Iala was elected president.
Another coup occurred in September 2003 and the military arrested Iala. After delays, additional elections occurred in March 2004. Military factions mutinied in October 2004 and caused widespread unrest, as well as the death of the military’s leader.
The Vieira Years
Presidential elections were held in June 2005 for the first time since Iala was deposed. While Iala ran as the PRS candidate, former president Joao Bernardo Vieira won the election. He had been previously deposed in a 1999 coup. Vieira defeated Malam Bacai Sanha in a run off, but Sanha claimed election tampering and refused to concede. Despite some disturbing reports, foreign monitors described the election as fair. In the parliament, the PAIGC won a large majority in 2008 with 67 of 100 seats.
Vieira’s resident was attacked in 2008, leaving a guard dead but Vieira unharmed. In 2009, he was assassinated by a group of soldiers. They were believed to be avenging General Batista Tagme Na Mai’s death. Tagme was the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and died in an explosion the day before Vieira was killed. The speaker of the National Assembly, Raimundo Pereira, became the interim prime minister. Malam Bacai Sanha won the national election for president held June 28, 2009.
Guinea-Bissau Military Unrest
On April 1, 2010, military unrest occurred again when Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior was placed under house arrest. Soldiers also detained Zamora Induta, the Army Chief of Staff. The president’s supporters demonstrated in the capital. Antonio Indjal, the Deputy Chief of Staff, threatened to kill Gomes if the protests did not stop.
The EU ended its mission to reform Guinea-Bissau’s security forces.
The political instability and the many offshore islands make Guinea-Bissau a common shipment point for drugs to Europe. There is evidence the military is involved and the Air Force head, Ibraima Papa Camara, and a former navy leader, Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, have been named as drug kingpins.
Guinea-Bissau is technically a republic with the president as the head of state and the prime minister the head of government. There is a 100 member unicameral legislature. These representatives are elected to four-year terms. A Supreme Court has nine justices whom the president appoints.
Rachide Sambu-balde Malam Bacai Sanha, part of the PAIGC, is the president. The PRS is the other major political party. Sanha was the 2009 candidate for the PAIGC and Kumba Iala was the PRS candidate.
Joao Bernardo Vieira was Guinea-Bissau’s president until 2009. He had returned to power in 2005 after being removed in a coup six years before.
Jose Mario VAZ was elected on 18 May 2014 with 61.9% of the votes. The president was elected by absolute majority vote in two rounds for a 5-year term (no term limits). The prime minister was appointed by the president after consultation with party leaders in the National People’s Assembly.
Regions and Sectors
There are eight regions in Guinea-Bissau and one sector. These are Bafata, Biombo, Bissau, Bolama, Cacheu, Gabu, Oio, Quinara, Tombali, and the autonomous sector. These are subdivided into 37 sectors.
Guinea-Bissau is slightly larger in area than Taiwan or Belgium at 35,125 sq. km. It has a low altitude with its highest point at 300 meters. The coastline is a plain with swamps and the interior is a savannah. It has a monsoon-like rainy season.
Major cities are Bissau (population 388,028), Bafata (22,521), and Gabu (14,430).
There is an average of 2,024 mm of rain each year, but this mostly falls in the rainy season between June and September.
The per-capita GDP in Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s lowest. The Human Development Index is also low and two-thirds of the people are below the poverty line. Agriculture is a large part of the economy. Main exports are fish, groundnuts, and cashew nuts. The political instability has depressed the economy.
After a stability pact was signed by the major political parties, Guinea-Bissau began to show some economic advances. After independence, the exodus of Portuguese authorities damaged the economy.
In 1997, Guinea-Bissau entered the CFA franc system. This brought some needed international monetary stability. The civil war and later coups left much of the country’s infrastructure in ruins and further depressed the economy.
The country belongs to the Organization for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa (OHADA).
Guinea-Bissauans are divided into many ethnic groups including the Fula and Mandinka, Balanta and Papel, and the Manjaco and Mancanha. There is also a Cape Verdean minority and people of mixed Portuguese and African descent.
Portuguese are only a small percentage of the population. Most left after independence.
Portuguese, the official language, is only spoken by 14 percent of the country. Kriol is spoken by 44 percent and is a Portuguese-based creole language. Since Guinea-Bissau is surrounded by countries that speak French, it is taught in schools. Guinea-Bissau is a full member of La Francophonie.
Islam is currently followed by 40 percent to 50 percent of the population, with mostly Sunni followers. 10 percent are Christian and 40 percent practice indigenous religions. Belief systems are often mixed and share practices.
There are fewer than 5 doctors for every 100,000 in Guinea-Bissau. This is down from 12 per 100,000 in 2007. Those with HIV/AIDS are 1.8 percent, but only 20 percent of pregnant women who are infected receive medication. Malaria has infected 9 percent of the population and it kills three times as often as AIDS.
While it has increased, the life expectancy at birth is still only 49.
There is compulsory education from 7 to 13. More boys enroll in school than girls. Child labor is common and a large minority of the population is illiterate. The country does have universities for advanced education.
Guinea-Bissau’s music is mainly of the polyrhythmic gumbe genre. Unrest has kept this style from mainland audiences. The traditional instrument in Guinea-Bissau is the calabash, which is used in complex dance music.