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Guinea-Bissau marks 50 rocky years of independence

September 24, 2023

When Guinea-Bissau declared independence in 1973, there were high expectations of development and prosperity — but that dream has soured amid the West African country's political instability.

Workers unload bags of rice from the back of a delivery truck
Guinea-Bissau has suffered four military coups since independence, most recently in 2012Image: Iancuba Dansó/DW

Manuel Sequeira was just 24 years old when Guinea-Bissau declared independence in 1973 after a bloody war against Portugal.

He was part of thousands of young people who joined the independence struggle led by Amilcar Cabral, arguably Africa's most influential revolutionary thinker.

But Sequeira is disappointed about the progress his country has made since independence.

"Nowadays, [the road] from Buba [in the south] to Bissau is bad and from Bissau to Quitafine [in the south] is also bad. The [government] has fulfilled the minimum program, which is independence, and we have our anthem and national symbols," Sequeira told DW. 

"But as for development, it is zero. We did not reach the goal set by Amilcar Cabral," he added, referring to Cabral's dream for social justic and economic development that benefited African people.

Pension pittance

About 64% of the population in Guinea-Bissau is multidimensionally poor while an additional 20% is classified as vulnerable to multidimensional poverty, according to the latest United Nations Human development report.

Viva Independence: Amilcar Cabral and Louis Rwagasore

At the age of 74, Sequeira must survive on a meager pension that he says is woefully inadequate for his daily needs.

"We are in a very difficult situation even as far as pension is concerned. At this moment, a former fighter of the last rank receives 40,000 CFA Francs (around €60). A person who has lost arm and leg receiving this, cannot be," he said.

Agostinho Roberto Pereira — who also took part in the proclaimation of independence — is equally unhappy with the state of affairs in Guinea-Bissau.

"I am not sorry that I participated in the struggle, although I did — but I did not benefit from anything that could solve the problems of my family and my children. But I know that I have fulfilled the mission of honor of liberation of the fatherland," he said.

Decades of bad governance and corruption

Pereira and Sequeira blame the current situation on bad governance and high levels of corruption among political leaders.

Iancuba Djola Indjai, who met Cabral while studying as a pilot, told DW that Guinea-Bissau's current leaders have failed to live up to expectations.

"[The new Guinea-Bissau] was a popular state, conquered by the sacrifice of the people during eleven years of the national liberation struggle, it was a state that at the international level was a pride of Africa, which gave credibility to Africa and to revolutionaries around the world, with high esteem," Indjai said.

South American cocaine is stored in West Africa before being transported to Europe
Guinea-Bissau is considered a major hub for drug trafficking — particularly for cocaineImage: Guillermo Legaria/AFP

No elected Bissau-Guinean head of state had finished a five-year term until former president Jose Mario Vaz saw out his full tenure in June 2019.

Guinea-Bissau has suffered four military coups since independence, most recently in 2012. An attempt to overthrow President Umaro Sissoco Embalo took place in February 2022.

Embalo, a former army general himself, survived that coup attempt — however many members of the security forces were killed during their intervention to prevent the attempted putsch. 

Weak democratic systems

Adib Saani, an African affairs analyst, told DW that many analysts like himself weren't surprised by the failed coup attempt.

"The only reason it didn't succeed, I'm sure, was the fact that it wasn't planned well," he said. "It was ragtag in nature, and they didn't get the buy in of all of the military. It wasn't well planned at all. So it didn't succeed." 

Saani added that the political instability in Guinea-Bissau is driven by many factors including weak democratic institutions.

"[A lot of factors] in the country don't encourage democracy. Indeed civil society participation in that process is not as good as it should be. There has been recorded and well documented cases of abuses against those who speak. The democratic institutions in the country [are] not strong enough to be able to get the country to be as democratic as other countries," he said.

Parliamentary elections in June this year gave some glimmer of hope of the country turning the curve after some 200 international monitors gave it a clean bill of health.

They did not observe any major incidents and described the ballot as "free, transparent and calm."

Guinea-Bissau opposition leader speaks to DW

Attaining political stability

Celestino Carvalho, a former defense minister told DW that ensuring political stability requires the support of the Bissau-Guinean military, members of which can also contribute to the climate of peace needed to propel the country's growth.

"[The armed forces] are an instrument at the service of politics and their first contribution as an instrument of defense and territory is to create conditions of peace, so that there is development," he said. 

"If they create a climate of peace, this would be a great help so that development can start seriously in Guinea-Bissau."

But a major barrier to that vision of peace and stability is the drug cartels that have had a firm grip on the West African country since at least 2005. 

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Guinea-Bissau is one of the most significant entry points for cocaine from South America on its way to Europe.

Several regimes have struggled to deal with the country's drug trafficking problem — which is also a major trigger for the lack of stability in the country.

"Guinea-Bissau is a major destination for these drugs and also a transit point for onward transportation or trafficking to other countries within the subregion. So surely it has become a narco capital and it is felt in every aspect of the society in that country," Saani explained.

"So, it is very difficult for any institution, be it the police, be it the human rights organizations, be it even Interpol, to go after these individuals who are very much protected by the regime."

'As One' shows his hometown Bissau

What can ECOWAS do to help?

Saani said that after 50 years of independence in Guinea-Bissau, the regional bloc ECOWAS must support the country to build stronger institutions that drive stability and growth.

"We watch whilst these regimes take advantage of their people and use the military to quell opposition and of course doesn't do anything about it. So on this occasion, I would expect us to speak out about what is going on in Guinea-Bissau," he said.

"[ECOWAS] needs to address the structural issues within the country that that is making some feel alienated and some feel powerless to act. So we don't create that environment for the military to take advantage of, to decide to take matters into their own hands."

As a way out of the successive crises and towards development, Mansata Sila, president of the Youth Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (AJPDH), said citizens have to do a lot of deep reflection on charting a better path for their homeland.

"Who are we, what do we identify with, and what do we really want?" Sila asked.

"Without the delineation of this deep thinking, transforming it into a concrete idea, for the realization of a concrete action, we will continue to be a failed state, lost and that does not know how to defend its population inside and outside its territory."

Iancuba Danso in Bissau contributed to this article

Edited by: Keith Walker

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