Guinea-Bissau: The weight of history

November 20, 2012

Gabu, Guinea-Bissau

By Joe Penney

When Guinea-Bissau is in the news, it’s almost always for the wrong reasons: coups d’état, assassinations, drug smuggling and extreme poverty.

Journalists like to cite the fact that since the tiny West African country switched to a multi-party system in 1995, no president has completed a full term. The country is often labeled a “narco-state” because of South American drug cartels using its islands and mainland as a waypoint for trafficking cocaine to Europe, even though its neighbors are dealing with the same problems.

But this reputation is rarely put into its historical context. After the Portuguese created what is modern-day Guinea-Bissau in 1890 when European powers divided the African continent at the Berlin Conference, they fought a 49-year-war of pacification against the local African communities resisting their rule.

To gain its independence from an extremely violent Portuguese rule, the anti-colonial rebel group PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde), fought a brutal liberation war from 1960 to 1974.

The independence war was fought between the nationalist PAIGC and the Portuguese and their 27,000-strong colonial army staffed by native Bissau-Guineans. Much of the Portuguese colonial violence was outsourced to the Bissau-Guinean colonial army, meaning that the independence war pitted Bissau-Guineans against their own compatriots.

Guinea-Bissau’s independence victory over the Portuguese military reverberated across the continent and back in Portugal. Commanders angry with Antonio Salazar’s fascist government’s handling of the colonial wars overthrew him in 1974 and replaced him with the former military governor of Portuguese Guinea. This paved the way for Portugal’s modern democracy, and the independence of other Portuguese colonies Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique.

After independence, hopes for a better life were high, but mismanagement, political infighting and the legacy of violence disrupted efforts to rebuild the country. After a few years of peace, elements of the PAIGC took their revenge against the Bissau-Guineans who fought for the Portuguese and massacred hundreds at a time.

Tension among rivaling politicians and the military grew to a boiling point in 1998, when the country erupted in civil war for a little less than a year.

Today, “the country is ‘managed’ by a cycle of violence – which is an extension of prior conflicts, conflicts lived during the national liberation war,” said historian and former independence fighter Mario Cissoko.

In total, the country has been officially at war for 65 of the 122 years since its colonial creation. In between that time, a low-level conflict has been waged. The extreme violence has scarred every citizen of the country.

At 18-years-old, after the Portuguese army killed Djenabu Sambu’s brother and imprisoned her mother, Sambu’s friends convinced her to join Guinea-Bissau’s anti-colonial rebels.

After independence, Sambu and her comrades had high expectations from its wartime leaders, whose accomplishments on the battlefield showed that they were capable of accomplishing a lot for their country.

“Independence was good because we got rid of the Portuguese,” she said. “But we are still working. Everyday we see things we don’t want to see.”

Guinea-Bissau is haunted by its history. The wars have ended but the ghosts of conflicts past still hang over the political scene today, stopping a young population with ambition and talent from moving forward.

On the island of Bolama, where the Portuguese first built their colonial capital, pastel-colored colonial mansions and state houses are left to crumble among the palm trees. Only a few goats and bats inhabit the buildings, but the structures still dominate the landscape of the island and of the people.

“You chase out the Portuguese colonizers, you condemn them, you say they’re bad, they kill, they imprison, they take our African resources. And then after you take power you do worse than them,” the historian Cissoko said.

“It’s not sufficient to have a flag, to have police, a government. Independence is much more than that,” he added.

Today, a transitional body — installed after a military coup ended the previous government and cancelled presidential elections in April — governs Guinea-Bissau.

Faced with economic paralysis and a lack of international recognition of his government, the president Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo argued that Guinea-Bissau’s problems need to be properly diagnosed before they can be addressed.

“Since 1995, why has no president finished a mandate? We need to find out why. Why have there been so many assassinations and no justice up to now?… Why is there so much hate in Guinea-Bissau?” Nhamadjo said to me in an interview.

“These things have been happening a long time,” he said before adding, “If we don’t take time to stop and think, we are just prolonging these problems.

For Adja Satu Camara Pinto, a former independence fighter who is now the president’s chief-of-staff, “the people have lost the hope of the revolution.”

“People will die and the histories will disappear. A nation needs to identify with its history, it needs to value its history, it needs to know its history,” she said.

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