New Internationalist

bissau

Issue 253

new internationalist
issue 253 - March 1994

Country profile - Guinea-Bissau

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  Where is Guinea-Bissau? [image, unknown]
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The soldier was wearing mirror sunglasses – always a worrying sign – and he informed me that I was trespassing inside the grounds of the presidential palace. I was in hot water.

'I'm sorry,' I gibbered. 'I didn't know.'

He took off his glasses. 'We keep meaning to get some proper signs,' he said. 'Don't worry about it.'

Things are changing fast in Guinea-Bissau. President Joao 'Nino' Vieira who has ruled since an army coup in 1980 is a popular man, and the lax presidential security stems from his confidence. He has set the country on course for multiparty elections this year, and the country could turn into a minor African success story.

In 1974 after independence from Portugal the ruling party, the Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) committed itself to a high degree of state control. By 1985 this was beginning to change and six years later the first opposition party was legalized. Now there are many parties clamouring for attention. They grumble about the evolution of the political process (that is their job, after all), but on balance they are a lucky bunch. According to the local human-rights league, all political prisoners were released last year.

Despite its almost total lack of natural resources, Guinea-Bissau is blessed for two reasons. Firstly, a long liberation war against the Portuguese threw the complicated tribal mosaic together into an unusually unified nation. Language does not present a real problem since Crioulo (Creole) is widely spoken.

Secondly, Guinea-Bissau is still predominantly a nation of farmers. In 1986 the Government adopted a World Bank structural adjustment programme, and one of the most important results was a dramatic increase in food prices. Good roads were built into the near-impenetrable interior and measured food production has risen by about 300 per cent. Goods are available in the shops. The urban poor maintain strong links with agriculture and the population hasn't suffered as much as people feared from the price rises.

This is a country of steamy tropical abundance with some fine beaches thrown in. But despite the enormous shoals of fish swimming tantalizingly off the coast, the Government is unable to afford fish-processing plants. Foreign companies are being invited in to exploit this and other resources.

Opposition parties criticize PAIGC corruption and inefficiency, but if elected they say they too will want to have good relations with the World Bank. Foreign aid has a high profile in the capital, Bissau (witness the number of pink arms hanging out of the ubiquitous Landcruisers) and most public projects can't happen without it.

Vast problems confront this tiny African state, but some unexpected embers of hope are glowing quite brightly.

Nicholas Shaxson

AT A GLANCE

ECONOMY: GNP per capita: US$180 (US $22,240)
Monetary unit: Peso
Main exports Cashew nuts, groundnuts, fish, palm nuts and cotton.
Main imports Food, fuel and transport equipment.
PEOPLE: One million
HEALTH: Infant mortality 141 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).
CULTURE: Many ethnic groups: largest are Balanta, Mandinga, Fula and Manjacos.
RELIGION: Mainly traditional beliefs, but about one-third are Muslims and there is a small Roman Catholic minority.
LANGUAGE: Crioulo, a mixture of Portuguese and African languages is the main spoken language. Portuguese is the official language.

Sources: Third World Guide 93/94; The State of the World's Children 1994; The Africa Review 1993/94; Oxfam West Africa Desk; West Africa magazine.

Last profiled in November 1984.

 

STAR RATINGS

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The emerging middle class is small but growing.

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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown]
Among the lowest in the world at 37% adult literacy.

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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Still dependent on foreign aid.

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No political prisoners.

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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
There is a minister for women's affairs.

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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
43 years, one of the lowest in the world (US 76 years).

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POLITICS

Today

In 1984
1984

 

Centre-right, moving to multiparty democracy.

 

NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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