Last Updated: Friday, 19 December 2014, 13:25 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Guinea-Bissau : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Guinea-Bissau : Overview, 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce5fc.html [accessed 22 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Environment

Guinea-Bissau is a small West African country bordered by Senegal to the north, and Guinea to the south. It includes numerous tiny offshore islands located off the Atlantic Coast. Tropical rain forest and mangrove along the coast gives way to savanna woodland towards the east. The country has deposits of bauxite and phosphates, but these have not been exploited.


Peoples

Main languages: Portuguese (official), Crioulo, French, many African languages, including: Balanta-Kentohe, Pulaar, Mandjak, Mandinka, Pepel, Biafada, Mancanha, Bidyogo, Ejamat, Mansoanka, Bainoukgunyuno, Nalu, Soninke, Badjara, Bayote, Kobiana, Cassanga, Basary.

Main religions: traditional religions (50%) Islam (45%) Christian 5%.

Main minority groups: Balanta 442,000 (30%), Fula 295,000 (Fulani), (20%), Manjaco (Manjack or Mandyako) 206,000 (14%), Mandinga (Mandinka) 191,000 (13%), Papel (Pepel) 103,000 (7%), Ejamat (Felupe) 22,000 (1.5%), Jola (Diola) 6,000 (0.4%), Susu 3,880 (0.3%), Cape Verdeans (less than 1% – numbers not available).

[Note: Data on religion and ethnicity are taken from the CIA World Factbook, 2007, and percentages are converted to numbers using their 2007 estimate for total population: 1,473,000. Exceptions are the numbers for Susu, taken from Ethnologue, 1989; Ejamat, from Ethnologue 2002; and Jola, from Ethnologue 2000.]

Fula and Mandinga, predominantly Muslims, live for the most part in the north and north-east. Balanta live along the southern coast.. Concentrated on Bissau Island and related estuaries on the Geba River, Papel also live north of the River Mansoa. Petty chiefs have held limited authority over these non-Islamic rice cultivators. Manjaco live north of them, along the central and northern coast. Jola (Diola) are rice cultivators and live in the north-west and coastal regions of Guinea-Bissau, as well as across the border in the Casamance region of Senegal. Susu live in the extreme south of Guinea-Bissau's coastal areas and in adjacent Guinea, playing an important role in commerce.

Although small in numbers, Creole (people of mixed African-European descent) from nearby Cape Verde are among the most educated of the country and have frequently held many senior government posts.

The official language of Guinea-Bissau is Portuguese. Crioulo, a Creole dialect of Portuguese, is spoken by a significant number of people. About half of the populations adhere to traditional religious beliefs, 45 per cent are Muslim, principally Fula and Mandinga and about five per cent are Christians, mostly Roman Catholics.


History

Portugal laid claim to the region in 1446. In the 17th century, Portuguese Guinea became a major centre of the slave trade. Partly because of their coastal location, Papel suffered the most direct colonial repression of any group in Portuguese Guinea. On the other hand, some were involved in the slave trade in Bissau.

Until 1879, Portugal administered the region from Cape Verde, 900 kilometres away. Portugal was unable to control the interior until well into the twentieth century, and in part employed Fula and Mandinga peoples to assist in putting down resistance among peoples of the interior. Balanta and Bijago continued to resist the imposition of colonial rule until 1936. The capital was established at Bissau in 1941, and in 1952 Portuguese Guinea was made an overseas province of Portugal.

Cape Verdeans played a prominent part in the nationalist movement for independence. While the Portuguese received Fula and Mandinga support, the nationalist movement also drew support from many Balanta. Amilcar Cabral, the son of Cape Verdeans, organized the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in 1956, launching an armed struggle against the Portuguese in 1961. The PAIGC fought against thousands of Portuguese troops and gradually expanded its control over the colony. Cabral was assassinated early in 1973, but the PAIGC formed a government and declared independence on 24 September 1973, before fighting had ended. Following the democratic revolution in Portugal in April 1974, Guinea-Bissau finally was granted independence on 10 September 1974.

Amilcar Cabral's half-brother Luis became the first president of the country, until he was overthrown by army commander Joao Bernardo 'Nino' Vieira in a coup in late 1980. Vieira, from the small Papel people, ruled as a military commander until instituting a one-party state in 1984. In response to an alleged 1985 coup attempt, six senior officials including the vice president were executed. The vice president had been a prominent Balanta fighter in the war for independence, and his death increased distrust of Vieira in the Balanta-dominated military.

Under international pressure, constitutional changes in 1991 opened up a multi-party system, and Vieira was duly elected president in a 1994 vote deemed free and fair by international observers. In 1998, when Vieira sacked an army general for alleged smuggling of arms to rebels in the Casamance region of Senegal, the army mutinied and Vieiera was forced to rely on Senegalese and Guinean forces – encouraged by France – to put down the uprising. However, a May 1999 coup was successful.

The junta arranged for new elections, held in February 2000, and Kumba Yala, a Balanta, was elected. He governed erratically, dissolved the National Assembly, and ruled by decree. The military stepped in to remove him in September 2003. An interim president headed a Transitional National Council, with support of many political parties and civil society, to return the country to civilian rule. The country held credible legislative elections in 2004, won by the former ruling party – the PAIGC. A new head of the army re-appointed 65 senior officers who had been driven out, with the explicit aim of restoring ethnic diversity to the Balanta-dominated military. In 2005, Yala and Vieira – returned from a six-year exile in Portugal – both contested presidential elections. Running as an independent, Vieira won in a run-off, with Yala's backing in the second round. International observers judged the voting to have been free and fair.


Governance

Guinea-Bissau's political turmoil continued in 2006 and 2007, with President Vieira involved in a political showdown with the opposition-controlled parliament.

Under the Bissau-Guinean constitution, the president serves a five-year term, with no limits placed on the number of terms. Members of the 100-seat unicameral National Assembly are elected every four years.

Years of fighting and instability have left Guinea-Bissau's economy a shambles and its infrastructure devastated. It is one of the least developed countries in the world, with its economy based largely on meagre agricultural exports, especially cashews, and fishing.


Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

In March 2006, a faction of the Casamance separatist movement in Senegal crossed the border and engaged in fighting with the army of Guinea-Bissau. Low-level conflict in Casamance has caused repeated refugee flows into Guinea-Bissau over the past 25 years and placed particular strain on the Jola (Diola) minority, which is settled on both sides of the border and which forms the ethnic base of the Casamance separatists.

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