Guinea-Bissau country profile

Map of Guinea-Bissau

Map of Guinea-Bissau

West Africa’s Guinea-Bissau was part of the Portuguese Empire for centuries.

Once hailed as a potential model for African development, the country is now one of the poorest in the world.

The vital cashew nut crop provides a modest living for most of Guinea-Bissau’s farmers, and is the main source of foreign exchange.

But today the nation has a massive foreign debt and an economy that relies heavily on foreign aid. It has become transhipment point for Latin American drugs.

At the end of the 1990s the country experienced a conflict which drew in Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, and France and ended with the president going into exile.

  • Capital: Bissau

  • Area: 36,125 sq km

  • Population: 2.02 million

  • Languages: Portuguese, Guinea-Bissau Creole, plus English, French, Arabic, Fula, Mandinka and others

  • Life expectancy: 61 years (men) 65 years (women)

President: Umaro Sissoco Embaló

Guinea-Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embalo

Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embalo

Mr Embaló won the December 2019 presidential election, but faced a last-minute stand-off with parliament before taking office in February.

This reflected the continuing instability of state institutions in a country that has seen nine coups or attempted coups since 1980, and the resistance of the long-governing PAIGC party to the victory of an opposition candidate. A former prime minister, Mr Embaló is the first president to be elected without the backing of the PAIGC.

His predecessor, Jose Mario Vaz, was the first elected leader since the army mutinied in 2012 and plunged the country – already plagued by corruption and cocaine trafficking – into chaos, and the first to complete his term without being overthrown.

Family working with cashew nuts in Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s biggest producers of cashew nuts

Restrictions on the media and freedom of association have eased somewhat, though police continued to disrupt some demonstrations, says US NGO Freedom House.

Private radio stations operate alongside the state broadcaster. A government newspaper publishes alongside non-state titles.

A rebel army on patrol armed with some of the issued range of Russian weapons during the Portuguese Colonial War, Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, 1972

Guinea-Bissau’s war for independence is sometimes referred to as “Portugal’s Vietnam” because it was a protracted, costly guerrilla war which created significant political turmoil in Portugal

Some key date in Guinea-Bissau’s history:

1446-47 – First Portuguese arrive; subsequently administered as part of the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands, the Guinea area becomes important in the slave-trade. Guinea-Bissau becomes a separate colony in the Portuguese Empire in 1879.

15th-19th Centuries – Portuguese control of the region is limited to forts along the coast for much of this period. Portugal only gains full control of the mainland after the military campaigns of 1912-15.

1956 – Amilcar Cabral establishes the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

1963-74 – Bissau-Guinean War of Independence. An armed struggle between Portugal and the PAIGC, which is backed by Cuba, the USSR and Yugoslavia.

1970 – Operation Mar Verde – Portugal’s amphibious attack on Guinea-Conakry designed to capture the PAIGC leadership. It fails and the attack strains Portuguese relations with other Western countries.

1973 – Amilcar Cabral assassinated. PAIGC unilaterally declares Guinea-Bissau independent of Portugal and gives it its present name.

1974 – Portugal grants Guinea-Bissau independence following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, with Luis Cabral, Amilcar Cabral’s brother, as president.

1980 – Luis Cabral is ousted in military coup led by Joao Bernardo Vieira; plans for unification with Cape Verde dropped. The overthrow is the first of many political coups that undermine the country’s stability over the next four decades.

2006 – Guinea-Bissau soldiers battle Senegalese rebels along the southern border.

2006 – Guinea-Bissau appeals for international help to stop people-traffickers using its remote coastline to smuggle migrants, including Asians, to Europe.

2007 – Parliament passes law guaranteeing amnesty for any violence committed during the years of political unrest between 1980 and 2004.

2011 – EU suspends part of its aid to Guinea-Bissau because of concerns over governance and the rule of law.

2012 – The UN Security Council expresses concern that drug trafficking has increased, and demands a return to constitutional rule.

2020 – Former prime minister Umaro Sissoco Embaló takes office after winning the presidential election, ending 46 years of PAIGC or military rule.

People walk and shop in the street of Bissau, on July 28, 2022

Only about 2% of the population speak Portuguese as a first language, while a third speak it as a second language

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