The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa


The size of Guinea-Bissau--approximately one million people inhabit 36,000 square kilometers bordered by the Francophone states of Senegal and Guinea-Conakry--is inversely proportional to its social complexity. There are about 22 ethnic groups with political systems ranging from the relatively centralized patrilineal Muslim states in the interior (Fula and Mandinga) to the acephalous societies of the coast (Balanta, Manjako, Pepel) and the Bijagós archipelago (Bijagós, Cocoli, Pajendinca). Guinea-Bissau also has a sizeable population of mixed descent. Although the official language is Portuguese, it is spoken fluently by only about ten percent of the population. The effective lingua franca--spoken by at least 80 percent of the population--is Kriolo, a creole language based on Portuguese and the various African languages of Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in Africa. The minimum wage is about $14 per month; female and male literacy rates are 15.7 percent and 20.5 respectively; and life expectancy is only 47 years.

At independence, the victorious liberation movement of Guinea-Bissau, PAIGC, the Partido Africano para a Independência de Guiné-Bissau e Cabo Verde (African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) introduced a political and economic order based on Marxist-Leninist principles. Procedures and results were not unlike those reported for Angola and Mozambique, where similar highly-centralized systems replaced the equally centralized and authoritarian Portuguese colonial order. Attempts to implement a socialized economy resulted in an inflated and inefficient state apparatus, reduction in productivity and increasing dependence on foreign aid, which now finances over 90 percent of the national budget.

The determination to build a one-party state resulted in a massive onslaught of violations of fundamental human rights and the perpetuation of a political culture based on mutual fear--the government of its rivals, the people of the security forces. After formal independence in 1974 (the PAIGC had unilaterally declared Guinea-Bissau independent in 1973), the security forces of Luis Cabral's government executed about a hundred individuals suspected of collaboration with the Portuguese regime. After a failed coup attempt in 1978, even more met a similar fate and were buried in mass graves in the Oio region. In 1980, a successful coup d'état brought Cabral's Prime Minister and one of the most prominent guerrilla leaders of the independence war, Bernardino Vieira ("Nino"), to power. Since then, he himself has allegedly suffered four attempted coups, the most serious of which was supposedly led by Vieira's second-in-command, Paulo Correia. In 1986, after a closed trial by a military tribunal, Correia and five others were summarily executed in spite of pleas for a stay of execution from the Pope, the President of Portugal, Amnesty International and other leading international figures. This event is vividly remembered in Bissau, where rumor has it that Correia's eyes were gouged out before he was shot. True or not, this belief is clear evidence of the gruesome reputation of the security forces.

Soon after taking power, Vieira introduced a number of economic changes, steering the economy away from socialism under a structural adjustment program (Programa de Estabilização Económica) funded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1982. Political changes came almost ten years later. In May 1991 the Constitution of Guinea-Bissau was amended to include new guarantees for human rights. In 1993 further amendments were passed, including the abolition of the death penalty, bringing the Constitution into line with international human rights standards. Eleven political parties soon emerged and two independent newspapers were formed, as the country prepared itself for its first general election in 1994. Even so, the human rights situation in practice remains bleak. 8 The security forces continue to harass political opponents through illegal detentions and the application of torture in the notoriously inhumane prisons. The judicial system continues to be morose and prone to political influence. Political and extra-judicial killings are not uncommon. The police are regularly accused of employing torture during interrogation and the prisons are in an appalling state. In September 1993, Ossumane Quadé, an army officer, was beaten to death in a prison known as the Second Squadron after police detained him on charges of arms trafficking. Seven police and security officers were arrested and brought before a military court. The trial has, however, not come to an end and the arrested persons are often seen at liberty in Bissau.

On March 17, 1993, Major Robalo Gomes de Pina, head of an elite security unit, the Força de Intervenção Rápida (Rapid Intervention Force), was shot dead in Bissau. The military authorities at first claimed that the assassination was related to army discontent over pay and promotions. Later, however, the events were reconstrued as an attempted coup d'état, especially after the alleged assassin, Sergeant Amadú Mané, claimed--under interrogation-- that prominent members of opposition parties, João da Costa, President of the Partido da Renovação Democrática (Democratic Renovation Party), and Tagmé Na Waié, member of the Resistência de Guiné-Bissau--Movimento Bafatá (Resistance of Guinea-Bissau--Bafatá Movement), had masterminded the plot. Waié, Costa, and many others were arrested and interrogated. Amnesty International and the Liga Guineense dos Direitos do Homem (Guinean League for Human Rights) brought pressure to bear on the authorities to release the illegally detained and to allow the defendants a fair trial. In January 1994, seventeen people, including Costa and Waié, were brought to trial in open court in the presence of hundreds of spectators, including two impartial observers from Cape Verde called by the Liga, and the Ouagadougou-based Union Interafricaine des Droits de l'Homme (Inter-African Union for Human Rights). The defendants were permitted to present their version of the facts, which they did in Kriolo with firm conviction. Most alleged that they had been mistreated during interrogation, among them Amadú Mané himself, who denied any contact with João da Costa. Most of those attending the trial felt that there was a reasonable chance that justice would be done, and seen to be done. Even the most vociferous opponents of Vieira recognized that the trial represented a major advance over that of 1986 and were unanimous in recognizing the political opening and the work of the Liga in bringing about such change. João da Costa and Tagmé Na Waié were, in effect, acquitted; the remaining defendants received varying prison terms.


The constitutional changes of 1991, allowing for freedom of association, made possible the existence of non-governmental organizations. These may now be legally approved once their statutes have been examined by SOLEDAMI (Solidariedade e Amizade) (Solidarity and Friendship), an organization linked to the Ministry of Cooperation, which was first established in 1984 to coordinate foreign non-governmental organizations in Guinea-Bissau. At the time of writing, some thirty-two local NGOs have been formed or are in the process of formation, most of them staffed by professionals who had previously worked as government servants. In spite of its size and poverty, Guinea-Bissau possesses one of the most impressive human rights organizations in Africa, the Liga Guineense dos Direitos do Homem (Guinean League for Human Rights), a new human rights organization emphasizing women's rights. In addition there is the Centro de Informação e Orientação Jurídica (Center for Judicial Information and Orientation), a public policy research and information organization, and the Associação Guineense de Estudos e Alternativas (Guinean Association for Studies and Alternatives) (ALTERNAG). Under the aegis of government, Guinea-Bissau possesses a law faculty and a very productive social and economic research institute, the Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisa (INEP).

In this small and complex country, where an even smaller power elite controls the PAIGC, the government and the security forces, yet where all members of the educated elite either know one another or are actually related, ties of kinship and companionship blur the boundaries between politically opposed groups. Given that power has thus far been acquired and maintained by the threat to use force, the human rights organizations do in reality represent, as Amine Saad commented, a counter-power. In calling for the rule of law and respect for constitutionally-defined rights, they effectively demand a change in the political culture of Guinea-Bissau as radical in its way as the attempt to introduce Marxism-Leninism was in the 1970s.

For this reason, the success of the mission of human rights organizations and indeed the very physical survival of their members will depend on their ability to strengthen and maintain their legitimacy in relation to the population at large, and to build even more solid relationships with international human rights organizations. The importance of these relationships may go a long way in explaining why Fernando Gomes is a founding member and Executive Secretary of the Union Interafricaine des Droits de l'Homme (the Inter-African Union for Human Rights), based in Burkina Faso, and is also engaged in establishing an association that will bring together all human rights organizations in the African countries with Portuguese as their official language (PALOPs), the African Forum for the Rights of Man and the Child (the Forum). A first meeting of potential members of the Forum--to which a Brazilian representative is also to be invited--is planned for February 1994. The Forum represents an important human rights initiative for the PALOPs. In spite of the many differences between the Portuguese-speaking countries, they share--apart from a common language and metropolitan culture--a common recent history. They came to independence through war, they introduced political and economic systems based on Marxist-Leninist principles and they are now passing through a massive transition to liberal democracy. Cooperation between the PALOPs and Brazil and Portugal will also become easier following the recent initiative of the Brazilian ambassador to Portugal, José Aparecido de Oliveira, to establish a Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries. A planning meeting of foreign ministers of Brazil, Portugal, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique and São Tomé e Príncipe was held in Brasília in February 1994. One hopes that the new Forum will insist on a human rights component in the proposed Community.

There are immediate opportunities for cooperation between Guinean human rights organizations and their counterparts in other Portuguese-speaking countries. The Núcleo de Estudos da Violência (Nucleus for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, which has been monitoring prison conditions in Brazil for some years and is actively pressing for prison reform in that country, could contribute significantly to the League's work in Guinea-Bissau's prisons. Women's organizations in Brazil could be of great help to the newly-formed Centro de Informação e Orientação Jurídica. Contacts with the Mozambican MULEIDE (Women, Law and Development) would certainly also be useful for both organizations.

As the researcher's discussions with human rights activists in Guinea-Bissau progressed, it became increasingly apparent that their role as "counter-power" cannot be underestimated. The notion of individual human rights runs counter to the multiple rights and obligations that derive from a person's affiliation to particular factions, ethnic groups and families, which are sustained by customary legal and supernatural sanctions. While the concept that human rights extrapolate history and culture in their generality provides the strongest possible ideological justification for their dissemination and acceptance, the fact remains that they lie at the basis of a specific political and social order (liberal democracy) which is but incipient in Guinea-Bissau, as in many other parts of the world. The Liga Guineense dos Direitos do Homem and the Centro de Informação e Orientação Jurídica are both key materializations of the idea of human rights in Guinea-Bissau. Their work will be long and arduous and should not be measured only by immediate achievements (such as bringing international observers to the recent treason trial, for example), but by their ability to continue to provide the possibility of an alternative to the culture of fear. On one occasion, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Director of the Núcleo de Estudos da Violência in São Paulo, commenting on the seeming impossibility to propagate the most basic notions of the rule of law among police and prison officers in Brazil, pointed out that he didn't expect his organization to be able to bring immediate change to institutions that are embedded in a culture of nepotism, violence and fear. In its very existence, the Núcleo represented the reality of an idea, to which individuals and institutions would some day adhere. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the international community would provide the kind of support which will enable the human rights activists of Guinea-Bissau to continue to build and strengthen their legitimacy. Without such points of reference, and indeed sanctuary, the possibility of change in the political culture of fear will be all the more distant.

Centro de Informação e Orientação Jurídica
(Center for Judicial Information and Orientation)

Founded in 1993 by ten lawyers and other professionals, most of whom trained in Europe and Brazil and who have worked in government up until the present, the Centro de Informação e Orientação Jurídica was originally planned as simply a human rights organization. After advice from international agencies, the founders resolved to concentrate on the rights of women and children, preparing their statutes accordingly. The Center plans to provide legal advice to citizens (principally women), to publish brochures on human rights, to collaborate with women's groups, other NGOs, and the government in the organization of conferences and seminars, and to train "animators" who will propagate rights information in the rural areas. The Center expects to become particularly involved in family disputes resulting from divorce, separation and domestic violence. An important aspect of this emergent group is its sensitivity to cultural differences in Guinea-Bissau. It anticipates field research to understand better the relationships between official and customary family law. In addition to women's rights, the Center also plans to become involved in work related to land law.

Liga Guineense dos Direitos do Homem
(Guinean League for the Rights of Man)

In 1991, the Liga Guineense dos Direitos do Homem was formed under the leadership of Fernando Gomes. A youth leader during the first years of independence, Gomes won a scholarship to study law in Leningrad in 1981. On his return to Guinea-Bissau, he worked in the Attorney General's office. Differences of opinion (Gomes was seen to be too diligent in his attempts to curb abuses by the judicial police) caused him to lose his job and his government house. Since then he has devoted his time to the consolidation of the Liga.

In spite of its youth, the Liga now has 3,000 members, each of which is supposed to contribute 5,000 Guinean pesos (about fifty US cents) per month. It is established in the capital and in each of the country's eight regions, where a salaried staff member is responsible for running the office. Each office acts as an informal legal advice center where members of the public are free to present their problems. At first the Liga attempted to act on behalf of these informal "clients," but with time decided instead only to orient them on their rights and advise them as to the best course of action.

The bulk of the Liga's work is to inform the people of Bissau of their legal rights and obligations, to monitor the human rights situation in the country, and to advocate for those whose rights are infringed. Public education is effected through a weekly radio program broadcast over the government radio and the publication of a bulletin called Diritus Malgós (Kriolo for "Bitter (or Sacred) Rights"), which contains educational articles, information on human rights abuses in Guinea-Bissau, and accounts of the activities of the Liga. Since August 1993, three numbers of the bulletin have been published with a print run of 2,500 each. In preparation for Guinea-Bissau's first general election, the Liga, in cooperation with ALTERNAG, is preparing a public education campaign. It is also possible that the Liga will be invited to participate in the monitoring of the election.

The activity of the Liga which has brought it most visibility has been its advocacy against capital punishment--resulting in its abolition in 1992--and the courageous denunciation of significant human rights abuses in Guinea-Bissau. In 1992, for example, the Liga launched a campaign to bring to justice the assassins of Ussumane Quadé, while in 1993, the Liga managed to visit those who had been arrested for the attempted coup d'état on March 17 and demanded a just and open trial. Through information received from regional offices, the Liga forwarded protests about abuses of authority in Oio and Bafatá.

Needless to say, the Liga's denunciations of human rights abuses have not gone without reprisal. Fernando Gomes has received telephoned death threats, and, soon after his utterances on the Ossumane Quadé case, he was indicted on charges of abuse of authority during his term of employment in the Attorney General's office. In addition, the Liga has been the object of an orchestrated campaign designed to convince public opinion that it is allied to "bandits" and lawlessness in general. Its defense of the abolition of the death penalty is interpreted as an alliance with common criminals. A project to undertake a major investigation of prisons and to train prison staff in conjunction with Prison Reform International had to be abandoned when government refused the necessary permission.

Critics of the Liga, however, are not confined to government. At least one opposition leader, for example, having defined the Liga as a "Counter-Power," accused it of being, if anything, too lenient toward government and of not being sufficiently allied to the opposition parties. Fernando Gomes defends his position by insisting that the Liga must remain politically neutral if it is to consolidate its legitimacy as a human rights organization.

8 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1992, U.S. Department of State, February, 1993, and Rapport 1993, Les Éditions Francophone d'Amnesty International, 1993.

- Peter Fry

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