Guinea Bissau (November 1998)
by November 1998

Developing a Common Humanitarian Action Plan

Guinea Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, became independent in 1973, and went through political and economic transformation. It has had a multiparty system since 1996. The last legislative and presidential elections were held in 1994, with the first municipal elections held in 1997. With its estimated 1.1 million people, a population growth of 2.1% and a GNP of US$220/habitant, the country is characterised by an illiteracy rate of 68%, infant mortality (below 5) rate of 240/1,000 and a life expectancy of 43.5 years. The country is also faced with rapid urbanisation, limited access to water/sanitation and inadequate housing. Nevertheless, the country has the agricultural potential to provide sufficient food to its inhabitants. However, food production is below the national requirement as a result of climatic hazards. Greatest priority is given to its cash crop, above all cashew nuts which is usually bartered for rice, the country’s staple food.


Military rebellion

Conflict erupted between Government troops and part of the army on 7 June 1998 following the replacement of General Ansumane Mane with a new army chief. Fighting between Government troops loyal to President Joao Bernardo Vieira and soldiers under Mane occurred in two phases, in early June and in October.

The immediate result was the displacement of an estimated 350,000 people (representing one third of the entire population of the country) from Bissau city to the surrounding countryside or to Senegal, Gambia, Cape Verde and Guinea Conakry as refugees (about 5,000).

After a truce agreed upon by both parties on 26 June, a period of relative calm followed and an estimated 200,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) returned to Bissau. But with the resumption of hostilities between 9 and 18 October, most of the IDPs who had returned to Bissau left the city again. Of those new IDPs, between 70,000 and 80,000 went to Prabis and Cumura and are now living in even more extreme conditions than they were during the 26 June – 8 October period in Bissau.

Implications of a peace agreement

On 21 October, President Joao Bernardo Vieira declared a unilateral cease-fire and agreed to meet with Brigadier Ansoumane Mane to discuss a peace agreement. This was signed on 1 November 1998. With the cautious assumption that the conflict is over, it is now appropriate to reflect on a number of factors influencing humanitarian and rehabilitation assistance activities. Some positive factors which may contribute to a humanitarian assistance programme oriented towards rehabilitation and development are:

  • Very few of the estimated 350,000 lived in temporary shelters, camps or special sites created for IDPs. The vast majority of them lived with family members, friends or were hosted by strangers in small towns and rural areas, with hosting families showing a significant sense of solidarity. IDPs have in turn contributed to their host households by participating in the sowing season in July and August which has resulted in an increased number of hectares cultivated compared with the previous three years.
  • FAO specialists have recently indicated that the 1998 harvest will be good due to favourable climate conditions.
  • During the hostilities, many civil servants employed in productive or social sectors remained in the country and active at their posts either in Government or in military junta controlled areas even though salaries were suspended. Understandably, time was spent on food production or other productive activities rather than “at work”.
  • Even though delays in granting authorisation to deliver humanitarian assistance were experienced in-country and between Guinea Bissau and neighbouring countries, both sides manifested reasonable respect for civilians and humanitarian workers, avoiding using them as targets in the crisis.

Negative factors which may delay or make harder the process of rehabilitation include the following:

  • The country is one of the poorest in the world ranking 163rd with low social indicators in all categories. The main productive activities are mostly agricultural; tourism will not resume significantly before a peace settlement is well on its way.
  • The rural population’s reserves have been depleted and coping mechanisms significantly weakened.
  • Trade and commerce, already limited, for both cash crops (mainly cashew nuts) and family level agricultural production (cereals, vegetable, fruits and fishery) has been adversely affected. For example, family level trading with Senegal whose problems with the Casamance are likely to impinge on its relations with Guinea Bissau.
  • Human rights abuses involving soldiers and civilians (mainly political figures) may foster a negative political climate.
  • Tense relations between Guinea Bissau and its neighbors may result in the continuation of a “de facto” embargo of certain key products needed for humanitarian assistance and rehabilitation programmes.

Developing a common humanitarian action plan

General principles and criteria that should apply in the humanitarian-rehabilitation assistance programmes are being discussed in the inter-agency context with a view to developing a Common Humanitarian Action Plan and a Consolidated Appeal. Consideration is being focused on:

  • the choice of humanitarian and rehabilitation programmes that are mutually supportive.
  • a timely response in both programmes categories.
  • a good synergy between different funding sources.
  • the reactivation of certain rehabilitation-development programmes, for example, those suspended during the crisis and for which financing already exists.
  • determining criteria to deal with categories and feasibility of rehabilitation projects.

This framework still leaves room for a number of humanitarian programmes that are supportive of sustainable programmes that are supportive of sustainable rehabilitation and development projects and vice versa. For example, a seeds for recovery programme may be a relevant option as it could address significant humanitarian and development needs and contribute to the improvement of the seed bank in the country. Additionally, in the health sector, changing the supply of medical drugs, vaccines and supplies from the emergency type kits to the provision of supplies required to re-establish regular stocks is being discussed,. Thirdly, a well-focused water supply programme, along with basic community training to maintain and repair pumps and wells, could immediately reudce the potential of water-related diseases breaking out among IDPs and the local population, as well as have significant impact beyond the relief phase.

These are but a few categories and examples of humanitarian and rehabilitation programmes that are being considered and which intend to be reflected in the Common Humanitarian Action Plan currently under preparation for Guinea Bissau.