What makes Guinea-Bissau a unique country to travel to?
The U.S. Liaison Office in Bissau suspended its operations on April 4, 2013, and therefore cannot provide consular services to U.S. citizens in Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau currently falls under the consular jurisdiction of the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal.
The Republic of Guinea-Bissau, a small country in western Africa, is one of the world’s poorest nations. The capital is Bissau and the official language is Portuguese. Many people outside of Bissau speak only an indigenous language or Creole. English is not widely used. The country’s 1998-99 civil war devastated the economy. Tourist facilities and infrastructure in general are very limited and not up to U.S. standards.
Guinea-Bissau is rated high for crime due to the frequency of crimes committed and lack of law enforcement resources and capabilities. Foreigners are primarily the targets of crimes of opportunity to include, petty-theft, pick-pocketing, theft of valuables from vehicles, and minor assaults. In particular, low-level criminal activity occurs in crowded areas such as the Bandim Market and port in central Bissau. Criminals take advantage of foreigners attempting to navigate through the crowded markets. Exercise good personal security practices to reduce the risk of being victimized. Keep a low profile, remain vigilant, and avoid potential conflict situations. Do not wear flashy clothing or jewelry, and be cautious about displaying any amount of currency in public.
To avoid theft do not walk alone in isolated areas, particularly at night, and lock all doors and close all windows when driving. Do not walk on dark streets at night, even in groups. To minimize inconvenience in the event of theft, carry copies, rather than originals, of your passport and other identification documents. While some of the larger hotels may accept credit cards, Bissau is largely a cash based economy and it is therefore recommended that travelers plan for and bring appropriate amounts of currency. Valuables should be stored in hotel safes.
In conjunction with the high crime rate, the poor infrastructure and lack of lighting at night also present a more opportune environment for criminals to exploit. It is recommended to arrange for transportation and limit walking around Bissau at night to reduce the risk of being a victim of a crime. In addition, banditry also occurs with some regularity on the main highways throughout the country after dark. The U.S. Embassy recommends that travel be completed during daylight hours only and, if possible, in convoy.
The unstable security environment and high rates of unemployment strongly influence criminals to go to extreme measures to achieve their goals. While most criminals in Guinea-Bissau seek crimes of opportunity with low risk of confrontation, they are not afraid to exert violence. In many cases, criminal elements in Bissau operate in small, loosely affiliated groups to perpetrate a crime. Criminals use one or two individuals to cause a distraction or remain on lookout, while the others commit the crime.
While violent crime towards foreigners are not common in Guinea-Bissau, the increase in narcotics trafficking has contributed to an increase in criminal activity and aggressive assaults among the local population in more rural areas of Guinea-Bissau.
The Bandim market and other vendors in Bissau offer a wide variety of illicit and counterfeit goods. While the items are widely available, all travelers are urged to not purchase any illicit items to prevent breaking local laws and U.S. laws if brought back to the United States.
While you are traveling in Guinea-Bissau, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places, you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. In some places, it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. In some places, driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Guinea-Bissau, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not wherever you go.
Persons violating Bissau-Guinean laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Guinea-Bissau are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Drug trafficking is endemic in Guinea-Bissau.
The United States does not have an agreement with Guinea-Bissau requiring notification of the U.S. Embassy of your arrest. If you are arrested in Guinea-Bissau, you should use whatever means of communication available to alert the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Modern medical facilities are virtually nonexistent in Guinea-Bissau, and travelers should not rely on them. More acceptable levels of medical care are available in Dakar, Senegal; however, as of this writing, there are extremely limited air travel options available between Dakar and Bissau. In addition, malaria, a serious and sometimes fatal disease, is a risk for travelers to Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau has a high HIV/AIDS infection rate.
Safety and Security
Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in West Africa and lacks sufficient resources and infrastructure to insure a stable security environment. Since Guinea-Bissau gained independence from Portugal in 1974, the country has been plagued by coups, political assassinations, and a civil war. The country’s fragile political system and weak governance allows for widespread corruption directly influenced by illicit activity. Criminals, corrupt officials, and drug cartels continue to undermine the rule of law and utilize the country for criminal activity, including using Guinea-Bissau as a major transit-point for cocaine and light-arms trafficking, and for illegal immigration. Guinea-Bissau’s unprotected coastline and archipelago, with over 90 islands, many un-policed, and remote airstrips, is a haven for narcotics trafficking and other criminal activity. Due to the current political, economic, and security instability in Guinea-Bissau, all U.S. citizens and organizations should exercise heightened personal security awareness.
Guinea-Bissau continues to experience periodic political disruptions and instability; all travelers to the country should closely monitor the political situation. In January 2012, Bissau-Guinean President Malam Bacai Sanhá died from natural causes. A transitional government is in place following a coup d’état on April 12, 2012, that interrupted elections to replace him. The government plans to hold presidential and legislative elections in 2013.
Visitors should avoid political gatherings and street demonstrations. Demonstrations typically begin or end in front of the former Presidential Palace in “Praca dos Herois Nacionais.” While most demonstrations in Bissau are non-violent, the imbalance of power in the country can lead to violent demonstrations.
Unexploded military ordnance and landmines remain scattered throughout the country. Although the capital city of Bissau was declared “mine-free” in June 2006 by the national de-mining center (CAAMI), there have been occasional findings or unintentional mine explosions. Two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been active in successfully removing mines. Avoid driving in rural areas at night and remain on well-traveled roads at all times to minimize the risks posed by landmines.
The U.S. Embassy in Bissau suspended operations on June 14, 1998, at the outbreak of a violent civil war. There is currently no permanent U.S. diplomatic or consular presence in Guinea-Bissau. The U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, is accredited for all diplomatic and security concerns to the Government of Guinea-Bissau. In 2007, the U.S. government opened a U.S. Liaison Office in Bissau (BLO), staffed by locally employed personnel who provided limited services to U.S. citizens in the event of an emergency. The Bissau Liaison Office suspended operations on April 4, 2013. All security and consular services should be coordinated through the American Citizens Services Section and the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Guinea-Bissau, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Guinea-Bissau is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
The public transportation system, urban and rural road conditions, and availability of roadside assistance are all poor. There is no consistent public electricity in the capital, and the lack of lighting at night makes careful driving essential. Since there are landmines left in place from the civil war and the war of independence, travelers should not leave designated roads and pathways. The landmines are scattered in several areas throughout Guinea-Bissau, including the Bafata, Oio, Biombo, Quinara, and Tombali regions. While there has been significant progress in locating and removing landmines, a substantial number remain. Speak with local authorities first and use caution if leaving a main road or highway to enter a trail network or to make other types of cross-country movement.
Passengers should also exercise caution if choosing to use a taxi for transportation because many are in sub-standard condition. If a taxi is used, it is important for passengers to inform taxi drivers that they do not want additional patrons to be picked up along the route. Taxis in Bissau serve as a bus service, in which each passenger pays for a seat. Furthermore, the Embassy does not recommend that visitors use the unconventional bus system in Bissau, the “Bus Rapides” or “Toca-Tocas.”