Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 9, Nº. 2 (November 2018-April 2019), pp. 93-108
Claudia Favarato
PhD candidate in Political Science at Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Políticas (ISCSP,
Portugal), University of Lisbon; Master in African Studies, ISCSP, University of Lisbon; Master in
International Politics and Diplomacy, University of Padua; collaborating researcher at Centro de
Estudos Africanos (CEAF) of ISCSP, University of Lisbon.
The present article aims to unveil the importance of the indigenous animist religious system
within Guinea Bissau political culture. By analysing the contrast between the inherent
legitimation of State authority and local-traditional ones it is discerned the type of political
culture shared by Guinean people.
Taking into account the exacerbation of public responsiveness to symbols manipulation when
levels of human security are felt lower by individuals, I discuss the importance of religious
symbolic capital inherent in Guinea Bissau national leaders’ politics, pinpointing the case of
José Bernardino “Nino” Vieira.
These practices enable State authorities to legitimize their authority, to overcome the ethnical
heterogeneity impasse and to compensate for loose relationships between the government
and the citizens.
Finally, I discuss the manipulation of the religious dimension for political ends as a milestone
of the process of africanization of power, due to religious and political syncretism typical of
traditional African political systems, on the one hand. On the other hand, I question how
myths worshipping the national leaders might foster the breakthrough of an authoritarian
political regime.
Guinea Bissau; political culture; symbolic capital; African political system; African traditional
How to cite this article
Favarato, Claudia (2018). "Traditional religion in Guinea Bissau political culture". JANUS.NET
e-journal of International Relations, Vol. 9, N.º 2, November 2018-April 2019. Consulted
[online] on the date of the last visit, https://doi.org/10.26619/1647-7251.9.2.7
Article received on December 21, 2017 and accepted for publication on July 1, 2018
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 9, Nº. 2 (November 2018-April 2019), pp. 93-108
Traditional religion in Guinea Bissau political culture
Claudia Favarato
Claudia Favarato
Through this article I aim to discern the importance of traditional religion in Guinea Bissau
political culture. State coups that sparked throughout the past five decades weakened
the State-building process, and the strengthening of a liberal democracy based on the
rule of law. For remarkable ethnical heterogeneity, traditional authorities enjoy strong
legitimacy hindering the strength of formal State authorities. Moreover, religious values,
mostly expressed through the indigenous animist cosmologies, persist strong among
First, I identify the political culture type prevalent in Guinea Bissau, based on Almond &
Verba (1989 [1963]) classification, by unveiling the threefold political structure and by
emphasizing patterns of contrast between State authority and traditional-local
Second, researches (Inglehart, Basañes & Moreno, 1998; Inglehart & Norris, 2011) show
that among people living in low income conditions or in failed or poorer States religiosity
persist strong. Therefore, public responsiveness to symbols manipulation is lightened
when people are personally vulnerable to political-economic distress or when they feel
unable to deal with their problems. According to the human security secularization thesis
(Inglehart & Norris, 2011), it is discussed the importance of religious-grounded symbolic
capital as a tool used by Guinea Bissau leaders to legitimize their authority and overcome
the ethnical heterogeneity impasse.
The third part of the article focuses on importance of the religious dimension within
Guinea Bissau political culture. Data outcomes are expected to verify postulated
hypothesis on the ends of religious values’ manipulation. On the one hand, I hypothesised
that, whilst the employ of religious based symbols by national leaders is a tool to
compensate for loose relationships between the government and the citizens, such
practices are part of traditional African political systems. In this sense, their mingling
with the State-system marks a milestone in the africanization of Power process. On the
other hand, due to outstandingly high levels of legitimation and consent they provide,
along with a sense of fright among the population, myths worshipping the person of the
president endorse the breakthrough of an authoritarian political system.
The discernment outlined in this article is based on data gathered from field work (Biombo
region, October to December 2016). Techniques as informal conversations with
representative of the local-traditional political system, along with participant observation
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 9, Nº. 2 (November 2018-April 2019), pp. 93-108
Traditional religion in Guinea Bissau political culture
Claudia Favarato
within rural settlement daily life and occurrences, furnished the necessary data to chart.
A clear as possible account of the prevalent political culture type.
Moreover, the analysis is enriched by categorical discourse analysis of semi-structured
interviews, underpinned by an inductive taxonomy. The latter were submitted to a
selected, representative corpus, encompassing different age groups. The interviewees
are Bissau-Guinean university students and professors who witnessed the three-decades
(1980-2009) long era of José Bernardino “Nino”’ Vieira government. The interviews
pinpoint how the President Nino engaged with symbolic capital in the exercise of his
Guinea Bissau political scenario
Following independence (September 24
, 1974) from Portugal, Guinea Bissau has been
ruled by the former liberation movement, PAIGC (Partido Africano para a Independência
da Guiné e Cabo Verde). After the 1980 coup, João Bernardino “Nino” Vieira took charge
as president; he maintained his office till 1998. State coups, assassinations and disputes
between the politicians and the army have been a hallmark of Guinean political turmoil
since the formal institution of pluralistic democracy in 1994. Guinea Bissau is formally a
semi-presidential representative democracy; albeit, political activities seldom are not
consistent with what stated in the Constitution (1984) provisions.
Nation and State-building processes are at stake due to social, cultural and political
legacies. On the one hand, there lacks an open, free-informed system of relation between
governed and government. On the other hand, the process of embodying citizens within
one national identity is hampered by ethnical heterogeneity (Forrest, 2003). In the
country, there are almost thirty ethnicities and none of this has a high prevalence among
the population. Balanta (26%), Papel (9.2%), Bijagós (2.1%), Manjaco (9.2%),
Mancanha (3.5%) are the most significant animist ethnicities, representative of almost
50% of the total population, whether Fula (25%) and Mandinga are the main Muslim
ethnicities (Nóbrega, 2003). There is no predominant ethnical group in the political
, nor there are any records of political vote in the country. Ethnic identity is not
determinative of a given community’s political choice (Forrest, 2003: 187). The parcelling
off of identities matches identity patterns more tightly with individuals’ ethnical group
than with the nation.
Ethnical identity patterns are not limited to the cultural cluster but affect the political
sphere also. Most of the people refers to local authority rather than to the State
(Favarato, 2017); the State is fragile and lacks legitimation among people, especially in
the rural realm. Heritage of the former colonial one, current Guinean State is shaped on
a European apparatus, which was not able to penetrate and rearrange social, traditional
configuration of power (Forrest, 2003).
Portuguese indirect rule system, implemented during the 1800, was based on local
committees, called Comités de Tabanca (Forrest, 2003: 142). The latter were intended
to pervasively spread State power among native people. Although, the colonial ruling
Although, Álvaro Nóbrega refers to balantização do Estado” process. Balanta ethnical group presence is
majoritary within the armed forces, hence the increasing power Balanta are gaining in the militar and
political sphere (Nóbrega, 2015).
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 9, Nº. 2 (November 2018-April 2019), pp. 93-108
Traditional religion in Guinea Bissau political culture
Claudia Favarato
system was corrupted by the locals, who elected people endowed with traditional
authority or weak individuals for position in the committee (Nóbrega, 2003). Strength of
local, traditional political and social structure prevailed over the colonizer. The
independent State ruled by PAICG inherited such structural fragilities; State’s capacity is
limited to cities and community-based authorities hold power over rural society.
Contemporary structure of African political systems is ontologically composed of three
elements: pre-colonial structures, colonial cultural-political legacies, and post-colonial
State developments, inherently influenced by the globalization process and the modern
neoliberal State model. The three parcels are not exclusive, for they work in reciprocal
synergy in the inner social, cultural and political reality. Guinea Bissau political culture is
ipso facto a heterogeneous cultural mix. The threefold structure provides a sound
explanation on the State-traditional powers dialectic. PAICG reiterated attacks against
traditional power depicted it as backward, indigenous, uncivilized; therefore, they
engendered a backlash, expressed through the recent revitalization of traditional power
revitalization (Carvalho, 2004).
Despite State’s sovereignty over all Guinean territory, local and traditional authorities
strength is high throughout all ethnical groups. Local leaders’ legitimacy is likely due to
their political and/or religious role (Bordonaro, 2009).
Importance of ancestors and spirits, along with invention of tradition (Hobsbawm, 2002),
prompted the recent revitalization of traditional power in Guinea Bissau. To confirm and
through the support of blood-soul legacies with metaphysical forces and the ancestors,
the newly appointed régulo successfully perform traditional rituals and ceremonies. The
latter are a means to assert authority, broaden symbolic capital and strengthen power.
Traditional legitimation practices are the hallmark of the syncretism between the secular
and religious power: legitimacy, power and authority of traditional leaders (régulos) is
tightly dependent on their religious force and their commitment with animist cerimonia
di terra
” (Favarato, 2017).
Political culture and importance of traditional religion
Individuals’ orientation toward political system and political action are determinant
elements to discern local and traditional authorities’ legitimacy. Those patterns of
orientation are best summed in the expression political culture (Almond, 1956: 396), due
to the peculiar epistemological traits the two terms refer to on their own. Together, they
define a specific cluster of culture, differentiated and partially autonomous from culture
at large.
Culture is a collective phenomenon in which individuals bring together their own set of
world outlooks, interpretation of reality, feelings and expectations. Culture is a broad
term; it refers to individual (ego-tropic or psychologic traits) and societal (socio-tropic)
aspects. Due to institutions, socialization, education and communication media, a culture
Anthropologist Clara Carvalho (2004) distinguish between local and traditional power. The former is an
independent rule structure, historically deep-rooted in customary practices and social habitus; the label of
traditional is due to the source of power legitimation. Guinean régulos underpin their authority in the self-
justifying notion of “tradition”.
“Di terra” is used to refer to tradition, both in its immanent and material aspect. Therefore it is linked to
animist forces, spirits (irân) and ancestors.
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 9, Nº. 2 (November 2018-April 2019), pp. 93-108
Traditional religion in Guinea Bissau political culture
Claudia Favarato
is “the signifying system through which a social order is communicated, reproduced,
experienced and explored” (Williams, 1983: 13). Lacking clear boundaries of definition,
it includes notions of diverse clusters of knowledge, as anthropology, sociology,
psychology, political science, religion, art.
Distinguishable from non-political attitudes, political culture denotes how the political
system is internalized in form of cognitions, feelings and evaluations. The combination of
the terms political and culture refers to people’s psychological orientations toward social
objects, or in other words the totality of ideas and attitudes toward authority discipline,
governmental responsibilities and entitlements, and associated patterns of cultural
transmission (Robertson, 2002).
Political culture can be categorized according to type, subcultures and congruence
between political culture and political system. With regard to Guinea Bissau case, it is
identifiable a participant type shared by the elite, whilst most of Guinean population is
embedded in parochial political culture
(Almond & Verba, 1989 [1963]), insofar
traditional authorities are referred to as first legitimate authority rather than the central
State. A political orientation does not exclude nor replace the other; there is no
homogeneity or uniformity of political culture as such, but a cultural heterogeneity or
mix, founded on subcultures cleavages.
Orientation toward political action is deducible by a synthesis of cognitive, cathexis and
evaluation elements (Almond, 1956: 396). In terms of affection, evaluation of the State
and government present negative traits: little or nothing is expected from the political
system and awareness of the government presence tends to be linked to family interests.
Moreover, reforms and permanence of change (Bordonaro, 2009), yet not leading to any
shifts nor improvements fostered a sense of resignation mixed with hope for the future.
According to Bissau-Guinean, the country’s political structure in inefficient and unable to
provide for people’s need, for the State personnel is on average corrupted. Politicians are
blamed of corruption and of serving of their position for the sake of personal interests.
Such a selfish attitude counteracts desirable features of a political leader: traditional
authorities enjoy legitimacy insofar they responsibly rule for the well-beings of the
individuals (Monteiro, 2016: 163). A good leader shall use power for the common benefit
of the community.
Traditional political titles are a lifelong office, conferred upon criteria of age, wisdom,
courage and value. Customary law provisions (FDB & INEP, 2012) appoint a council of
elders (Omi Garandi) and a committee of counsellors to mentor a regulo’s governance.
Individuals obey decisions and rules enacted due to their justness; it is very unlikely that
violations occur. Most of local authorities’ dispositions are underpinned in indigenous
animist foundation, which foster the prohibition. To violate a norm would make one guilty
According to the parochial type model, political roles are not specialized and there are not separated from
religious and/or social orientation. Whether it may occur in larger-scale and differentiated polities, parochial
orientation is more common in simpler, circumscribed traditional systems (Almond & Verba, 1989 [1963]:
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 9, Nº. 2 (November 2018-April 2019), pp. 93-108
Traditional religion in Guinea Bissau political culture
Claudia Favarato
in front of irân
, who has no mercy for human beings: punishments often involve death
or ceaseless mufunesa
(Favarato, 2017).
No matter of local political life is kept behind the scenes. Orality is a fundamental
communication mean in a context of medium-poor literacy level; lacking printed or IT
media resources, meetings under the shadow of the mango trees are the selected spot
for political talks and discussions. The quick sharing of oral information (through
counsellors’ official transmission and mouth-to-mouth talks) and high level of societal
consent can foster a leader’s positive image as can quickly destroy one’s reputation on
the basis of tattles. Trust is of utter importance in a political world underpinned on orality.
Whether all citizens are informed on political matters, participation in the political life is
casted within boundaries tightly linked to gender and performance of traditional
ceremonies. Rituals, not age, define phases of one’s life. Boys ought to perform fanado
(a three-months-long test of resistance) to rightfully become active member of the
political community. Who does not perform the ceremony, entirely or partially, is given
the depreciating name blufo and is not ever eligible for marriage. Women are generally
excluded from political life and they are not allowed to cover political offices
. Contrarily,
no prohibition as such is recorded in the religious system.
Mirroring the family’s functioning, the local political structure despises selfishness. A
system of reciprocal obligation, thus creating a relational net of interactions stays as
cornerstone of the social, political and familiar system. Hence, trust and identification in
the local political system is high.
The transplantation of the political orientations referred above to the national system
proves therefore unsuccessful. National government practices based on a bureaucratic
apparatus are not consistent with patterns of legitimation and identification proper of the
traditional system, thus the perceived failure of the deceiving State. As outlined in
Almond and Verba analysis (1989 [1963]), political culture and political system are not
inherently two overlapping structure, for the degree of their incongruence determines
efficiency and participation into forms of political action.
The State apparatus results of colonial legacies, which does not mirror local reality nor
African heirloom. The incongruence cause detachment feelings whilst embedding the
spreading of participatory political culture. Cleavages in political orientation are shaped
by urban or rural settlements’ location; the political culture split broaden between the
foreign educated elite and the population at large, as the awareness of the significance
of the government varies sharply with the level of education (Almond & Verba,
Within urban inhabitants and educated elite, political culture leans to the participatory
type. In this model, citizens are explicitly oriented toward the system (policy,
administration structures and processes) as a whole and feel an active role of their self”
in the polity (Almond & Verba, 1989[1963]: 18). In Bissau and Bafata, levels of political
participation are remarkably high and led to the emerge of an articulated civil society, in
The term Irân has no clear definition boundaries. It refers to a metaphysical entity, a spirit, a powerful
force. Despite its otherworldliness, is it regarded part of the physical world, its presence is sensed and it is
appointed as the last cause of positive and negative occurrences.
Exceptions are foreseen in the case a woman is the head of the family.
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 9, Nº. 2 (November 2018-April 2019), pp. 93-108
Traditional religion in Guinea Bissau political culture
Claudia Favarato
line with African associative tradition. It is precisely in Bissau that protests and upraises
in opposition to governmental actions take place, displaying engagement with political
life in positive (political debates, political parties’ headquarters) and negative (protests,
contestation, disagreement) terms. Moreover, urban citizens and educated élites tend to
experience an identity incongruence: whilst their participatory political culture is
consistent with the formal political system, hardly there will be any identification with
politicians’ little accountability and with the authoritarian measures enacted.
The cleavages between the diverse political subcultures and the incongruence amidst the
political system and the political cultures hinder national legitimacy. Furthermore, the
culture-system mismatch along with the variety of subcultures harden the task for the
national leader to encompass ethnical heterogeneity and attain nationally recognized
Persistence of religiosity and symbolic power
To achieve legitimation is a tough matter in Guinea Bissau politics: independence
propelled by the State and not by the people (Graça, 2005: 22) thwarted the nation-
building process. Top-down construction of State apparatus and administration structure
did not overcome local and traditional power structures. For the lowering of the
revolutionary legitimacy
accorded to politicians, and lacking foundations for national
legitimacy, it prompted the appeal to myth and symbols tightly rooted in the traditional
religion to foster authority through symbolic power.
An effective alternative to bureaucratic-rational legitimation, symbolic capital provides a
generally valid basis to legitimate national political power. Symbolic capital, inherent in
social and cultural capital, is the leading force par excellence of politics (Bourdieu, 2014:
282; 1989). It is generated by the relation between socio-cultural capital and the agents
whom socialization enables them to see and recognize such assets. In other words, it
implies that the citizens recognize political authorities as endowed with such symbolic
As a creative, world-making power, symbolic capital provides a base to create legitimacy
among people. Many are the forms in which it displays: a language is for instance a
structured, normative institution, itself constitutive of reality and a form of symbolic
Symbolic power is not necessarily grounded on proved occurrences nor factual truths. It
preferably relies on manipulation of reality, or rather on a manipulation of reality
accordingly with one’s vision and opinion. Politics is not made by truth, but by opinion,
which ultimately identifies with illusion. Et est, opinion is one of the indispensable bases
of power (Arendt, 1995: 17).
The importance of myths, symbols, values and beliefs does not lay merely in themselves,
but in what they evoke, in the meaning they are given. Myths, symbols and rituals are
an essential feature of all societies; periodical ceremonies are required to state societal
existential needs and moral values with ideological meaning (Fortes & Evans-Pritchard,
Recognition of one’s right to be part of the government due to participation in the fighting struggle for
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 9, Nº. 2 (November 2018-April 2019), pp. 93-108
Traditional religion in Guinea Bissau political culture
Claudia Favarato
1981[1940]: 52-56; Hobsbawm, 2002). Their manipulation to serve political aims play a
key-function since they are a useful tool to enhance legitimization of the political élite
and of the national leadership.
As already noted by Fortes & Evans-Pritchard (1981[1940]: 52), “cohesion and
persistence of African [traditional and national] societies depend largely on ability of all
members to feel their unity and perceive their common interest in myths and symbols”.
Religion views, and henceforth the related values and beliefs, play a major role in people
political outlook.
Moreover, public responsiveness to symbols manipulation is heightened when people are
vulnerable to political-economic distress or when they feel unable to deal with their
problems (Hayward & Dumbuya, 1983). Inglehart and Norris (2011) human security
(secularization) thesis bridges the degree of religiosity with the level of existential
security perceived by the members of a given society. Essential to well-being, human
security designates the state of living free from various risks, dangers and vulnerabilities.
Religiosity refers, in this sense, to the need of an ultimate source to face life-threatening
risks one has to cope with on a daily basis. To believe in a metaphysical being has a
functional role for those living in vulnerable condition, since it helps reducing anxiety for
The central claim of the modernization thesis is that economic, politic and cultural
changes go together in coherent patterns. There exists a broad range of cultural values
closely linked to a given society’s level of economic development (Inglehart, Basañez &
Moreno, 1998), whilst other factors, such as formal education, mass communication and
the structure of work force, are simply influential on cultural changes patterns.
Nevertheless, religiosity is sensible to other societal elements, as religious culture and
socio-economic development (Inglehart, Basañez & Moreno, 1998). Furthermore,
patterns of cultural changes are highly dependent on a country’s economic stage; in other
words, the political dimension of culture changes along with the economic system.
Political and social expectations of populations living in poorer nations and failed States
are primary bonded to claims for security, rather than on pretences for inclusive,
participative citizenship, or for rights
of the individual. Among these populations,
religiosity persists more strongly, while a systematic erosion of religious practices, values
and beliefs has occurred among the most prosperous strata in rich nations (Inglehart &
Norris, 2011).
Religion, beliefs, myths and symbols within Guinean politics
Hallmark of Guinea Bissau political culture is the syncretism between the political and the
religious spheres. The latter relies the traditional system of beliefs, a heterogeneity of
cosmologies falling under the name of animism. Despite identification with one of the
revealed religions (Christianism, Muslims) present in the country’s threefold religious
system, animist beliefs persist as a cultural substratum for all individuals. Irân is the
main deity; it designates a spirit who can be malign or benevolent. In the traditional
In this sense, rights refer to first and second generations rights, respectively civic and political, and
economic, social and cultural rights.