In around 1200, when a group of Malinké was led to present-day Guinea-Bissau by a general of Sunjata Keita, the region became an outpost of the Empire of Mali. In 1537, it became a state in its own right – the Kaabu Empire. Gabù became the capital of this small kingdom.
European Arrival & Colonisation
Portuguese navigators first reached the area around 1450, and established lucrative routes for trading slaves and goods. With the abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century, the Portuguese extended their influence beyond the coast towards the interior in order to continue extracting wealth.
Portuguese Guinea descended into one of the most repressive and exploitative colonial regimes in Africa, particularly when dictator António Salazar came to power in Portugal in 1926.
War of Liberation
By the early 1960s African colonies were rapidly winning independence, but Salazar refused to relinquish control. The result was a long and bloody war of liberation for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, fought on Guinean soil. Many Guineans were recruited to fight for the Portuguese, essentially pitting brothers against brothers and neighbours against neighbours.
The father of independence was Amílcar Cabral, who in 1956 helped found the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). In 1961 the PAIGC started arming and mobilising peasants, and within five years controlled half of the country. Cabral was assassinated in Conakry in 1973, but independence had become inevitable. When Salazar's regime fell in 1974, the new Portuguese government recognised the fledgling nation.
Independence & Instability
Once in power, the PAIGC government was confronted by staggering poverty, lack of education and economic decline. Politically, it wanted a unified Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde; however, the idea died in 1980 when President Luis Cabral was overthrown in a coup while visiting Cape Verde to negotiate the union. João 'Nino' Vieira, an important military leader in the independence struggle, took over and initially continued the country's socialist policies. In 1986, after a coup attempt, President Vieira reversed course and privatised state enterprises.
Intractable poverty, several coup attempts and growing corruption under Vieira culminated in national strikes in 1997, which spiralled into civil war. Senegal and Guinea became involved in the conflict, sending soldiers in support of government troops loyal to the president. Vieira was killed in a 2009 coup and instability has been endemic ever since, fuelled by deep tensions between the government and the military, which includes ageing officers who fought in the war of independence. The squabble for profits from Bissau's main cash cow – not the humble cashew, but cocaine – is a symptom of these tensions.
In 2012, President Malam Bacai Sanha died from illness, plunging the country into another bout of instability and adding another name to the long list of presidents who have failed to complete a full term in power. A coup d'etat ousted the prime minister and election frontrunner three months later and a transitional government was installed, headed by Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, who was chosen by West African bloc Ecowas. Nhamadjo's time in power was shaken by coup attempts and attacks, and elections in 2013 were held amid rising tensions between the Balanta and other ethnic groups.