This African Police Chief Believes Right Man for Job Is a Woman

Guinea Bissau war hero uses her post to fight corruption

The dingy corridors of the Ministry for the Interior echo with men in uniform arguing and shouting.

But as soon as they enter the new minister's office at the end of the corridor they suddenly behave like gentlemen - a change people hope will spill out onto the streets. It's not that the new minister is a woman. Rather, she represents the ideals of her country's fading revolution.

In a resplendent purple gown, Francisca Pereira dresses more like royalty than someone in charge of a tough police force, the first woman to hold such a position in Africa. She was never a police woman, nor does she have an academic education beyond high school. Her qualification is as a hero in the 1974 war of independence against the Portuguese.

Though the revolutionary African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde has long been seen as apathetic and corrupt, it remains the cement that holds this ethnically diverse nation together.

"They have done nothing for us in 20 years," says Equeson Ndyia, who sells stationery in the capital. "But how can we reject those who freed us from tyranny?"

Still, public confidence in the security forces is now at an all-time low. According to a recent report by the London-based Amnesty International, police frequently "torture and ill-treat" the population. Last September, the much-feared Rapid Intervention Police opened fire on a demonstration, killing one person and injuring another. A few months before, a man accused of not paying a debt was "extrajudicially executed" by police on a busy street.

President Joo Bernardo Vieira is counting on Ms. Pereira to change this image of the security forces. In June, he sacked her predecessor along with almost his entire Cabinet.

Two months into her job, Pereira is trying to bring the different police departments under her authority. Before, she says, they operated like little kingdoms, separate unto themselves. She says her main focus will be on eliminating corruption. But her country is afflicted by a chronic culture of corruption, she notes, and it will be difficult to root out.

Another priority for Pereira is to improve the role of women in Guinea Bissau. She equates her country's "machismo" culture with colonialism. In traditional society, men and women were better able to share power, she claims, "but the colonizers changed that."

Pereira was raised on the Bidjago islands, legendary among locals for its strong women. They own most of the property, and inheritances traditionally pass from mother to daughter. Also, women, rather than men, do the courting.

While Pereira says her heritage plays a part in her outlook, she points to the revolution's ideals as key to bringing more freedom for women.

Guinea Bissau's revolutionary leader, Amilcar Cabral, called for women to retake their rightful position in society, and in the war they played a key role.

Today, they provide more than 55 percent of the labor for agriculture, the mainstay of the economy.

But women's position in Guinea Bissau's formal economy remains weak.

Their overall percentage in the labor force is decreasing, according to a recent World Bank report. They have little access to land and formal credit, and only 14 percent are literate, as opposed to 41 percent of men.

"Machismo has infiltrated the modern society," says Pereira, "particularly in our system of governance," which, she points out, was largely inherited from Portugal.

"Women here feel inferior," says Pereira. "Our hardest battle is not with men, but to find dignity within ourselves."

But the minister denies she is a "feminist," preferring to see herself as "an old-fashioned revolutionary." "Only if we stick to the revolution will we really move women and all our people forward."

Statements like that have made her popular in the streets. "She is part of a corrupt system, but she personally still has principles," says a dock worker at Pidjiguiti port in Bissau, where in 1959 Portuguese authorities shot dead 50 unarmed strikers, an event that set off the war.

But the minister also downplays her role in the war.

"I never killed anyone," she says proudly. Her medals were for risking her life as a nurse in the battlefield and as a negotiator. "I always tried to convince both sides to lay down their arms," she says, "though I never doubted that the Portuguese had to go."

Pereira is even more opposed to violence now as minister for the interior. "African governments tend to use their security apparatus against the people. I will use [it] for the people."

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