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Guinea-Conakry: The End of a Dictatorship?

Categories: Sub-Saharan Africa, Guinea, Breaking News, Human Rights, Politics, Protest

Conakry, capital of the francophone West African country of Guinea, is bracing for a new round of violence following last month's general strike [1] which left at least 59 dead and 1400 injured. The strikes were organized by Guinea's powerful labor unions to pressure President Lansana Conté [2], an aging dictator, to appoint a prime minister without ties to the current regime and devolve some of his considerable powers. On January 28, after an 18-day standstill, Conte and the unions reached a deal [3].

However, union leaders are unhappy with President Lansana Conté's choice of prime minister, and are planning to go ahead with a second round of strikes, due to start tomorrow. In the last few days, 8 civilians [4] have already been killed, including two in an incident were presidential security forces opened fire on youths throwing stones [5] (Fr) at the president's motorcade.

By all accounts, the unions have considerable support among the Guinean people, who also want Conte to share power or step down.

A Dictator Whose Days are “Conté”

Head of State Update [6], a blog about heads of state around the world, has an excellent backgrounder [7] on Conté and his rise to power. After independence in 1958, Guinea was governed by Ahmed Sékou Toure, “a union leader who had been one of the most prominent anti-French activists during the colonial period.” Toure was a Marxist who enjoyed the support of labor unions that became powerful interest groups under his rule. When Toure died in 1984 on an operating table in the US, where he had gone to seek medical treatment for a heart condition, Lansana Conté staged a coup d'etat. Head of State writes:

General Conte has tried to ruled with an iron fist just like his predecessor. But as a non-Marxist he could not rely on the support of Guinea's powerful labor unions, which had been a traditional supporter of the old president's regime. He's also had to face unrest in the military and increasing pressures from the public at large to democratize the nation's political system.

Why do the unionists want Conte out? It seems that Conte's abuse of power has become more than the unions – and many Guineans – can bear.

In December, to give one example, Conté drove, sirens blaring, to the Conakry prison to personally free two of his friends [8] (Fr) who had been imprisoned ten days earlier for their part in the embezzlement of 16 billion Guinean francs in public funds. The unions have accused Conté of squandering Guinea's mineral wealth and say that Conté, who has a long history of heart problems that frequently take him abroad for treatment, is too sick to properly manage the country.

Alex Seck [9], a Senegalese blogger who has been closely following events in Conakry, lambasted Conté for being woefully out of touch with public sentiment, describing an incident [10] where Conté told the unionists that “he was also a public servant, so he was on strike and could not look at their list of demands until the word had been given to call off the strike.” (Fr)

Congolese blogger Le Pangolin [11] thinks that “Lansana Conte seems to have forgotten that he has lost his power, which now finds itself in the hands of the people” (Fr), and that Conte should resign [12] before it's too late:

Pour prendre leçon de l'histoire, Lansana Conté aurait dores et déjà l'intelligence de négocier son départ avec dignité, de façon à se retire sans faire trop de dégâts pour lui et son clan. Maintenant qu'il a encore une parcelle de pouvoir certes mince, il peut encore faire prévaloir certaines revendications. Après il lui sera trop tard, car la dynamique créée par la victoire de janvier 2007 sur lui a réconforté le peuple guinéen que ce dernier n'était pas invincible et que qu'il n'avait pas de pouvoir. Et surtout que les répressions sanglantes marquent le peuple et le fortifient. C'est ce qui explique aisément que les syndicats guinéens donnent des ultimatums à Lansana Conté, c'est que les choses ont changé en profondeur en Guinée.

Taking a lesson frm history, Lansana Conte should have the intelligence to negotiate his departure with dignity, to retire without bringing too much disgrace upon himself and his clan. Now, he still has a last vestige of power, weak to be sure, and he can still make certain demands. Soon, it will be too late. The dynamic created by the [unionists’] victory in January over him have encouraged and strengthened the Guinean people. When it's the Guinean unions that are giving ultimatums to Lansana Conte, things have changed.

However, Seck doubts [13] Conté will make such an easy exit:

A mon humble avis,celà m'etonnerait fort que le vieux Général accépte de concéder un pouce de son pouvoir à quelqu'un qui ne lui soit pas dévoué. Mon intime conviction est que seule la mort de Lansana Conté ou sa déstitution,pourra ouvrir aux Guinéens,l'aire de la Démocratie.

L'histoire est là pour nous rappeler que jamais un Déspote Africain n'a partagé son pouvoir;jamais un Dictateur Africain n'a accépté de se retirer du pouvoir sans la force.

In my humble opinion, it would be astonishing if the old General agreed to give up an inch of his power to someone who wasn't completely devoted to him. My personal belief is that only Lansana Conte's death or removal from power will [give Guineans a chance for Democracy].

History is there to remind us that an African Despot has never shared power. An African Dictator has never agreed to relinquish his power without force.

Democracy of the Streets

At his blog Black Star Journal [14], Brian, a former peace corps volunteer in Guinea, quoting a high-level government official, writes [15] that Guinea is in “virtual insurrection.”

Seck writes [10] Guinea has come to this point because the situation there is so desperate, the people believe they have nothing left to lose:

C'est plus facile à dire qu'à faire et à affronter,mais comme l'ont constaté les Grévistes,tout comme la population Guinéenne;la situation économique,sociale et politique Guinéenne est tellement en déliquescence qu'ils n'ont plus rien à perdre ou à espérer et se disent déterminés à aller jusqu'au bout quoiqu'il leur en coûte.

The economic, social and political situation in Guinea is so far gone that [Guineans] have nothing left to lose or to hope for, and say that they are determined to see this to the end, whatever the cost.

At Charcoal Ink [16], Tanzanian blogger Aurelia thinks [17] that street protests are justified because “the public must always voice what they feel” but wonders why so many African countries appear intent on replicating the autocratic rule of the colonial period today, comparing many African leaders to “a Napoleon [18] from Animal Farm.

Guinea's unions, which some say signal the emergence of a strong civil society [19], have a history of taking to the streets [20] to demand concessions from President Conte. Last March, they also organized a 2-week general strike.

New Prime Minister, New Violence

The unions aren't happy [21] (Fr) with Conté's choice of prime minister, Eugene Camara, who is a close ally. They have called the appointment “contrary to the will of the Guinean people [21]” and an “insult [22]“.

Conté's appointment of Camara as prime minister has already lead to new violence, which many believe will only escalate. Seck describes [5] the “chaos” in Conakry:

La tuerie a commencé ce matin avec la mort de 2 jeunes manifestants abattus par les Bérets rouges du Bataillon autonome spécial Présidentiel au moment où le cortège du Président Conté essuyait des jets de pierres.Le paroxisme de la violence et de la répression a été atteinte à Kankan,où un militaire a ouvert le feu sans sommation sur les manifestants faisant de nombreux blessés.Ce militaire a été ensuite poursuivi,lynché,aspergé d'essence et brûlé vif par la foule en furie.

The killing began this morning with the death of two young protesters beaten up by the Red Berets of the special, independent presidential bataillion, just as President Conte's motorcade was being hit by stones. The height of violence and repression was in Kankan, were a soldier opened fire, without cause, on demonstrators, resulting in numerous injuries. This soldier was then pursued, lynched, doused in gasoline, and burned in rage.

A Conakry,c'est le chaos, la résidence du Président Bissao-Guinéen, Nino Viera ainsi que celle du Ministre D'Etat Solana ont été saccagées;les Missions des Nations unies ainsi que les Chancelleries occidentales n'excluent plus l'évacuation de leurs personnels et ressortissants,pour la plupart, vers Dakar. Air France vient de suspendre ses vols sur Conakry; bref, la situation est confuse et trés préoccupante à Conakry.

Quel honteux silence!

In Conakry, it's chaos. The residence of the President of Guinea-Bissau, Nino Viera, as well as that of Minister of State Sola, were sacked. The UN mission and Western embassies [are evacuating] their staff and citizens, most of whom have left for Dakar. Air France has suspended flights to Conakry. The situation is confused and extremely worrying.

The silence is shameful!

According to Seck, 400 ULIMO [23] ex-combattants, who fought against former Liberian President Charles Taylor with Conté's aid, have come to Guinea to lend their support to the Conte regime as well as a 100 soldiers from Guinea-Bissau.

Missonaries working in Guinea write [24] “tire burning, rock throwing, and other protests have led to looting” in Conakry and that there were also “serious disturbances” in the interior on Friday.

For his part, Seck believes violence, though regrettable, is an unavoidable price [25] of affecting change:

La révolution est rouge et dans ce cas précis,il faut s'attendre malheureusement à encore beaucoup plus de victimes. Le Peuple a certes déjà payé un lourd tribu à la Dictature de Conté,mais d'autres sacrifices risquent malheureusement d'endeuiller plusieurs familles Guinéennes, la détermination du président Conté à rester au pouvoir est telle qu'il est prêt à faire le plein des cimetières de Guinée.

A la guerre comme à la guerre, le Peuple Guinéen est acculé et contraint à tuer pour ne pas être tué,il se doit de réagir violemment pour ne pas se faire ecraser sans combattre.

C'est triste mais c'est le prix à payer pour en venir à bout;pour extirper de la Guinée,ce cancer nommé: Lansana Conté.

Revolution is bloody, and in this particular case, we must unfortunately brace ourselves for many more victims. The People have without doubt already paid hefty tributes to the Conte Dictatorship, but more sacrifices threaten to drive several more Guinean families into mourning. President Conté's determination to stay in power is such that he is willing to fill up the cemeteries of Guinea.

In war, the Guinean People will be forced to kill or be killed. They will have to react violently or be quashed without a fight.

It's sad, but that's the price that has to be paid to get to the finish line; to rid Guinea of the cancer named Lansana Conte.

Around Africa

Some bloggers compared the crisis in Guinea to recent events around Africa.

Le Pangolin wonders [12] if Senegal might go the way of Guinea of Wade manages to win the upcoming election:

Le Sénégal a failli aussi suivre l'exemple de la Guinée, les choses se sont vite tempérées à cause de l'imminence des élections et surtout du sentiment général que l'ère Wade est à la fin. Il faut donc craindre au cas les résultats des élections venaient à être le contraire.

Senegal also made the mistake of following Guinea's example, but things very quickly calmed down because of the upcoming elections and because of a general feeling that Wade is near his end. One must then fear what will happen if the election results end up bringing the opposite.

Meanwhile, pointing to events in Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, Aurelia wonders [26] if street protest and violent state repression aren't growing trends in francophone Africa:

Photographs: Security forces clash with police during demonstrations against President Lansana Conte, Guinea, 17 January 2007, Guinea. (Top, right); A man wounded during demonstrations against Guinean President Lansana Conte that rocked Conakry and several provincial towns in, Conakry, Guinea, 25 January 2007 (Center, left). © Maseco Conde/IRIN