Thursday, June 05, 2008

Talks hope to end Guinea army revolt

Talks are progressing in the Western African republic of Guinea in an effort to end a military revolt by junior army officers. It was the second time in 12 months, the army has revolted for the second time in 12 months over pay. Guinean soldiers claiming years of unpaid wages captured their own chief-of-staff and took to the streets of the capital Conakry in a repeat of their May 2007 protest over the same issue. While the government has agreed to their pay demands, the sticking point now is over rebel demands for the removal of senior officers they accused of theft and corruption.

The revolt began late last month when paratroops and special forces in the country’s largest military base of Alfa Yaya Diallo, near Conakry international airport, unloaded their weapons before seizing the army's second-in-command General Mamadou Sampil after he came to try to negotiate with them. Locals also heard gunfire at Kindia army garrison 130km inland. Civilians took cover in their homes to avoid stray bullets. The precautions were warranted as several civilians were killed and dozens more wounded by stray bullets shot into the air. The mutineers looted shops and homes of military commanders, but made no serious attempt to take over government installations.

After an emergency meeting on Monday last week at the presidential palace, Guinean president Lansana Conté issued a statement which was read out on state television. Conté, whose own background is military, called for calm and asked for the soldiers to open dialogue and negotiations. When that statement had no effect, a panicking Conté fired his defence minister in an effort to appease his mutinying troops. The dismissal of Bailo Diallo was one of their demands but it is not clear if that satisfied the rebels. Shortly after the decision to sack Diallo, an unnamed military official said shots were at the army’s central HQ at Camp Samory where President Conté and his wife were in hiding.

Conté said he would refuse to deal with the rebels until they released the hostages they were holding at Alfa Yaya Diallo including General Sampil. On Sunday they met with military commanders and made some progress in talks on a pay deal. The 15-member regional Economic Community of West African States said the Guinea crisis "put at risk the safety and security of the civilian population and poses a grave threat to the fragile peace" in the region. The crisis also threatens the long-term rule of Conté himself.

Lansana Conté has ruled Guinea for 24 years. Incredibly he is one of only two men to have led the country in the 50 years since independence from France in 1958. Conté has survived several coups and assassination attempts. The biggest threat to his stranglehold on power was a general strike nationwide strike in January 2007. Conté was forced to appoint an independent Prime Minister, Lansana Kouyaté, to end the strike. Last month, Conté sacked Kouyaté to end an uneasy power-sharing arrangement.

While Kouyaté had been a disappointing PM, news of his dismissal triggered some disturbances and protests. But matters really took a turn for the worse when the soldiers intervened. They claimed Kouyaté promised them back pay and began to threaten their superiors. When the replacement prime minister Ahmed Tidiane Souaré, (a former Conté aide) paid the first instalment on their arrears, it merely emboldened junior military officers to sack all the top brass. The initial violence was followed by a four day stand-off with gunfire resuming again on the weekend.

Aid agencies in Guinea have reduced their operations to a minimum as they await the outcome of the ongoing military dispute. UN resident representative Gasarabwe Mbaranga said they were monitoring the situation and have advised staff to stay at home. "We already have tight security levels in place in the city and have not changed them," she said. But medical staff from Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) remain on duty bringing medicine and equipment to Conakry’s hospitals to help hospital staff treat the wounded. Many people in Guinea now fear the worst: an all-out civil war between troops led by emboldened junior officers and forces loyal to the aging Conté.

No comments: