Friday, January 02, 2009

Guinea emerges from Lansana Conte's dark shadow

"I am ill. My leg hurts. You have chosen me as your candidate, so you get on with it." These were the exasperated words of Guinea’s long term dictator Lansana Conte to a journalist before his last election victory. It was a lie, of course. It was Conte who chose himself as the candidate and the election was rigged in his favour. But what was true was that he was ill. The 73 year old man who had ruled Guinea with an iron fist for 23 years was dying and about to create a power vacuum. His eventual death before Christmas unleashed chaos in the West African country of ten million people. Announcing the president’s death on national TV, the head of the country’s National Assembly solemnly told viewers Conte had "hid his physical suffering for years in order to give happiness to Guinea”.

But in truth it was the people of Guinea who had suffered physically under his reign. Guinea was one of the poorest countries in Africa and an economic basket case. In October the nation marked 50 years of independence from France. It was not a time of celebration. The popular cry in the capital was “50 years of poverty”. Despite having rich bauxite and other mineral resources, the country is one of the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2006, UNICEF calculated that 63 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Government paralysis has also allowed the country’s external debt to balloon to unsustainable proportions.

Meanwhile, the economy has collapsed riven by cronyism. In 2004, the EU tried to tie aid to political and economic reforms and forced Conte to eliminate crony-monopolies and limit “off-budget expenses” (a EU euphemism for theft of government monies). But by 2007, there was no apparent rise in living conditions and people erupted in a wave of strikes and rioting. Conte’s forces react by ransacking strike headquarters and beating up union leaders. More worryingly for Conte was a revolt by junior army officers in June, which he eventually put down by agreeing to their pay demands.

Guinea is used to strong long-term leaders. Only two men have ruled Guinea since 1958. Independence leader Sekou Toure caused General de Gaulle to leave a meeting in a furious rage when he told him Guinea would rather having poverty in freedom than remain a French colony. De Gaulle took him at his word and withdrew all French aid. Toure broke ties with France and turned to the Soviet Union for support. In the best Communist tradition pursued a revolutionary socialist agenda and crushed political opposition in a reign of terror. When he died in 1984 the country was a shambles and Conte emerged from a cabal of military leaders to assume full control in a coup.

Lansana Conte ended the Communist experiment but was unable to end the country’s crushing poverty. He courted the west but like Toure he treated Guinea as his personal domain. He won “elections” in 1993, 1998 and 2003, but each time independent monitors denounced the polls as fraudulent. Conte became more despotic as the years entrenched his power. His regime was partially destabilised by the 2000 refugee crisis in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia when half a million people fled to Guinea to avoid the fighting. The region instability generated suspicion and ethnic tension and added to Guinea’s economic woes. The last decade of his reign were dominated by assassination attempts and his growing health woes. Conte spent much of his later years in clinics abroad searching in vain for elixirs to prolong his greedy life.

Conte did not groom anyone to follow him and the succession battle was always expected to be messy. The all-powerful secretary-general at the presidency, Fode Bangoura, was the most likely candidate to take over. He had already assumed day-to-day control of the country whenever Conte was out of the country seeking treatment. But with low growth and low income, the country was fertile ground for a coup.

It began in time-honoured fashion two days after Conte died when armed officers took over the state radio station to announce that the Constitution and the government had been suspended. Troops patrolled the streets in armoured personnel carriers but the coup was mostly bloodless as there was widespread support for action against the Conte faction which Bangoura was fatally associated with. Captain Moussa Dadis Camara emerged as the new junta leader and immediately sacked 20 generals in order to consolidate power. He also made the usual promises to rid the country of graft and nepotism and to hold elections by 2010.

While many are doubtful Camara will live up to these promises, he has made a good start with his appointment of Prime Minister. On 30 December, he chose Kabina Komara to lead the interim government. Komara has a financial background and a former member of Guinea’s central bank. He now works as a senior director at the Cairo-based African Export-Import Bank which promotes trade between African states. Komara was one of four men whom labour leaders nominated for Prime Minister following anti-government protests in 2007 but was turned down by Conte. Conte’s action is probably the best compliment to Komara’s abilities and he will need to be at the peak of his powers to negotiate his way through the minefield of Guinea’s economic and political crisis with the support of the people while not stepping on the toes of the country’s military rulers. It will be the toughest of tough tasks.

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