Monday, February 12, 2007

Riots in Guinea aim to topple dictator

Thousands have rioted in cities in Guinea as union leaders vowed to resume a crippling general strike to oust the president and his newly appointed prime minister. Unions say the President Lansana Conté is no longer fit to rule after 23 years in power and want to see an independent leader installed. 14 people were killed on the weekend when protests erupted across the West African country after Conté named a close ally Eugene Camara as premier. "We have decided to restart the strike from Monday," said union negotiator Boubacar Biro Barry. "We demand the departure without preconditions of the prime minister named by the president who absolutely does not meet the profile we outlined."

The days to come promise to be the strongest test yet of Conté’s long-term leadership. In the 50 years since independence, Guinea has had only two men at the helm. Ahmed Sékou Touré led the country out from under the wings of its French colonial past. In 1958, Guinea was the only colony to reject a French referendum to accept a new constitution. Guinea became independent but lost all French assistance. Touré survived an invasion from exiles in neighbouring Portuguese Guinea-Bissau. He took Guinea down a Socialist one-party path. By the time of his death in 1984 life expectancy in Guinea dropped to 40 years, business nearly evaporated and the capital Conakry was in a shambles.

Lansana Conté had the task of fixing up the mess. A former French Army volunteer and a hero in repelling the Portuguese invasion, he rose through the ranks of the Guinea military to become army chief-of-staff. After Touré died, he launched a military coup to take control of the country. Conté launched a series of economic reforms which attracted foreign investment back into the country. In the 1990s, the country started a slow move towards democracy. Conté won a presidential election in 1993 with 51% of the vote despite allegations of fraud. He survived a military coup three years later and won two more elections in 1998 and 2003, the latter with 95% of the vote after an opposition boycott.

Guinea has the world’s largest concentration of bauxite (aluminium ore) with 30% of the world’s reserves. The largest bauxite mine in the world belong to Cie des Bauxites de Guinée's (CBG) whose operations are located in the west of Guinea, close to the border with Guinea-Bissau. The company is now run by Alcoa through a venture with Canada's Alca. Yet despite the foreign exchange generated by CBG the country remains an economic basket case.

In 2000 Guinea was overwhelmed by almost half a million refugees fleeing fighting in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The country could not cope with the influx and Guinea’s economy went into freefall. The diabetic and chain smoking Conté was hospitalised in Morocco and many thought his reign was over. But he returned to face dissatisfaction when riots broke out over the price of rice and fuel. At least 20 people died as the armed forces crushed the dissent. In 2006, the German NGO Transparency International judged Guinea to be among the most corrupt countries in the world along with Iraq, Myanmar and Haiti.

At the start of this year, the country erupted in strikes and riots once more. Unions claimed that Conté was now too old and erratic to govern. Once again, the army retaliated and killed three people. On 22 January 22, troops under the command of President Conté 's son ransacked the strike headquarters and beat up union leaders. In response tens of thousands marched in the streets of Conakry and at least 17 people were killed and 100 injured by police.

Now people in Conakry are stocking up on supplies in anticipation of another strike. Union and opposition leaders say the Prime Minister-elect Camara is too cosy with the ailing president, and too weak to lift Guinea out of corruption and poverty. It is likely the army will support Camara and launch another bloody repression of the unrest. The streets are now empty as the country prepares for the worst.

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