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Democracy in West Africa: In Guinea, Darkness, then Hope? (Part 2)

February 20, 2010

Lately, it seems that West Africa has been a little on the unstable side. With the resolution of the wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and a peaceful stalemate in Côte d’Ivoire, maybe things seemed to be going a little too well…? In any case, recent events have once again led to questions about the viability of democracy in the region. I’m happy to report though that along with some of the bad news that has emanated from the region, there is also good news.

Guinea, a country that has long suffered in silence, looks like it *might* have the opportunity to remake itself.

Part 2: Guinea

After 24 years of authoritarian rule, Lansana Conté died in December 2008. Within hours of his death being publicly announced, a coup d’état occurred and a military junta took power. It was led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, an unknown military officer who broke into the state TV station with a group of officers and publicly announced that the new junta was taking over.  He promised to fight corruption and return the country to civilian rule after the army cleaned house.

But he was not the only military leader who wanted to take over the country. A rival faction led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sékouba Konaté demanded control from Camara.

So what to do when two of you want something that only one of you can have? Well, I would tell my toddler that he needs to share, but as it stands, Camara and Konaté  chose to flip a coin. Sort of. Actually, if you can believe Rukmini Callimachi from the Associated Press, these guys actually drew lots from a mayonnaise jar. If you saw it on TV, it might make for a pretty good joke: let’s draw straws for the presidency. Ha ha. But this was no joke.

So, Camara, Konaté and a third officer each hoped to draw the piece of paper with the word Président written on it. Camara got lucky. Twice. This was how he became president. He took power with Konaté close by his side as his number two. Condemnation from the international community followed; development aid dried up; and the AU froze Guinea’s membership. It was all pretty standard fare for a coup response.

Following the December coup, Camara captivated Guineans with his one-man corruption hearings on TV. Again, he seemed to be stealing a page from the standard coup d’état script. In fact, I think I’ve seen this exact episode before…  remember Samuel Doe and the People’s Redemption Council in Liberia in 1980? And of course, there are many variations on this theme: take your pick of African military dictatorships.

Still, Camara seemed to have temporarily enthralled his fellow citizens:

He told his countrymen that he was born in a hut, just like many of them. He vowed that money holds no power over him.

The audits began on TV last month. The former chief of protocol was accused of embezzling $40 million from Kuwait. The former minister of finance was interrogated for allegedly taking money intended for festivities marking the country’s independence. More than a dozen high-ranking officials were arrested for drug crimes, including the use of the country’s security forces to assure safe passage for convoys of cocaine-loaded trucks.

In one session, Camara lost his temper with Bakary Thermite, the former head of the country’s anti-drug unit.

“These drugs that you seized, did you resell them?” Camara asked – and then exploded when Thermite tried to duck. “It’s simple. Answer me! If not, I think we’re going to pass the whole night here … I am allergic to lies!”

These outbursts are lapped up by the people of Guinea, population 10 million. Housewives say they prefer watching Camara to their favorite soap opera. Even top Western diplomats say they can’t unglue themselves from the “Dadis Show.”

“It’s as if you’re at the theater. It’s astonishing,” says a veteran European diplomat. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Darkness: The Stadium Massacre

Through the summer of 2009, the political situation deteriorated. On September 28, the opposition held a rally in Conakry’s major stadium, the Stade du 28 Septembre. They were peacefully protesting because Camara was reneging on his promise to step down– and surprise surprise– he wanted to run for president.

In the middle of the rally, the Presidential Guard surrounded the stadium, blocked off the exits and emptied their weapons into the stands.

According to Mr Bouckaert, 50,000 opposition supporters were inside the stadium, listening to speeches given by their leaders, when the elite presidential guard, the ‘red berets’, surrounded the stadium, blocked the exits and fired at point blank range at the crowds until they ran out of bullets. Then they attacked the survivors with knives and machetes. He says that dozens of women were also raped outside the stadium by the same elite guard. Full story.

The UN reported at least 157 dead.  Details from the Human Rights Watch report sound horrific. This was not a conflict. This was a massacre.

The report includes chilling witness accounts describing how members of Guinea’s security forces burst into the stadium and opened fire on tens of thousands of opposition supporters who had gathered to demand a return to civilian rule. As soldiers advanced, firing down the stadium’s playing field, they left a trail of wounded and dead. Witnesses described how bodies were strewn across the field, crushed against half-opened gates, and draped over walls. Others told how the panicked demonstrators were gunned down as they tried to scale the stadium walls; shot point blank after being caught hiding in tunnels, bathrooms, and under seats; and mowed down after being drawn out by soldiers who were pretending to offer safe passage.

Dozens of women described being subjected to individual and gang rape and sexual assault with objects such as sticks, rifle butts, and bayonets, while other witnesses described seeing at least four women murdered during or immediately after being raped; one shot with a rifle through her vagina while laying face up on the stadium’s field begging for her life…

Victims also described how many women were taken by members of the Presidential Guard from the stadium and, in one case, from a medical clinic where a group of women were awaiting treatment, to private residences where they endured days of gang rape….

The Human Rights Watch report also details scores of abuses by soldiers and civilian militiamen in the hours and days after the stadium violence – including murder, rape, and pillage – in neighborhoods where most rally participants lived. The security forces also arbitrarily detained scores of men as they fled the stadium and during the neighborhood attacks that followed. The 13 men among them interviewed by Human Rights Watch described being subjected to frequent beatings, whipping, forced nudity, stress positions, and mock executions.

According to early reports from the Human Rights Watch investigation into the massacre, the killings were deliberate and targeted. There was little ambiguity that Camara and his officers had to have sanctioned the plan. We find out later from Diakité, the leader of the massacre, that this was indeed the case.

[HRW] Emergencies Director Peter Boucknaert… and [h]is four member team interviewed more than 150 people who were in the stadium at the time of the shootings. He told Radio Netherlands that the witness testimonies clearly indicated the violence was both organised and premeditated.

Following the massacre, the international community imposes more sanctions– this time directly targeting the junta leadership. The EU implemented an arms embargo, asset freezes and travel bans on the 42 junta members; the African Union soon followed suit. The subsequent diplomatic pressure on Guinea has been intense.

Camara’s excuse for the massacre is that the security forces simply lost control of the situation and people were trampled to death as they tried to leave the stadium. This is patently false and there has been plenty of evidence to show that he is lying. Indeed, the individual whose name has been most directly linked with the Stadium Massacre is Abubakar “Toumba” Diakité, and he has confirmed that the massacre was planned. Diakité is the head of the Presidential Guard.

Then, on December 3rd, 2009, Diakité shot Camara. In the head. Camara survives, but is deposed in the process. Konaté, the #2 takes power. Reportedly, the reason that Diakité tried to kill Camara was that he felt betrayed: Camara was pinning making him scapegoat for the massacre. Since this sounds a bit weak, rumours have been flying around about “external” involvement in Camara’s removal. France, anyone??


Then there is the back story to all of this and it has to do with Guinea’s natural resources.

There are three big prizes that are up for grabs in Guinea. How the prizes get divvied up depends on who ends up in power. This may have something to do with why Camara was shot– he upset *a lot* of important people when he decided to renegotiate many of the concessions agreements for mineral resources.

1. The world’s largest unexplored deposit of iron ore

2. Untapped offshore oil deposits.

3. Bauxite (used to make aluminum)

Followed by Hope?

So Camara has been shot and Konaté, also a military man, ends up in charge. But now we get a twist in the story. Konaté surprises everyone and allows the opposition to choose a Prime Minister. They chose Jean-Marie Doré, a veteran politician from the opposition who survived the stadium massacre. Doré was sworn in at the end of January. He has promised to hold real elections within one year.

But Konaté is still in charge and there is still plenty of time for him to decide that he likes the taste of power and wants to hold onto it.

Diplomats here say General Konaté, the junta’s ailing former defense minister, appears uninterested in political power. Unlike other senior officers, he was not implicated in the massacre, and he has publicly warned about the dangers of isolation and upbraided troops over extortion against civilians.

“What we have from Konaté now is different,” said Mr. Touré, the opposition leader, referring to the tradition of political meddling by the military. “There is a sincerity there.”

Mr. Doré, 71, is something of an unknown as well, despite a long presence on Guinea’s political scene. He is from the same region, Guinea’s forests, as Captain Camara, which helped secure him the position of intermediary between opposition forces and the junta. Full story.

Right now, the tone in Guinea is one of cautious optimism. They’ve had 52 years of authoritarian rule. If the country does manage to hold free and peaceful elections, this will be a huge accomplishment. But even if Guinea succeeds in this endeavour, successful elections will only be the beginning. This is one of the poorest countries in the world– in spite of its great natural resource wealth. The real work will come later when the new president actually has to improve the lot of the people. That will be a much harder task.

After five decades of poor leadership, it seems like Guinea is finally headed for greener pastures.

MORE: Part 1: Nigeria. Democracy in West Africa: Yar’Adua’s Disappearing Act.


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