Saturday, February 24, 2007
Disgruntled Guineans struggle for changeCONAKRY, Guinea (AP) -- Farmer Mohamed Conte tried to ignore his West African country's turbulent politics until a week ago, when soldiers riding with a passing presidential convoy shot him in the leg as anti-government protests raged across the capital.
Laying in an overflowing hospital ward full of gunshot victims with similar stories, the 62-year-old says he's joining the masses: he wants Guinea's longtime president to go.
"If someone shot you in your foot, would you continue to support him?" he asks, gesturing to the bloody bandage wrapped from toe to thigh. He says he wasn't protesting, just walking near the road.
In a country known for totalitarian rule and government corruption, the tide may be turning against longtime ruler President Lansana Conte, and people are speaking out more than ever before, urging him to step down. Facing protests, riots and nationwide strikes this month for the third time in less than 10 months, Conte, said to be 73, has hit back with a harsh crackdown, declaring martial law last week for the first time in decades. (Full Story.)
"We have never seen this kind of reaction before," Giles Yabi, a Guinea analyst for Brussels-based conflict think tank International Crisis Group, said of the popular protests. "We have a real tipping point in that they continue to take the streets."
But in their quest to remove Conte union leaders backed by a disgruntled population are walking a risky tightrope. The challenge is how to do it without sparking a military coup or more violence.
Conte, who has ruled this west African nation since 1984, justified his imposition of martial law by saying it was the only way to avoid civil war.
Unions called their first strike a year ago demanding unpaid wages for teachers and salary increases for civil servants to help offset surging prices for staples like rice. Most Guineans live in poverty even though their country boasts about half the world's bauxite -- an ingredient in aluminum -- along with deposits of iron ore, gold and diamonds.
Seeing no change by summer, they followed with a general strike in June that shut down the country for more than a week. Non-union members stayed home in solidarity and youth rioted in empty streets. About 10 people died.
Last month, union demands got more political: they called for the trial of a government official and a businessman accused of graft, then took up the cries of protesters and demanded Conte step down. Thousands marched on the capital and met government forces who shot or killed at least 59 people.
The unions struck a compromise deal with the president: he would name an independent prime minister who would take over much of the running of the government. Conte selected a Cabinet minister and longtime ally to the post instead, prompting more protests.
At least 47 people have died in the capital alone in the latest wave of clashes with security forces and rioting. Rights groups say dozens more died in clashes and looting in the interior.
Bakary Fofana, one of the heads of Guinea's council of civil society organizations, says people will continue to protest.
"People are getting used to the gunshots," says Bakary Fofana, one of the heads of Guinea's council of civil society organizations. "The noise of weapons doesn't make them afraid anymore."
The unions, meanwhile, continue their dance with the government. They've again backed off demands for Conte to step down, saying they want him to name a different prime minister. Residents say they're waiting to see if the negotiations are successful.
"The unions don't even represent 5,000 workers, but the population has taken up the unions as their voice, to make their demands known," explains Djibril Tamsir Niane, a retired history professor in the capital, Conakry.
Across the capital, Guineans say things have changed.
Boubacar Bah, a 30-year-old accountant, claims he was shot at during earlier protests and says he'll continue to take to the streets if that's what it takes to get a new government.
"If people don't take control of politics, the politicians are going to continue to control the people," Bah said from a storefront bench in a neighborhood that was ransacked by youth mobs just days earlier.
Mohamed Conte, the wounded farmer, puts his sense of abandonment even more succinctly. "The government wants to kill me," he said with an edge of shock in his voice.
Meanwhile, Conte appears to allotting more power to loyalists in his bid to stay in power.
Conte authorized military chief Gen. Kerfalla Camara, a close ally, to take any means necessary to return peace to Guinea until the "state of siege" expires Friday.
Many say younger officers are less loyal. In the first days of last week's strike, shooting was heard at an army barracks, prompting Conte to promote a host of Guinea's lower-ranking officers.
Conte has controlled Guinea since seizing power in a military coup soon after the death of the country's only other president since independence from France in 1958. The ruler -- reportedly ailing from diabetes and a heart condition that take him to Europe for regular treatments -- has held on to power through elections the opposition says were rigged.
Though the country remains poor, Conte is credited with keeping Guinea stable as regional neighbors Sierra Leone and Liberia descended into civil war in the 1990s. Those two nations have ended their own conflicts, though rebels and loyalists are still facing off in neighboring war-divided Ivory Coast.
For years, Guineans have worried that Conte's death would bring violence. Now it looks like frustrated youth may not wait that long.
Experts warn any serious violence in Guinea could throw the fragile region in into turmoil again -- with new waves of refugees or fighters spilling across borders.
Others say the danger of instability comes not from within Guinea, but the forested region surrounding it. Young men who grew up fighting in Sierra Leone and Liberia are unemployed and looking for someone new to follow, says Mike McGovern, a Guinea expert and anthropology professor Yale University.
"You've got a reservoir of young men who are good at fighting and looting and not at very much else," McGovern says. "Any time you have something like what's going on in Guinea now, it kind of reactivates these guys. ... they're going to gravitate toward Guinea."