A long way to go

By Djibril S. Diakite in Conakry

Posted on Monday, 20 July 2009 16:45

Having proudly followed Ghana into independence in 1958, raising

the hopes of pan-Africanists everywhere, Guineans have been let down by

their rulers and their policy choices over ?the past 50 years

Having celebrated 50 years of independence on 2 October, Guinea faces an uncertain future in a region that has suffered more than its share of violent rebellions and civil wars. Five decades ago, Ahmed Sékou Touré’s Guinea was the only country to sever its colonial ties in open defiance of French President Charles de Gaulle – and thus started the climate of adversity in which the new nation came into being on 2 October 1958.

What a contrast with the 50th anniversary festivities and high spirits of Ghanaians, who had celebrated their golden jubilee of independence only a year earlier. The comparison is all the more shaming because Ghana and Guinea were both, at the dawn of independence, considered the two most prosperous and promising of West African countries. For the last 20 years, Ghana has been repairing the damage caused by earlier political and economic problems and trying to create a state ruled by law and based on a solid economy. Guinea has not yet been through a comparable evolution, or so many changes of government. After 25 years of brutal dictatorship, which had led to the exiling of tens of thousands of the country’s best human talent, President Sékou Touré died in power, on 26 March 1984. And General Lansana Conté, who seized power the following month, is still in charge. He may not be very visible, but he’s there.

Guinea seems more than ever to be saying ‘No!’ just as it did to General de Gaulle in 1958. It has not stopped deceiving itself and disappointing everyone else. One of its most fundamental human problems has been the incomplete reconciliation between poorly-educated Guineans at home and those who were exiled in the Sékou Touré era (and their descendants) who acquired exactly the kinds of skills that the country now desperately needs.

Politically there has been little change in the 24 years of unbroken rule by President Conté, who has survived half a dozen mutinies and coups (real or supposed), including three in the last three years. Recently, poor health has impaired Conté’s authority so that, while he prefers to stay well away from the capital at his home village of Wawa, palace intrigues determine much of the government’s policy-making.

During the last three presidential elections (1993, 1998 and 2003), Conté succeeded in weakening the opposition, which was divided by leadership and ethnic squabbles, and was very aware of the decisive power of the army. The strongest opposition parties, Alpha Condé’s Rassemblement du Peuple de Guinée and former prime minister Sidya Touré’s Union des Forces Républicaines, have never been able to seize the initiative.?

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In January and February 2007, however, the government came near to giving in to popular protest, in the form of repeated strikes organised by union leaders Rabiatou Serah Diallo of the Confédération Nationale des Travailleurs de Guinée, Ibrahima Fofana from the Union Syndicale des Travailleurs de Guinée and civil society groups like the Conseil National des Organisations de la Société Civile (CNOSC). President Conté let the storm pass before agreeing to nominate the experienced diplomat Lansana Kouyaté as a consensus prime minister, but then in an unexplained move little over a year later, on 20 May 2008, removed him from the post. The president proceeded to break with his earlier agreement with the unions by nominating Ahmed Tidiane Souaré, a former minister, in Kouyaté’s place; something that would have been unthinkable several months earlier.

?”A huge task” ahead?

The Souaré government currently in office contains some oppositionists such as former prime minister Cellou Dalein Diallo of the Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée. Yet Souaré does not seem entirely happy in his job. In a recent interview with Jeune Afrique he said: “It’s sad we never focus on the right issues in Guinea. I spend so much time defending myself against certain plotters, while there is a huge task waiting for me: fixing a country in bad shape, where everything is urgent.” A current priority for the Souaré government is the establishment of a dedicated mining agency to oversee the country’s all-important mining sector.

Looking ahead, some analysts are convinced that if President Conté holds on until 2010, he will not hesitate to run again in the next presidential poll. For other observers, however, a military coup seems more likely. Whichever the case, only the army has the power to accept or reject the person presiding over Guinea’s destiny after Conté.

Legislative elections on the agenda?

The constitution provides for the assumption of power by the National Assembly president – currently Aboubacar Somparé – in the case of the death or incapacitation of the president. In a recent interview with Jeune Afrique, Somparé insisted that he did not believe that Conté would run again in the 2010 elections. He also gave a hint as to why legislative elections have not been held since 2002, saying they “should contribute to strengthen the social fabric and democracy” but “if they contribute to disorder, I don’t agree to them”. Western chancelleries take a different view, that the best way to avoid disorder is to hold the elections earlier.

Conscious of the ground lost by the ruling Parti de l’Unité et du Progrès, the government has been playing for time, so that it can renew the decentralised administration before organising legislative elections, in the hopes of ensuring an incontestable ‘victory’.

With an election date still awaited, the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante, under the former president of CNOSC, Ben Sékou Sylla, was appointed with the agreement of most parties. Sylla expresses confidence that these elections will be the most transparent the country has ever organised. However, there has been some criticism that all the NGO leaders active in the CNOSC have taken up administration posts since the renewal of most official positions a few months ago.

On 31 October, on the eve of the anniversary celebrations of the creation of the national army, the head of state again gave in to threats by the military by accepting to increase the salaries of all those serving.

Not for the first time, President Conté had tried to break the core of the soldiers’ discontent, but they repeated their demands of the last few years for increases in salaries and pay grades. Weakened by corruption and ethnic and generational conflicts, the army is led by officers whose standard of living provokes the jealousy of the lower-ranking troops, who live precarious lives, lack training in how to interact with civilians and have inherited a culture of violence, which has long held back Guinea’s slow progress towards democracy. Similarly, the police, which had several of its chiefs humiliated by the army in June, have been alienated. Tough challenges face the present government, as well as the opposition parties that also aspire to power.

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