Monday, February 26, 2007

In Guinea, calls for reform, fears of civil war

CONAKRY, Guinea // Mohamed Conte mostly ignored his West African country's politics until a week ago. That's when soldiers guarding a presidential convoy spotted him on a roadside and shot him.

"The government wants to kill me," the 62-year-old farmer says, as he lies in a hospital ward full of gunshot victims, most with similar stories. Now Conte, his leg wrapped from toe to thigh, says he's had enough. "If someone shot you in your foot, would you continue to support him?"

For 23 years, Guineans have mostly accepted President Lansana Conte, who seized power with a promise of reform but delivered little but poverty and corruption. Citizens have been robbed of benefits from the country's riches, including half the world's bauxite - the raw material of aluminum - iron ore, gold and diamonds.

Guineans complained but saw stability as preferable to the bloody civil wars in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, or the rebellions of the Ivory Coast. The president, said to be 73, has been re-elected in contests widely regarded as rigged, and he changed the constitution to eliminate term limits.

But Guinea's long-simmering dissatisfaction might be boiling over. At least 115 people have died in the capital this year in two waves of clashes between protesters and security forces, according to hospital figures. Reports of deaths in the interior suggest that the national toll is much higher.

People are speaking out more than ever, urging Conte to step down. Facing protests, riots and nationwide strikes this month for the third time in less than 10 months, the president has hit back with a harsh crackdown, declaring martial law for the first time in decades.

"We have never seen this kind of reaction before," Giles Yabi, a Guinea analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based organization that monitors world conflict. "We have a real tipping point in that they continue to take the streets."

Political protests gave way to stone-throwing by youth gangs, who attacked cars and burned tires. Ministers' houses were looted. Government buildings were ransacked in outlying towns of Labe, Kankan and N'Zerekore.

The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone appealed to Conte on Tuesday to compromise with opponents and avoid a war that experts warn could throw the region into turmoil.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Sierra Leonean President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah flew to the Guinean capital, Conakry, to urge Conte to "find a settlement to the Guinean crisis," according to a statement issued by the Liberian government.

Meanwhile, the first day of closely watched negotiations between the government and two union heads - whose calls for the president's resignation fueled the protests - concluded without an agreement.

"People are waiting, but they're not giving up," says Adama Hawa Diallo, a magistrate in Conakry's Hamdallaye district - a site of violent clashes. She called the curfew and military rule imposed by Conte a sign that he's "trying to hang on, trying to pretend he still has power."

Diallo says her neighbors are ready to go back to the streets.

Elizabeth Cote, Guinea director for IFES, a Washington-based democracy building group, says there is danger that violence might grow. But she says a civil war is unlikely because so few support Conte.

"I can tell you about government ministers, nearly all of them on a one-to-one basis feel that Conte needs to step down," Cote says. "There's a definite national consensus."

The real danger comes from the area around Guinea - where 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 at Yale University.

"You've got a reservoir of young men who are good at fighting and looting and not very much else," he says. "These guys are from all the countries in the region. ... Any time you have something like what's going on in Guinea now, it kind of reactivates these guys. So whether they're hanging out in western Ivory Coast or Nimba county [in Liberia], they're going to gravitate toward Guinea."

There are attempts to control the uprising in Guinea - to make it a peaceful movement led by unions trying to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Conte - a move that many say is the first step toward a graceful exit for the ailing leader. Conte reportedly suffers from diabetes and a heart condition that regularly takes him to Europe for treatment.

"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," says Djibril Tamsir Niane, a retired history professor in Conakry.

The unions started with economic issues - demanding unpaid wages for teachers or salary increases for civil servants to help offset surging prices for staples like rice. But recently their demands have gotten more political, and in January they called for Conte to step down.

"The people know that all the politicians just want power, even the opposition," says Niane.

Still, the unions have said that they are riding the wave of an anti-government movement more than they are leading it. On Feb 17, for instance, youths rose in opposition to a prime minister named by Conte; unions opposed the appointment a day later.

Guineans are getting braver - even in the face of soldiers who have been accused of shooting civilians and raping women.

The soldiers "shoot and shoot and people are getting used to the gunshots," says Bakary Fofana, a community leader. "The noise of weapons doesn't make them afraid anymore."

So even as Red Cross workers collect the wounded and soldiers round up hundreds of young men, many are treating even a violent uprising with a sort of optimism.

"We're against violence," says Boubacar Bah, an accountant in Conakry. "But we need change. And some of these people had to show their anger somehow. ... Guinea should be the crown of West Africa. But there's no electricity. There's no water."

Source: In Guinea, calls for reform, fears of civil war - baltimoresun.com