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Ruled by an aging dictator, a lost Guinea struggles for change

Ruled by an aging dictator, a lost Guinea struggles for change

Entire neighborhoods in the capital haven't had electricity or running water for years. The central bank is in such bad shape it sometimes turns to black market money changers to replenish hard currency reserves. Doctors joke the best medicine for the ailing is Air France _ a plane-ride out of the country.
Guinea has so far avoided the catastrophic conflicts that have ravaged its West African neighbors. But 23 years after President Lansana Conte seized power in a military coup, this crumbling state seems a lot like a shattered nation recovering from civil war.
Popular anger is growing more than ever before. A crippling two-week nationwide strike protesting Conte's rule ended Sunday with a deal to appoint a new prime minister with expanded powers. But for a restless generation that's grown up under the rule of one man, it's not enough.
"Conte must go," said Sadio Diallo, a 22-year old university student standing near the charred hulks of several overturned cars torched by a rampaging mob last week in a suburb that hasn't had electricity in 20 months.
Conte, though, is unlikely to be going anywhere soon, at least not willingly.
Considered the last of a dying breed of African "Big Men" who've clung to power by the gun, fraudulent elections or fear, Conte is only the second head of state Guinea has known since independence from France in 1958.
Union leaders argue the ailing leader, who reportedly suffers from severe diabetes and a heart condition, is unfit to govern _ and not just because of his health.
Transparency International ranked Guinea the most corrupt country in Africa in its 2006 annual survey. Unions estimate unemployment at 60 percent. Because of skyrocketing inflation, it takes more than a month of a civil servant's salary to buy a sack of rice.
"We're like a ship lost at sea," said Rabiatou Serah Diallo, who heads one of the country's two main union leaders and lives in a neighborhood that hasn't had running water in five years. "We don't know where we're going. If we're ever going to find land, we need to change the captain."
What happens after Conte is anybody's guess.
By law, the head of the national assembly should become president, but many fear the army could stage a coup if Conte dies, or before. A civil war fight for power can't be ruled out either.
Many of those who took part in this month's strike hoped it might snowball into a popular, peaceful revolution. But when demonstrators attempted to march on the presidential palace Jan. 22, security forces opened fire, killing dozens and wounding hundreds, leaving the country's main hospital overflowing with casualties _ the most it's seen in decades.
Union chiefs, keen to avoid bloodshed, halted more protests and scaled back demands, urging Conte not to step down, but simply to step aside for a new premier.
It's a solution that let everybody declare victory, and it represents the only real hope for instituting peaceful change in Guinea for now. But its a solution Guinea's 9 million people have seen before.
During a 1996 army mutiny, soldiers angry over low pay bombarded the presidential palace for several days while Conte was holed up inside. He emerged unscathed, offered raises to his attackers and later appointed a prime minister for the first time to tackle national ills many would find familiar today: water and electricity shortages, the rising price of rice.
Though he has a new palace, residents say Conte can sometimes be seen sitting outside the ruined, roofless old one, on a grassy lawn under a bank of tall trees.
Past prime ministers have had little authority. Conte has gone through three in the last decade. He's left the post vacant since April 2006.
Nonetheless, analysts say the mass protests marked the start of a new era that may eventually lead to his ouster.
"The way people are making politically overt claims on the government is qualitatively new and different," said Mike McGovern, a Guinea expert at Yale University. "This has never happened in the last 49 years. Guinea has crossed a threshold. They're aim is not just lower prices for rice and petrol, they're saying, 'We want to get to the root of the problem, which is bad governance and corruption.'"
Thierno Sow, head of Guinea's main independent human rights league, agreed. "It's the first time we've seen a movement so intense," he said.
Real change won't come easy. Conte likes to say that God brought him to power, and only God will remove him.
Now in his mid-70s, he has survived coup attempts, military revolts and multiparty elections three times since 1993. During the last vote in 2003, the opposition was so discouraged it didn't even bother to field a candidate.
In 2005, unidentified gunmen fired on the president's vehicle, but Conte survived. Today, he rolls through the town in a convoy of half a dozen SUVs, the last a machinegun-mounted truck. Conte can often be seen dangling a cigarette out his oft-rolled-down window with one bent knee perched against the dashboard.
Across the street from the presidential palace, trees and bushes sprout from the windows of an abandoned 15-story building. A few blocks away, the city's poorest eat once a day and live in claptrap shelters made of rusted aluminum siding and debris, laying laundry on potholed roadsides to dry.
Guinea doesn't have to be this way. The nation boasts half the world's known reserves of bauxite _ used to produce aluminum _ and has stores of gold, diamonds and iron ore. Analysts say the nation, at the confluence of several West African rivers, could generate enough electricity to power the region.
Cheikh Tidiane Traore, a ruling party lawmaker, acknowledged Guinea was in bad shape, but said Conte alone was not blame.
"We must all take blame, especially the ministers. It's a communal responsibility," Traore said. "We know people are angry. Water and electricity, they're priorities, they'll come, but we need time," he said. And, crucially, "the will to change."


Updated : 2021-04-22 12:28 GMT+08:00