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Military junta flaunts its social roots

Text by Caroline DELABROY

Latest update : 2008-12-26

In 2007, late President Lansana Conté faced a massive general strike called by the country’s main trade unions. Now the ruling military junta says the former government did not “fulfill its duties” and claims to be acting for the people.

In 50 years of independence, Guineans have gone from one dictator to another under two heads of state that ruled with absolute power: Sékou Touré, the “father of independence,” and Lansana Conté, who died on Dec. 22 after 24 years in power.

Today, the population in undergoing a transition that has arrived in the form of a coup d’état. Just hours after the announcement of Conté’s death, Moussa Dadis Camara led a military junta to seize power in the country.  

Conté, who died at the age of 74 following a long illness, worked until the end to maintain control over a dying country and did not prepare for a successor. The strong man of Conakry fully expected to serve out his mandate, which was set to last until 2010.

In 2003, Conté was re-elected with more than 95% of the vote in a poll that was boycotted by opposition leaders. An ethnic Soussou, a Guinean minority, Conté liked to portray himself as a modest rice grower and a native of Wawa village, located some 80 kilometres from Conakry. With help from his supporting clan, Conté kept a firm grip on affairs of state; he successfully thwarted multiple coup attempts and suppressed social protest.

The great strike of 2007

The most recent government protests took place less than a month ago. In November 2008, thousands of Guineans took to the streets to protest the high cost of fuel and cuts in electricity. The demonstrations were violently suppressed and security forces did not hesitate to use real bullets. At least four people were killed in a Conakry suburb, according to Human Rights Watch.

But more so than these demonstrations, a general strike called at the beginning of 2007 to protest corruption, bad government and the deterioration of the national economy constituted a major challenge for the authorities. This movement was launched by the country’s main trade unions, which united to form a common front against the government.

In particular, the unions were calling for the formation of a national unity government and the appointment of a civilian prime minister. They equally denounced Conté’s decision to free the former president of the employers’ syndicate, Mamadou Sylla, as well as the ex-governor of the central bank and former minister for youth, Fodé Soumah. Both men had been accused of misusing public funds.

According to assessments made by several non-governmental organisations, at least 186 people were killed during the events of January and February 2007. A Human Rights Watch report published in April of that year entitled “Dying for change” detailed the ways in which Guinea’s security forces brutally suppressed demonstrations throughout the country.

Under pressure from the international community and based on a trade union proposal, a new prime minister was selected in the person of Lansana Kouyaté. Kouyaté was later dismissed after serving for only a few months and replaced by Ahmed Tidiane Souaré, who had close connections to the presidential clan.  

“Saving a people in distress”

The general strike was a testament to the extent of social unrest among the population. In spite of its rich natural mineral resources – Guinea is the world’s leading exporter of bauxite – the country remains one of the poorest in the world. It comes in at 160th place (of 177) in the United Nations Development Program’s index of human development and half of the population lives below the poverty line. This state of affairs is mainly due to corruption: Transparency International ranks the country as 168th (of 179) in its annual global corruption index.

Coup leader Camara explained the reasons for the putsch in an official statement that claimed the move was rooted in social conscience. “The government did not fulfill its duties,” he declared in his first televised speech to the nation on Dec. 23. “It did not deserve the confidence of the nation.”

Camara justified the coup d’état as a “civic act” aimed at “saving a people in distress.” Two days later, the prime minister and the government declared their allegiance to the junta.
For its part, an inter-union group involved in the original demonstrations of 2006 and 2007 acknowledged the junta’s seizure of power and said it was taking into consideration “the will expressed by the people for real change.”


Date created : 2008-12-26