Guinea: on the Brink?

There is something almost freakish about Guinea, a West African nation of deceptive size (it is as big as the UK but with a population of only about 8 million) and a heroic history. It seems to have remained on the brink, but never falling off the precipice, since it gallantly wrested its independence from France in 1958. Its young and charismatic and radiant leader at the time, Shekou Toure, a former trade unionist and a descendant of the great nineteenth century West African resister of European colonialism, Samori Toure, caught the attention of the world when he rejected De Gaulle’s offer of a wider union with France – something that Toure, with good reasons, saw as a neo-colonialist ploy – and opted for immediate and complete independence with the words: “We, for our part, have a first and indispensable need, that of our dignity. Now, there is no dignity without freedom…We prefer freedom in poverty to riches in slavery.”

High, powerful, resonant words – and the French, angry at the defiance, reacted with extraordinary malevolence and vandalism. They withdrew immediately from the former colony, taking with them everything from colonial archives and development plans to light bulbs, dishes from the governor’s mansion and telephone receivers, and even emptied pharmacies of their medication, which they burned. They then launched a campaign to isolate the newly-independent African nation. Toure was unfazed; and with crucial help from Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana – a handy loan of 10 million pounds as well as some technical support – Guinea survived, albeit falteringly. Momentarily, it held a strong, romantic fascination for many (In 1971, many around the world cheered when Toure repelled a nasty mercenary invasion from Portuguese-controlled Guinea Bissau, with which his country shares borders). For Guineans, however, stalked by technical and economic disabilities – soon to be compounded by demented policies of repression which the naturally paranoia Toure enacted to maintain power – they never came to enjoy either freedom or riches.

I first visited Guinea in 1983, shortly before Toure’s rule was ended by his death in a hospital in Morocco and a coup that brought to power Lansana Conte, the head of the army. Though very young then, I could sense the tenseness of the atmosphere in Guinea (compared to its neighbours), the palpable fear, the feeling that state security was an ever-menacing presence. Shops opened and closed at a time set by the government, and there were local party officials and gendarmes everywhere to enforce even such mundane orders of the state. Toure’s party, in his own words, directed “the life of the nation; the political, judicial, administrative, economic and technical” structures of Guinea. It was totalitarianism of sort, anchored on pretend socialism, and its deformities were felt widely in Guinean society. Guinean intellectuals who expressed any skepticism towards Toure’s government were either forced into exile (like the famous novelist Camara Laye) or jailed (the fate of dozens). And jail, in Guinea then, meant death: prisoners were fed on what the regime ominously called ‘black diet’, locked up in tight cells with no light, and only occasionally food or water, where they simply wasted away.

When Conte took over the bankrupt state in 1984, he tried to liberalise both the economy and politics, inviting exiled Guineans to return, and giving impetus to a bourgeoning private sector. There were limits, however. When Conte organized nation-wide elections in 1993, he rigged them brutally. In 1996, he crushed an army pay mutiny, and condemned some of the mutineers to die and allowed others to die in jail. In September 2000, ‘rebels’ attacked a number of Guinean border towns immediately south of the capital, Conakry. The area had become home to tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees fleeing RUF attacks on civilians inside Sierra Leone. Not long afterwards, similar groups attacked Guinean towns and villages in the ‘Parrot’s Beak’ area of the country, emerging from Sierra Leone and from points along the Liberian border, causing great destruction and dislocation, driving Guineans out of their homes along with as many as 75,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who had been living on the Guinean side of the border for several years. The rhetoric of the ‘rebels’ notwithstanding – the carefully-choreographed impression was that Commandant Gbago Zoumanigui, one of the officers behind the failed army mutiny, was leading the incursions – it was clear that the attacks were inspired by Charles Taylor. Conteh organized a brutal counter-attack (with his overzealous and sometimes ill-disciplined soldiers attacking refugees, raping and killing some of them), which succeeded in repulsing the incursions.

I visited Guinea again at the height of the tension, in 2001. The country was less tense than it was under Toure, but it was hardly less paranoid. The shops were far better stocked, but Conakry, the capital, had become more, not less, chaotic; where under Toure people feared the gendarme acting on the orders of the state, now the ordinary fear was of soldiers and armed police acting in collaboration with armed robbers to steal from the hapless, impoverished population. “In the towns,” Conte had declared, “the population has developed the habit of living off the crumbs of society, pilfering and trafficking of all sorts. Production is abandoned…Theft and corruption rule.” Meanwhile, the country’s jails, symbolically emptied when Conte first came to power, were becoming full again, and becoming just as ghastly.

Human Rights Watch recently issued a seriously disturbing report on the prison conditions in the country. Entitled “The Perverse side of Things,” the 32-page report documents excessive police brutality in the country, including the torture of men and boys held in police custody. The victims, the report notes, are individuals suspected of common crimes as well as those perceived to be government opponents. Once transferred from police custody to prison, many of these are “left to languish for years awaiting trial in cramped, dimly lit cells where they face hunger, disease and sometimes death.” In other words, the ‘black diet’ has returned. The grisly report, which includes shocking photographs of police victims of torture, can be found at:

For anyone remotely interested in the West African sub-region, or for that matter in issues relating to repression, political stability and human rights, the report is  a must read, as is an earlier one published by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “Guinea in Transition” (April 2006). Human Rights Watch gives a hint at the urgency of the situation in the statements opening the report: “With its president, Lansana Conté, rumored to be gravely ill, its economy in a tailspin, and its military thought to be deeply divided, Guinea is a country teetering on the edge of a political transition. But while Guinea’s political future may be uncertain, the fact that ordinary Guineans are regularly brutalized by the very security forces responsible for protecting them is not. Immediate measures to combat this culture of violent law enforcement are critical, and could boost Guinea’s stability at an uncertain time of impending political transition.”

Both reports speak sedately of an impending “political transition.” Of course the chain-smoking, diabetic Conteh, once regarded as a national hero for leading Guinean forces in repelling the Portuguese-supported mercenary invasion of 1971, will probably die soon. What will happen next, however, is far more unlikely. Conteh has ruled Guinea as a personal fiefdom, and there is no clear, constitutional line of succession. Guinea stands out in the region for its almost complete lack of a viable civil society: there is none of the vibrant semi-political groupings one finds in surplus in places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, groups that helped these states to maintain a level of democratic consensus even when governments collapsed and praetorian terror reigned. Should Conteh die without establishing a successor, the army, which is highly corrupt but still largely coherent, will take over, but there might be serious convulsions within the body politic: Guinea, after-all, has been experimenting with elections, and there are disgruntled political parties, however enfeebled, and they have their support bases (in ethnic groupings and regions, for example).

The problem is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Guinea is a highly resource-endowed country, and unlike its neighbours Liberia and Sierra Leone, it has a strong tradition of patriotism and a strong sense of self-worth. These are partly the legacy of Toure’s rule and his defiance of powerful countries. Guinea certainly takes its independence very seriously. Many Guineans have seen the nihilistic violence which gripped their neighbours and are wary of violent struggles for power. Guinea played a positive role during the wars that ravaged the region, playing host to thousands of refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia, and contributing troops to enforce peace in both countries. In fact, it was largely as a result of Guinea’s determination that Charles Taylor was forced out of power – and is now facing war crimes trial.

That Guinea itself now faces the prospect of unraveling in an impending power struggle – which would inevitably throw the region once again into a spiral of violence and refugee movement – is highly unsettling. It calls for the most urgent and creative conflict-prevention strategy at the highest levels of the international system, from the West African body Ecowas, the African Union (AU), and the UN Security Council. Powerful governments with huge economic investments in Guinea (like the US, which mines the lucrative bauxite deposits, of which Guinea holds 30 per cent of the world’s supplies), and those with significant military and diplomatic interests (like Britain, which its continuing commitment in Sierra Leone), should play a more proactive role in nudging the sclerotic Conte administration towards setting a timetable for political transition. Multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the IMF suspended cooperation with Guinea in 2003, partly as a result of Conte’s rigging of elections and his brusque, inept and corrupt style of leadership. This suspension needs to be reviewed: for all their faults and cruelty, these multilateral institutions have a powerful influence in much of Africa.

If the hard-won peace in Sierra Leone and Liberia are to be sustained, and if the region is to be spared another round of violence and displacement, the world should focus more constructively on Guinea now.


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