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Conte: Life and his throne
by Amin George Forji
2007-01-26 11:30:37
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It is often said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. In fact, President Lansana Conte of Guinea, who seized power in the former West African French colony in 1984 and has ruled his country with an iron fist ever since, is now witnessing the most defining moment of his rule, notably a popular national uprising that has taken the country hostage since January 10th.

The carefully planned unrest aimed at toppling his regime began when Conte was reported by the Guinean local media to be in an ailing condition. Although the 72-year-old Conte has long made several medical trips to Europe, this was the first time that his ailing health condition was debated in the media, including state television and radio.

As soon as it became evident that Conte was battling with his health, Guineans who have long been disgruntled with his administration, but made to stay silent by the brutal police and gendarme forces, thought this was a golden opportunity to pay Conte in his own coin. Civil rights activists in the impoverished country celebrated the New Year by mobilising the populace in a grand demonstration, which officially kicked off on January 10th through a series of public protests across the country, with the civil rights activists taking the lead.

To worsen matters, most civil servants across the country joined in the demonstrations after Rabiatou Sera Diallo, president of the National Syndicate of Guinea Workers, issued a communiqué calling on all workers to go on a general strike, until Conte steps down from office. Every sector of the economy is said to be at a standstill, including the lucrative bauxite mines, which is a source of living to the majority of the population. Guinea is peculiar in that she is home to 45% of all the world's reserves of bauxite.

Ranked by Transparency International in November 2006 as the fourth most corrupt country in the world after Myanmar, Iraq and Haiti, and of course, consequently the most corrupt in Africa, the majority of the population live far below the poverty line of $1 a day. Moreover, the illiteracy rate is high and basic public infrastructures are either lacking or uncared for.

The demonstrations, which were relatively peaceful from the beginning, turned violent on January 16th when police, as in previous years, clashed with the protesters. 11 people are believed to have been killed by police firearms, with over 115 other seriously injured. In 2006, the opposition, together with several pressure groups, mounted almost similar protests, but were seriously quelled by the police. Furthermore, Conte closed several private press, which he accused of poisoning minds and fuelling public discontent.

With this year's uprising gaining more and more momentum, the ailing president made a U-turn to his traditional stance in a nationwide address by offering to make a number of concessions, notably: increasing food subsidies, reducing the price of fuel and basic items, as well as curbing police corruption. He further urged the country's army and the "people" to lend him their support, arguing thus, "Those who want power must wait their turn. It is God who gives power and when he gives it to someone, everyone must stand behind him. Guineans must remain united, above all us soldiers, because we must be proud of wearing the uniform, a sign of allegiance to defending the country."

The concessions may have come a little too late to quench the taste of the determined protesters who, this time around, have vowed to "see the end of the matter" by overthrowing the long time dictator. If anything, the so-called concessions by Mr. Conte all added more salt to the already soaring wounds. The population conceived his unusual call for "dialogue" as a sign of weakness and an indication that he has realized that he is no longer in total possession of the exorbitant powers that he has traditional used to suppress his people.

In response, the demonstrators have begun a march to the presidency in Conakry as well as the national assembly, aimed at removing Conte from power by force. But to achieve this ultimate aim, the demonstrators will have to be prepared to battle the brutal police and endure much bloodshed.

It may be one thing to try to topple Conte, and another to secure peace and order. In an impoverished country of 10 million people with neither any democratic culture in place, nor a potential successor, the fall of it's almighty leader could only water the paths of an eventual civil war.

Is Guinea on the brink of becoming another African failed state? Let’s wait and see.

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