“Shattered hope” for democracy in Guinea?

In the latest issue of TIME, an article entitled “Violent Crackdown Shatters Democracy Hopes in Guinea” details the recent events that shook Guinea, and concludes that “for Guineans weary of being ruled by dictators, the promise of life in a free democracy may yet be a far-fetched dream.”

Yahoo news recycled the TIME story and headline, suggesting – it seems – that the violent military response to the pro-democracy demonstration in the capital, Conakry, on Sept. 28 signals that democracy is no longer an achievable objective for Guinea.

Granted, the events of this past Monday were particularly disturbing. According to opposition leader Jean Marie Doré, who was leading the rally, military officers appeared in the stadium with machine guns and batons, and began shooting and beating rally participants. Former prime minister and opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo suffered broken ribs and other injuries, and will be  traveling to France for medical care.

In addition to specifically targeting the political opposition to Captain Dadis Camara – the military junta leader who took power through a bloodless coup in December 2008 – the violence committed by the Red Berets (the Guinean presidential guard, btw) wounded an estimated 1,200 and left 157 for dead. Human rights activists and journalists on the ground reported instances of vicious public rapes, use of bayonets and indiscriminate violence.

It seems *highly* unlikely that, as Camara claims, he had no way of preventing this from happening – that this was the work of rogue elements. Coming from a particularly cunning military general who took power through a coup not even a year ago, I don’t buy it. It would also seem unlikely that this elite group of officers, the Red Bérets (who, let me repeat, are the presidential guard) are not controlled by Camara. Regardless of whether the military junta leader had an explicit hand in this, Camara must still to be held accountable for the actions of his officers.

Guinea has not known one single day of non-dictatorship since its independence from France in 1958. Following nearly three decades of a ruthless dictatorship headed by Ahmed Sékou Touré, Lt. Lansana Conté took power in 1984, one week after Touré’s death. Conté remained in power until he died in December 2008. Within hours of his death, Captain Dadis Camara overthrew the constitution and declared himself head of state – pretty much exactly the same way Conté took power from Touré. Um.

And Guinea is a “geological scandal“, a country endowed with vast natural resources, including a third of all known reserves of bauxite (the ore used to make aluminum), high-grade iron ore, significant diamond and gold deposits, as well as undetermined quantities of uranium. Guinea also has the potential for hydropower generation. Just last year, China offered Guinea a $1 billion “mining-for-infrastructure” deal under which China would build a hydropower dam in return for mining rights in the country.

Joint ventures between the government and foreign firms in bauxite mining and alumina operations in the north western part of the country have historically contributed about 80% of Guinea’s foreign exchange, 20% of Guinea’s GDP and up to 90% of its exports.

Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch noted: “[Camara] is a strongman, and strongmen tend to be immune to outside pressure.” True – particularly as this strong man sits atop massive amounts of mineral reserves, the revenues from which have allowed him and his predecessors remain unscathed by sanctions and lack of aid from Western nations or entities like the African Union or ECOWAS. Of course, at the same time, Guinea has consistently ranked among the lowest countries in the Human Development Index (most recently 167th of 179), as the wealth generated by mining revenues never translated into better livelihoods for Guineans. Africa analyst Paul Melly noted that Guinea’s former ruler, Lansana Conté, survived years of aid suspension from the EU without caving in to demands for political reform.


One of Camara’s weaknesses may be the country’s reliance on outside investors and foreign firms for natural resource extraction. Government revenues from mineral exports are slated to decrease dramatically next year – by an expected 60% –  putting public finances under strain.

Senegal — whose President Wade only weeks ago referred to Camara as his spiritual son and has supported him since he came to power as a “a pure young man who wants to do good and has no political ambition” — issued a stiff condemnation of the violence in Guinea.

These facts, as well as the general strike and popular uprising in 2007, which while it left at least 110 people dead, was a clear demonstration of Guineans’ desire for a more representative, more democratic leadership. The vigor and legitimacy of the political opposition also make me think that hope is not “shattered”, as the TIME story would have it, for democracy in Guinea.

Indeed, we shouldn’t give up hope for them. The political opposition chose the location of their Step. 28 rally in a symbolic place: the stadium, the epicenter of the violence that day, is named Stade du 28 Septembre. On Sept. 28 1958, Guinea, along with all of France’s other colonies, voted in a referendum held by General Charles de Gaulle to determine whether they would remain a colony. Guinea was the only one that voted overwhelmingly for independence, and thus became the first colony to break free from France (immediately losing all direct French assistance in the process.)

That’s an act of collective bravery –  choosing to free your country from illegitimate control, in spite of the short term political and economic costs. I remain hopeful that Guinea will emerge from this dark period of their history.

We will see whether Camara keeps his word of holding elections in January 2010. A major reason why Guineans hailed him when he initially took power last December was his promise of holding free and fair elections in the country. The African Union threatened sanctions earlier in September  should Camara run in the election, and the international community is also expecting him to fulfill his commitment to democratization.

As the country strives to establish a political culture that works for it, it will hopefully also find ways to harness the incredible wealth it sits on to improve the livelihoods of its citizens.

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