Glimpses

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to contract the services of a very efficient, punctual and polite taxi driver, a man whose name is Chemon. Chemon is Liberian, but spent 10 years living in Guinea during the civil war, where he perfected his French – we often chat in “Frenglish”, my first language. Part of the reason I’ve begun working with him is that transportation in Monrovia is an absolute nightmare, and I’m weighing my words.

The only form of public transportation available here are shared taxis – four people in the back, one in the front. You line up on the side of the road, and wait until a taxi with a free seat stops to pick you up. Now, there seem to be unspoken rules about the order in which people get a ride – a few times, I stopped to wait for a car where several other people were waiting and I was the first one to get a ride. Most of the time, however, people get ahead of me and I end up waiting inordinate amounts of time. Our projects are about 30 min outside Central Monrovia, in a very busy area called Red Light. It’s a popular route, and there are always massive amounts of people waiting to get a ride in both directions.

Rush hour in Monrovia

Unlike most NGOs here, The Niapele Project does not have its own vehicle, and when we need to accomplish several missions during the day (a meeting in Red Light, going to pick up or drop off something downtown, another meeting half way), it’s just not feasible with public transportation. Of course, I could just settle for accomplishing less each day, but given my limited time in the field and the fact that it’s not really my style to work slowly, I struggle for some time to balance my sense of urgency and the realities of getting around.

The solution to this problem is to “charter” one of the little yellow shared taxis for the day – for (generally) $5/hour, you can have your very own yellow taxi to take you wherever you heart desires. That would be great if it wasn’t for the fact that $5/hour for 8 hours is $40/day, and I don’t have the means to afford that. So, until I met Chemon, I either chartered a taxi when I really neeeded it, or just accepted the fact that less work would get done.

In addition to the qualities I first mentioned (efficient, punctual and polite), I am also Chemon’s only expat client, and he charges me very reasonable rates for the day – as long as I pay for gas ($40 to fill the tank, once a week), I can give him $5, 10 or $15, depending on how much I use his services during the day. So we’ve developed a really good working relationship, and, thanks to him Henry (Niapele’s program manager) and I have really boosted our productivity.

Chemon just left for two weeks, but he left his beat up little yellow taxi with one of his friends, so that I didn’t end up in a transporation conundrum again. Because of the time he spent in Guinea, Chemon is buddies with many Guineans here in Monrovia – an apparently tight-knit community. Yesterday, I met Chemon’s friend, my new driver, a gentle Guinean man named Harouna. Harouna took me around all day yesterday, and because “Christmas Season” is suddenly in full swing in Monrovia, we were faced with much traffic, and much time to chat.

I woke up yesterday to the news that Dadis, the junta leader in Guinea, was the victim of an assassination attempt by “renegade presidential guards”, an attack allegedly masterminded by one his aide de camp, Lieutenant Aboubacar Sidiki Diakite (“Toumba”). There is no radio in our beat up little yellow taxi, so I asked Harouna if he had heard the news. He hadn’t, and when while I was updating him on the assassination attempt, he was visibly distraught and kept saying “C’est grave, c’est tres grave” (“It’s serious, it’s very serious”.) He echoed a feeling that I heard from Chemon, which is that Dadis had the courage to take over the leadership of Guinea because he was emboldened by Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore (“C’est grace a Compaore que Dadis a pu s’asseoir”).

Apparently, Compaore provided the airplane that carried Dadis to Morocco, where he is apparently seeking treatment for his wounds and undergoing medical tests. Meanwhile, according to the African Press Agency, “ECOWAS [reiterated] its call for the immediate establishment of a new transitional authority and the holding of credible elections in the first quarter of 2010 without the candidatures of members of the CNDD and the Prime Minister.”

The ECOWAS statement contradicts what Compaore, the ECOWAS-appointed mediator in the Guinean crisis, called for recently: that Dadis should remain in power for 10 months, and that he could run in the election provided that he step down from the government four months prior to the plebiscite.

The situation in Guinea is extremely volatile, and Dadis’ departure leaves a power vaccuum – while his 2nd in command is left in charge, the potential for a counter-coup and a descent into violence are very real threats.

I’ve mentioned it before here, and my new Guinean friends as well as many people here in Liberia share the belief that Compaore’s appointment as mediator was a miscalculated decision on the part of ECOWAS. Of course, many people here have a tainted perspective of the regional body, due to the perceived failure of the ECOWAS mandated peacekeeping mission in Liberia in the 90s (ECOMOG), which some believe contributed to fueling or at least prolonging the conflict. Compaore is also known to have supported Charles Taylor, in return for Taylor’s participation in the assassination of Thomas Sankara, the young progressive leader in Burkina who Compaore replaced.

It’s been really interesting to catch glimpses into how Guineans and Liberians feel about the crisis in Guinea. As Louise Arbour of the International Crisis Group recently wrote, the potential for regional destabilization should not be underestimated. Many people here fear that a crisis in Guinea could have repercussions on its fragile, recovering neighbors. For instance, should Guineans begin to flee their country and take up residence as refugees on Liberian or Sierra Leonian soil, it would create tensions around the availability of jobs and resources.

Perhaps the stability of West Africa doesn’t seem like a priority – the financial crisis, the recession, unemployment, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, swine flu and what will Jon and Kate + 8 do next take up all the available “worry space” in people and policymakers’ minds. I’m not usually a fan of overused aphorisms, but “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” comes to mind. 

No compromise?

Ever since the dreadful events of September 28 in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, where at 157 people were killed and dozens of women raped in broad daylight during a pro-democracy political rally, the country’s social and political climate has been increasingly tense. Amid the resignation of three cabinet ministers and a communications advisor, Captain Moussa “Dadis” Camara, the head of the military junta who took power in a bloodless coup in December 2008, has been under growing pressure to step down, install a transitional government, and prepare for the free elections he promised the people of Guinea in January 2010.

Yesterday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), imposed an arms embargo on Guinea: “In view of the atrocities that have been committed … the authority decides to impose an arms embargo on Guinea under the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons.” The ECOWAS decision comes a week after the International Contact Group on Guinea (ICG-G), composed of ECOWAS, the African Union, the EU, the UN and the 5 UN Security Council members [note: China has never attended an ICG-G meeting], issued a position statement setting out the list of measures to be taken to allow Guinea to resume her transition process. These measures incorporate many of the recommendations made by the Guinean opposition coalition, the Forces Vives de Guinee, composed of various political parties, unions and civil society groups.

Meanwhile, the African Union today extended an October 17 deadline for Dadis to declare in writing that he would not run in the elections. Dadis did not respect the deadline, and instead asked for the question to be “assigned to the mediation of Burkina Faso.” The African Union is delaying its decision to impose targeted sanctions on Dadis and senior figures of the military regime in order to consult with ECOWAS-appointed mediator Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso.

In spite of all the diplomatic hullabaloo around Guinea, it seems that the international community is choosing not to match action with rhetoric. Admittedly, I’m not in a position to know what would be better than an arms embargo and a travel ban on senior regime officials. Yet, I feel that this is somewhat of a tepid response, particularly given the strong reaction the events in Guinea elicited among foreign governments, international organizations and human rights groups.

Over the course of the last few weeks, Guinea’s military junta has been the object of severe condemnations from various members of the amorphous “international community”. The International Criminal Court is launching a preliminary investigation to determine whether crimes falling under the Court’s jurisdiction were perpetrated. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also just announced an international inquiry, headed by the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Haile Menkerios, into the events of September 28 “with a view to determining the accountability of those involved.”

Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, and State Deparment officials – including Hillary Clinton – have repeatedly called for Dadis to step down, and have adopted a very firm stance…at least rhetorically: Kouchner said this weekend:

“The international community’s message is simple: murderers and rapists must be identified, judged and punished, just like the ones who ordered these acts.”

The U.S. even sent a high-ranking State Department official for direct talks with Dadis. As noted above, regional mediation efforts are also underway – Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, was dispatched to Conakry in early October to begin a dialogue with Dadis and the opposition.

Recent events in Guinea are clearly showing that the country’s stability is at stake, and, as Nigerian president and chair of ECOWAS Umaru Yar’Adua noted “the instability in Guinea poses a real threat to the peace, security and stability of the region.”

Dadis, who was once hailed as “Obama Junior“, has apparently lost support within the ranks of the junta, as several ministers have resigned over the course of the last week, citing moral concerns as the main reason for their decision to leave the government. To complete this chaotic picture, foreign as well as local journalists have been threatened and rumors of ethnic manipulations have emerged.

Meanwhile, Guinea allegedly signed a mining deal worth $7 billion with a Chinese private company, the Hong Kong based Chinese Investment Fund, which also involves Sonangol, the Angolan oil company. This, of course, happened in the middle of this unfolding crisis, leading analysts to call out China on poor timing and a ruthless appetite for natural resources [note: Guinea is the leading supplier of bauxite and is thought to have at least a third of the world’s known reserves of the mineral, which is used to make aluminium]

Guinea’s future remains uncertain. The breakdown of law and constitutional order does not bode well for the organization of free and fair elections, and I worry that the international community will once again fail to prevent an illegitimate government from taking root. In some sense, particularly with regards to ECOWAS, it feels  a bit like a case of the blind leading the blind. Let’s take a cursory glance at the governance situation in West African countries. President Yar’Adua of Nigeria, who is currently at the head of ECOWAS, is not exactly a model of democratic leadership.

Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, took power in 1987 through a coup during which his predecessor Thomas Sankara was assassinated. He stood (unopposed) for election in 1991 – and was reelected twice since. He will run again for election next year. Beautiful example of democracy, isn’t it? And while Compaore has garnered the support of the international community, I have doubts whether he’s in any position to advocate for a democratic transition in Guinea, as well as in Cote d’Ivoire, where he is also playing a mediation role.

The arms embargo imposed this past Saturday is, I hope, only the beginning of actual pressure on Dadis. The potential mining deal with the Chinese firm may allow Dadis to isolate himself and his country further – revenues from natural resource extraction have allowed dictators to remain in power in Guinea for the last 5 decades. I find worrying that the African Union let the Oct.17 deadline slip by, and even though Dadis is said to be cooperating with the UN investigation, he is obviously not ready to step down. The fact that he’s even still considering running in the election makes clear that he is not heeding calls from the international community, preferring, instead to string the whole of them along.

Through blogs and news sites, Guineans  have expressed a lot of concern over the current situation in their country, and, in my opinion, the supposed “intense” international pressure is not sufficient. I understand that the principle of sovereignty and non-intervention in a state’s affairs prevails, but really, is an arms embargo – the effectiveness of which depends on the political will to enforce it thoroughly – the most appropriate response at this stage? Are endless strings of UN and ICC investigations that lead nowhere really going to help the situation?

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the current chair of ECOWAS, used unusually strong language to condemn the “arbitrary and irresponsible” use of power by Guinea’s military junta.

At this stage, diplomatic efforts seem formulaic at best and useless at worse.  Dadis clearly is unfit to be leading Guinea, and the international community should be much firmer about having him step down. This is the man who once received a journalist barefoot, in the middle of the night, and then proceeded to harass her, asking her to marry him and saying things like “Dadis loves you! Dadis wants you! You make me crazy, come be with me and I will give you everything.”