There’s a part of me that has to hand it to Lansana Conte and his henchmen in Guinea Conakry. Like Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, he’s used his country’s wealth – in his case minerals like bauxite and uranium – to tell Western governments, international community, various NGOs and their finger-waving ways to bugger off.
What interests me here is not another round of quotes full of fire and brimstone from Conte himself, who like Mugabe is appears to be nothing short of politically brilliant and even more so when the castle walls appear to be crumbling down around him. In sports, they call that good play in the clutch. But this isn’t a game: As evil genius as this stuff may be, it’s never pretty to watch – somebody has to clean up after these guys – and I suppose a million times less thrilling to live through.
It’s an old cliché, of course, but this is another story of “persevering” West Africans who get by with very little in a very rich state mismanaged by malignant rulers. While this narrative may sound familiar to regular followers of Nigeria – the poster child of the resource curse – and perhaps those in Gabon, it’s not how the press usually tabs Guinea.
The more I think about it, then, perhaps there’s more to this Guinea-Zimbabwe axis than a simple comparison. We’re talking a deep history here. At least until the 1950s. Even with all his faults and susceptibility into a cult-of-personality-style fascism, most anyone will look beyond the faults of Sékou Touré, the one African independence-era leader who had the cojones to tell Charles de Gaulle where he could stick his colonies and his French-controlled African currency.
But today’s Lansana Conte is no Sekou Toure of yesterday. While the public hangings may have been cute during the Cold War, it doesn’t have to happen in this day and age. Or so we tell ourselves. And, that’s most likely the rub: Governance indicators are now all the rage; Even institutions like the World Bank are on hand to prod leaders to at least present a nice face in front of their populace. But for Conte and his henchmen, life continues pretty much apace.
Looking at the granular lives of Guineans, you have to wonder whether the last four generations only concentrated on getting by while these leaders with airy, global ideas of revolution and grievances of “Western neocolonialism” went about their business. I am guessing here, but things most likely worked for most people as long as the demands of the populace – functioning schools, acceptable medical facilities, maybe some traffic lights – happen to coincide with those of the ruling class. The problem starts when these humble requests become somehow at odds with that same ruling class. Which has pretty much been the case in Guinea on and off for the past few years.
At this moment, it would be offensive to rub peoples’ nose in it, but one has to ask: People of Guinea, after 23 years in power, you didn’t really think that Conte was serious about “democracy” and “good governance” and “political legitimacy” did you?
Those of us who like to paint with broad strokes, it’s easy to claim that every government in West Africa is either evil, corrupt, incompetent or just plain morally broke. The poor saps who happened to be born outside the statehouse, on the other hand, do what they can to get by. For some of us, this simple understanding is what makes West Africa fun. For others, that’s when the dizzying narratives of foreigners become too much: they all have the same atmosphere of living in a strange zoo or at some twisted social experiment. So be it.
In Burkina, there’s been a lot of talk about Nigerians and Congolese, two of the most “industrious” people on the continent. These are the folks who make the most of out nothing because their governments are so inhumanely flawed and cynical that they can get away without providing the most fundamental of service. I have a friend who claims political change boils down to responsibility, and most West Africans, completely lack the necessary gumption. More so, they lack the guts, he says, the courage to stand up and say something, anything, to their collective governments and hold them accountable for their rule. And let’s be honest, there’s a lot better, less brutal governments than the Conte regime.
Here in Burkina Faso, it was Blaise Compaore who carried the 2005 Presidential election with 80 percent of the vote, an “electoral spanking” as his erstwhile campaign chief proclaimed. Just three years later, it’s the same Compaore who’s being blamed for turning his back on his people as food prices – and other goods – climbed an average 40 percent in the opening months of 2008. The question my friend asks: Blaise has spent 20 years in power; did Burkinabé think he was going to change and start caring about them? A bit skeptical, I admit: it’s improbable. He says: Exactly.
People here sold their votes for a t-shirt, he says. And he may be right about that – Blaise did hand out many nicely minted souvenirs. Now they are mad at another supposed do-nothing, care-nothing president. But what did they expect when they’ve never really held him to any of his promises. Come to think about it, I don’t remember Blaise making any promises. He just came out and implied that he’d offer more of the same – poverty, yes; but a tangible amount of stability and the suggestion of a working government. And you know what: These things are important. Perhaps I’ve been here too long, but the only thing people here say that’s somewhat truthful: Poverty is so bad here only God can cure it. So why not vote for more material and secular needs like ethnic tranquility and law and order? The people of Guinea Conakry would love to.