Grand claims are my comfort. West African politics my balm.
For the first time in recent history, we can safely attest that West Africa is home to no rogue states or outlandish bully governments. Sierra Leone and Liberia have cleaned up their acts and are on the way to becoming functioning countries. For the first time in decades, Togo’s leader, while using extra-constitutional means to ascend the throne, is not a bully. Perhaps related to this is the fact that he doesn’t seem to be a close, personal friend of Jacques Chirac. Things are looking up in Burkina Faso and Benin. Ghana and Mali continue to shine. Not so much for Senegal, but time will tell. Bad perceptions outstrip reality in Nigeria. A question mark, admittedly, always hangs over Niger. I never know how to classify Mauritania. Gambia is also iffy. Guinea-Bissau is on the watch list because of oil and drugs. And finally, even Cote d’Ivoire is on the road to cleaning up its house.
The sole country that bucks my wild claim is Guinea. And what a mess it is.
Once upon a time
Follow me on this old, familiar tale. A resource-rich country becomes increasingly money-poor through the misrule of a crusty, old hegemon who leans too heavily on the very people from where he once came: the military.
Guinea’s Lansana Conté ascended power through a military coup in the 1980s. In his first decade of rule, he began clothing himself in more democratic garb, wining a few questionable elections for himself and his party in the 90s and began calling himself President. He hit the jackpot of voter indifference in 2001 when a whopping 98 percent of Guineans decided to do away with presidential term limits and changed the president’s mandate from five to seven-year terms.
For a good part of Conté’s first two decades of power, his rule wasn’t seen as ordinarily harsh or corrupt against the yardstick that is West Africa. In fact, he was seen by some in the international community as a welcoming host to the region’s flowing refugees, rushing in from the wars of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau and the Casamance region of Senegal. He opened the country to foreign investment, allowing international mining firms to excavate the world’s largest reserve of bauxite, the mineral that goes into making aluminum foil.
But as time went on, something dawned on everyone: It appeared the Conté government was incapable – or unwilling – to tackle the country’s mounting problems. For example, the government’s escalating involvement in the civil wars of neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. There was also the Conté regime’s increasing authoritarianism to worry about. To Guineans, however, the inflation rate that hit 250 percent was most on their minds.
“Even mid-ranking civil servants are finding it difficult to make salaries - when paid – stretch,” wrote Andrew Manley in 2006 for BBC Focus on Africa. “And the continual slide of the Guinean franc against the US dollar has been aggravated in recent months, with rich individuals mopping up available dollars and driving the franc's street value down further.”
Just following the Platinum anniversary of his rule, Conté’s health took a turn for the worse. He’s a longtime diabetic, and as the BBC points out, a chain smoker. In 2006 he was hospitalized in Morocco and eventually ended up in Switzerland, giving the impression to Guineans that he would not return to rule. Somehow he did. He made a homecoming to Guinea, but he only seemed to spend his days tucked away in his native village. Behind the scenes, however, the power elite were scrambling for making the best of a post-Conté Guinea.
One could argue that Conté’s illness became a metaphor – and an excuse – for his feeble administration. Guinean standard of living – while never high – fell precipitously. On the other hand, one does not remain in power for more than two decades because a) one is dumb or b) just plain lucky. Oftentimes, it takes more than a metaphor to drive a tyrant from power. And like long-serving leaders everywhere, Conté played opposition politicians like an evil puppeteer.
Something had to give. It was up to the trade unions to begin the battle against Conté and his increasingly corrupt regime. Their method: the general strike. The first, called in June 2006, just months after opposition parties pushed to form an interim government while Conté recovered from illness. The eight-day strike forced the government to increase wages and cap the price of goods.
Conté went missing for his annual Independence Day speech on October 2, feeding rumors of his continued ill health and a vacuum in the highest corridors of power. The country’s economy teetered along. By January 2007 opposition parties and trade unions called for another general strike, setting off nearly two months of violent clashes with the police and military that shocked the entire region.
The strikers spent nearly a month calling for Conté’s resignation. At one point, Conté allegedly cancelled a meeting with opposition party members because they weren’t paying him enough respect. His health – and sanity – was called into question. Eventually, he blinked. In early February, Conté said he would appoint a new Prime Minister, who would help redirect the government’s focus. However, his choice for the post was a member of his inner circle. The announcement merely inflamed the populace.
By mid-February, Conté resurfaced long enough to declare a state of emergency – calling on the military to restore order throughout the country. When the smoke finally cleared on the protests a few weeks later, the balance sheet was horrible: more than 170 people dead and 1,700 wounded.
According to a Human Rights Watch report,
During the six-week crisis, scores of Guineans, many of them mere bystanders to the demonstrations, were severely beaten and robbed at gunpoint by security forces, often in their own homes. Scores of other Guineans, including children, were killed or wounded by undisciplined and reckless fire. This occurred when security forces sprayed bullets into the air and even directly into communities in an apparent attempt to frighten demonstrators to return to or to remain in their homes.
One thing did change, however. Conté agreed to a new consensus Prime Minister, who took power near the end of February.
Hungry like the wolf
My grand sweeping argument centers on the fact that Conté’s wolf-in-democratic-garb routine will eventually catch up with him. As strongmen elsewhere have learned, once you begin using the code words of democracy, you bestow them with the power of your throne.
I refer you to the case of Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia, where a group of dissidents came to hold their government liable for signing the Helsinki Accords in 1975, which in part, promised respect for human rights, freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. The ironic part of this tale is that the Helsinki Accords was a document, in retrospect, communist authorities most likely didn’t think twice about signing. (For those Regan apologists out there, the Gipper did not so much end the Cold War as domestic anti-communist dissent within the Soviet Union and its satellite states. But this is an argument for another day.)
Famously, Conté has no choice for a successor. His mandate runs out in 2010, and his health appears to have stabilized for the moment. Unlike the Czechoslovak (or Soviet) regime before, democratic change will most likely take a back seat to the old man’s mortality.
However, don’t think post-Ceauşecu Romania. Six months after so much blood was spilled, the populace continues to walk a fine line. The mood of the country remains grim. A recent report by the International Crisis Group points out: “Although inflation has slowed, initial enthusiasm has been replaced with doubt over the capabilities and will of the new government to break with the Conté system and alleviate daily economic difficulties.”
The obstacles facing the government are numerous (and plainly obvious).
- Restructure the cabinet; appoint people by competence;
- Attempt to end impunity by making resources available to the enfeebled independent commission investigating the response of the security forces towards protesters;
- Open a dialogue with the army, seen here as the “danger,” on reform;
- Evaluate the needs of gendarme and police forces so they can maintain peaceful order;
- France and the U.S. should continue supporting police through training and equipment;
- Donors should fulfill their monetary pledges.
Even with a new “independent” Prime Minister, power still rests in the hands of Conté.
After more than twenty years in power – and two years (and more) of serious opposition – it is Conté who remains the prime obstacle to change. And the bottom line remains: He still runs the country.
The IRC calls for free and transparent elections. Also, they push for the new prime minister to “broaden his government’s base” by opening a dialogue with the forces that helped put him there, the trade unions, civil society and other political parties.
The rest of the group’s recommendations could be applied to any other bully state:If the government – read: Prime Minister – refuses, or cannot, enact a majority of these measures, the crisis may likely return. If so, the IRC claims it could be messier than before.
The logic underscoring the report points to the fact that Conte (and his cronies) is going nowhere. Instead of writing him, and the country, off, IRC claims the rest of the world should take a deep breath and make a quiet peace with the country. The chances of this happening increased a million-fold when the Government of Guinea announced in August the country has commercially viable reserves of uranium. (The Iranians have already made headway.)
More Soviet memories
There’s the old adage that Liberia’s Charles Taylor played the international community off each other and their guilt-ridden incursions into Africa. He knew the game was won when aid groups began asking themselves: How do we help Liberians without the funds going to support that strongman Taylor?
Without fully answering the question, the funds would return – and most likely Taylor would find a way to grab them.
Is Conté that smart? Does he still hold that kind of power? Like the old Kremlinologists before us, viewing an opaque – and irregular – government may be an imprecise art form. But the pay is good. Of course, that’s not a good omen: The Soviet Empire fell away like a sand castle one night and we didn’t know jack.