Procurement: Gunrunners Go To Guinea

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October 31, 2009: Guinea is checking out the black market for weapons. That's because the country is in turmoil after a new dictator recently took over, when the long time incumbent died a year ago. But ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has imposed an arms embargo, and other international organizations may follow. So the new dictatorship will have to do what lots of countries, and most rebels, do. Buy from international gunrunners. This is more expensive, but despite decades of efforts to shut down the arms smugglers, the gunrunners survive.

Although Guinea holds about half of all the bauxite (aluminum ore) in the world, and impressive deposits of iron, gold, and diamonds, government mismanagement and corruption have seen the country of about ten million sink further and further into poverty. What money exists, is controlled by a small, dictatorial, ruling class.

A year ago, Lansana Conte, dictator since 1984, and long in very poor health (he has several times traveled to Europe for treatment of a number of conditions, including diabetes), died. As he grew older, he had tended to rule through an increasingly shrinking circle of close friends and advisors and refused all calls for reform. Conte never named a successor. Part of the turmoil in the country has been generated by fear that when Conte died, chaos would ensue, followed by civil war. Having witnessed events in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, Guineans have a very good idea what civil war looks like.

Guinea's armed forces were always the potential source of forces in a civil war no one wanted. There are about 10,000 troops in the Guinean armed forces. Roughly 75 percent of them are conscripts doing a two year hitch. The Army totals about 8,500 men. It consists of a dozen battalions. Five of these are infantry, and the rest are one each of armor, artillery, air defense, engineers, commandos, special forces, and rangers. Most of the heavy equipment is dated, and includes about 50 old Soviet tanks, perhaps 75 other armored combat vehicles and personnel carriers, and perhaps 100 artillery pieces, anti-tank guns, and mortars. Little of the equipment is likely to be operational. The Air Force has about 800 personnel, with four MiG-21s and four MiG-17s, plus two MiG-15 trainers. There are a half-dozen helicopters and a handful of transport aircraft. Few, if any, of these aircraft are believed in operating condition. The Navy totals only 400 personnel. Although on paper there are three or four coastal patrol vessels, none of them are actually operational.

Over the past few years the country's armed forces have essentially become a "regime protection" force. Conte fired literally hundreds of officers, often on flimsy pretexts. The older ones were canned for being "overage," quiet humorous considering the president was in his late 70s, while junior officers were often dismissed for "drunkenness," in numbers suggesting an extraordinary degree of boozing. Another worrisome trend was the proliferation of "special operations forces" in the Army (the ranger, commando, and special forces battalions). In addition to the armed forces, there are also other regime protection forces, the "People's Militia" of about 7,000, a 1,600 strong "Republican Guard," and a National Gendarmerie of about a thousand men.

Conte died on December 8, 2008. Within six hours of the announcement of his passing (on December 23), an army captain, Moussa Dadis Camara took over. He promised there would be elections. But as the months went by, he backed away from that. Popular demonstrations in favor of elections were dispersed by troops, leaving over a thousand dead or wounded.

Camara is a smart guy, with a university education. He speaks five languages and is very knowledgeable about economic and mathematics. Camara apparently plans to emulate his predecessor, and rule for life. As long as he can find enough gunrunners to keep his enforcers well armed, his future seems secure.

 

 


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