Guinea: Avoiding Another Civil War

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February27, 2007: For the past several weeks there have been widespread public demonstrations and a general strike to protest the arbitrary rule of Guinea's ailing strongman President Lansana Conte. Coordinated by the leaders of the country's labor movement, the demonstrations have paralyzed Guinea, and continued despite increasingly violent attempts by police and military forces to suppress them. So far, more than a hundred people were killed by security forces, who have also committed rapes and gone on looting sprees. Over the weekend, apparently desperate for a resolution of the crisis, all else - including martial law - having failed, Conte accepted a deal brokered by a team of mediators from ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) led by former Nigerian President Ibrahima Babangida.

Under the terms of the deal, the leaders of the country's labor movement, Rabiatou Serah Diallo and Ibrahima Fofana, agreed to end the general strike on Tuesday, 27 February. In return, Conte pledged to select a new prime minister by Friday, from among four "neutral" candidates. These are Mohamed Beavogui, an official of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a U.N. agency, Saidou Diallo, head of Guinea's National Social Security Fund, Kabinet Komara, an official of the Cairo-based African Export-Import Bank, and former ECOWAS executive secretary Lansana Kouyate. While all of the candidates have some ties to the Conte-regime, which has been in power for decades, none are close associates of the president and all are viewed as relatively honest in a country awash in corruption. Conte appointed Lansana Kouyate as prime minister today.

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. Conte is generally believed to be in his late 70s, and is in very poor health (he has several times traveled to Europe for treatment of a number of conditions, including diabetes). As he has grown older, he had tended to rule through an increasingly shrinking circle of close friends and advisors and refused all calls for reform.

The natural next question is not whether Conte will adhere to the plan, as he has little choice. The more important question is "What happens after Conte?" Constitutionally, in the event of the president's death a relatively powerless parliamentary official becomes acting president. But who will control the real power? Conte has not named a successor.

Part of the turmoil in the country has been generated by fear that with Conte's passing chaos will ensue, followed by civil war. Having witnessed events in neighboring Sierre Leone and Liberia, Guineans have a very good idea what civil war looks like. This is why Guinean reform leaders are willing to accept the deal with Conte, in the hopes of securing a more orderly transition of power. This is also believed to be a way to head off the possible "candidacy" of General Kerfalla Camara, chief of the defense staff, and a very strong Conte supporter.

If the ECOWAS-sponsored deal works, it will not only be good for Guinea, it will also be good for ECOWAS. Originating as a sort-of "common market" of West African states, over the past few years ECOWAS has begun acting as a regional organization, such as the Organization of American States. Although a number of its members have undergone rough times, the organization overall has managed to have several successes, helping broker peace deals in several countries and organized peacekeeping forces in some crises. This has helped a number of the less stable countries in the grouping emerge from chaotic situations.

Guinea's armed forces are the potential source of forces in a civil war no one wants. 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 has fired literally hundreds of officers, often on flimsy pretexts. The older ones were canned for being "overage," quiet humorous considering the president's approaching octogenarian status, while junior officers were often dismissed for "drunkenness," in numbers suggesting an extraordinary degree of boozing. This trend is also indicated by 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.

 

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