Can Guinea avoid a violent power struggle?
While Guinea’s military ruler Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara recovers from an assassination attempt, other junta leaders rejected a regional proposal Monday to deploy troops to prevent violence.
Whether his small West African country can make a speedy recovery from the diplomatic isolation and from the uncertainty of an erratic and often brutal year of military rule is a question that remains to be answered.
The assassination attempt comes at a time of diplomatic pressure on Guinea’s military to step aside and hold national elections, as promised, and also as United Nations investigators have just finished a probe into a military massacre of some 157 opposition supporters attending a political rally in the capital, Conakry, on Sept. 28. (How did Guinea erupt into violence? Read more here.)
Capt. Camara has denied directing the massacre, saying that it was instigated by “uncontrollable elements” in the military. But human rights advocates say that Camara’s one-year rule has coincided with a rapid decline in political rights, and an increase in detention, torture, and murder of opposition activists. Now concerns of a violent power struggle are growing after Guinea's military leadership rejected a proposal Monday from a regional group to bring in foreign troops to prevent further violence, saying it would consider such a move an act of war.
“The Guinean military has a history of factionalism, and the potential for infighting could bring a bloody fight for control,” Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Dakar. Human Rights Watch will issue a report on Guinea this Thursday.
The good news, she says, is that the current head of the military in Camara’s absence – General Sekouba Konate – has made a strong appeal for the military to remain unified and disciplined until the leadership crisis is sorted out, and he has also indicated that the military must prepare for a transfer of power to a civilian government.
“This is a country that sat by and watched two of its neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone, disintegrate in civil wars, and Sierra Leonean refugee amputees walking the streets in Guinea,” says Ms. Dufka. “Guineans get how devastating war is, and I don’t think they want to go that way, even the military.”
Transition to civilian rule?
Guinea has been in political turmoil since last Christmas, when Captain Camara came to power in a largely bloodless coup, following the death of longtime Guinean President Lansana Conte, himself a general who took power following the death of a president. The global economic crisis hammered Guinea, which is the world’s largest supplier of aluminium ore, but has done little to diversify its economy.
Strikes by trade unions and student groups have challenged Camara to abide by his promise to step down and hold elections, but with Camara making a slow recovery – he is reportedly able to feed himself and to talk – his subordinates seem ready to discuss holding national elections in January.
“Guinea belongs to a region where two of its neighbors have been completely destroyed by war, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and one neighbor, Cote D’Ivoire still has deep divisions, so the conflict in Guinea has the potential to erupt into a regional conflict,” says Mohamed Jalloh, a researcher for International Crisis Group, based in Dakar. Guinea’s involvement in some of those conflicts, including the training of young boys sent as child soldiers to fight against Liberian leader Charles Taylor, has left it with an unemployed and still armed population of combat-trained fighters within its own territory.
The solution, Mr. Jalloh says, is for the international community to buy time for the remaining military heads to consolidate their position and convince their footsoldiers to prepare for a civilian government, and also to put pressure on Morocco to keep Dadis Camara from returning to Guinea.
“The fear is that if there is a clash between Dadis and Sekouba [the two top military leaders], there will be a battle for Conakry, and in the Forest region, there will be an ethnic cleansing by Dadis’s group of the Malinke and Fulani traders who are against Dadis,” says Jalloh.
Guinea’s mineral wealth has may bring in foreign currency – it accounts for 70 percent of the country’s revenues – but much of that wealth tends to be concentrated in the hands of the governing elite in Conakry. Wealth has not brought democratic rights or good governance.
The anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International, ranked Guinea near the bottom – around 175th – among the world’s nations in terms of good governance. Corruption has not kept nations like China from breaking regional arms embargos, and in October, the Chinese government signed a $7 billion contract with Camara, supplying his military with arms, in exchange for access to Guinea’s minerals.
Following the attack on Camara, the military junta lashed out erratically, blaming French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner personally for instigating the assassination attempt. France denied the charges and Guinean officials have since disavowed the claims. Yet the Guinean military has continued a manhunt for the alleged perpetrator, Lt. Aboubacar "Toumba" Diakite, and all those thought to be close to him. Reuters news agency reports seeing videos of accused collaborators within the presidential guard, tied up under interrogation, and human rights groups say that dozens of soldiers have been arrested, tortured, and some killed.
“The big question now is how long it takes the military to consolidate its power,” says Dufka. It is still too early for lower ranking leaders to choose a replacement for Camara, since it is still not certain whether Camara will return or not. But “silent spoilers like Libya and Morocco will put pressure on Camara to stay out, to accept a golden handshake, and to tell General Konate that you will be heroes if you do this right, hold elections and step aside for a civilian government.”