Something is rotten in the Republic of Guinea, and before long, the world might catch a whiff of the stench.
The small west African nation (not to be confused with its neighbour, Guinea-Bissau) has been having a rough go at it over the past year. Last December, Guinea’s long-time president and big man Lansana Conté was declared dead. A mere six hours later, televisions and radios across the country announced that a military junta calling itself the National Council for Democracy and Development had dissolved the constitution and taken control of the state. The junta presented themselves as a cleansing presence, one that would wash a quarter-century of corruption under the Conté regime out of the country’s institutions so that Guinea could successfully transition to democracy. The junta pledged to shepherd the country through this transition, organize democratic elections within a year, then return to their barracks. They also promised that no member of the junta would stand for election or interfere with the results.
At first, the junta was able to galvanize popular support for their regime within the country. This popularity was due, in no small measure, to Captain Moussa “Dadis” Camara, their brazen, flashy, and outlandish frontman. After drawing lots with a rival officer, Captain Camara was installed as President of the Republic, and immediately, he set to work publicizing the new regime on national television. Crackdowns on corrupt officials and the country’s powerful narco-barons became the subject of carefully orchestrated nightly media spectacles. A typical show would involve Captain Camara, surrounded by armed soldiers, lambasting those arrested in front of a live studio audience of visibly anxious foreign dignitaries. These nightly appearances of the “Dadis Show” became all the rage in Guinea and were devoured by the national television audience. “It’s as if you’re at the theatre. It’s astonishing. I’ve never seen anything like it,” commented one veteran European diplomat. (Click here to watch an example. It’s in heavily accented French, but Captain Camara’s angry exclamations transcend the language barrier. Skip to 0:58 to watch him really fly off the handle.)
Now, the junta’s future is uncertain. The “Dadis Show” is off the air, there are worries that the junta may decompose into violent factions, and serious discontent towards the regime is brewing. Popular support for the junta crumbled in August when Captain Camara dropped hints that elections would be delayed, and that he would likely present himself as a candidate for president in them. This prompted a large protest that filled the capital city’s 35,000 seat soccer stadium on September 28th. In response, the junta ordered its security forces to brutally disperse the demonstration, resulting in over 150 deaths, 1,200 injuries, and reports of gang raping by the soldiers. The International Criminal Court is currently investigating the incident and sanctions have been imposed on the junta.
Fast forward to two Thursdays ago, when Captain Camara was rushed to a Moroccan hospital with multiple gunshot wounds to the head. It seems his Aide-de-Camp Lieutenant Toumba Diakité, had a change of heart and a change of loyalty. General Sekouba Konaté, the officer that lost the presidency to Captain Camara in a draw, is currently in charge of junta and a ferocious manhunt in on for Diakité. Several soldiers have been arrested, and there have been eyewitness accounts of civilians shot while fleeing military patrols. It is unclear at this point whether Captain Camara will return to Guinea.
What is clear, is that the assassination attempt has infused the junta with a deep sense of suspicion. Regardless of whether Captain Camara returns, and regardless of who remains president, it is likely that paranoia will lead to purges and infighting. The junta could break apart into feuding posses loyal to a dozen or so rival strongmen. This raises the spectre of civil war, especially along ethnic lines, a chilling possibility highlighted by revelations that Captain Camara recently hired mercenaries to train a militia for his own Kpelle ethnic group. Observers have speculated on several scenarios, and all of them involving some degree of further destabilization in Guinea. This is a troubling outlook for a region that has seen more than its share of violence.
Over the past two decades, coastal west Africa has seen four brutal and inter-connected civil wars. Between 1989 and 2007, two wars in Liberia, one in Sierra Leone, and another in Côte d’Ivoire produced a combined total of twenty-seven years of bloodshed and civil strife. To further complicate matters, each country had a hand in their neighbours’ conflicts. Liberian rebels were trained and supplied in Côte d’Ivoire. Many of these rebels then crossed over into Sierra Leone to participate in the conflict there. Guinea, under the Lansana Conté regime, then backed their return into Liberia for that country’s second civil war. Once this conflict ended, they spilled over into Côte d’Ivoire where many of them were originally trained. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone have held democratic elections since then. Rebels in Côte d’Ivoire are in the process of being disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated, but the peace remains very fragile in all three countries.
Now, peace and order in Guinea have become precarious. Lieutenant Diakité, the would-be assassin of Captain Camara, remains at large in a region of fragile regimes that hosts an extensive migrant workforce of battle-hardened, unemployed ex-civil warriors with axes to grind across four countries. The cycle of violence is poised to recommence, spilling from country to country across the region once more. Guinea’s crumbling junta is a spark in a powder keg.
This is not simply a regional problem, either. It could easily become another immense humanitarian challenge. The region is small; it is roughly the same size as Alberta, which isn’t that large in the global scheme of things, but it has eleven and a half times the population. And, this region has been through four bloody and brutal civil wars in the past two decades. This is an astonishing concentration of misery and violence into one tiny corner of the world. This should not be tolerated by the human community.
If that’s not reason enough, the region is an important exporter of vital commodities. Guinea is the world’s leading exporter of bauxite, the mineral from which aluminum is refined. Liberia is an important producer of iron ore and rubber. Sierra Leone is a leading exporter of rutile, a titanium ore. Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading exporter of cocao and an important coffee producer. These commodities will all be important to the global economy as it pulls itself out of recession.
There is certainly something rotten in the Republic of Guinea, and the world should take notice.