Military legacy at root of recent violence in Guinea

A demonstration of nearly 50,000 people against the military regime in Guinea on Sept. 28 turned into a bloodbath as soldiers from the elite Presidential Guard killed scores and wounded hundreds. Eyewitnesses said the soldiers fired live rounds and raped and molested many women.

In subsequent days, there have been reports from Guinea’s capital, Conakry, of soldiers looting shops, breaking into homes, and firing at those who venture on to the streets of the seaside city.

Guinea is located in West Africa and has a population of just over 10 million people.

Regional and international condemnation of Captain Moussa Dadis Camara’s regime was swift and definitive. In response, the military leader declared two days of mourning on Wednesday, called for a “commission of inquiry backed by the UN,” and invited opposition parties to form a government of national unity with him.

Meanwhile, Camara claimed most of those killed at Monday’s rally at the National Stadium – the government put the figure at only 57, while human rights groups maintain 157 were murdered – were trampled to death in the chaos following the dispersion of demonstrators.

And, in a further bizarre twist of events, Camara maintained in a Radio France International interview that he is being held “hostage” by his own people and army. He called the latter “unstructured” and “out of control” and asserted that if he did not stand in presidential elections scheduled for January, another military officer would take over.

Opposition leaders in Guinea dismissed Camara’s statements and his call for a national unity government. According to BBC News, one spokesperson said “This does not interest me in the slightest. We have days of mourning here. Our population is very shocked.”

The immediate cause of Monday’s mass protest at Conakry’s football stadium were reports that Camara would be a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, despite a vow not to run when he first came to power last December.

Camara seized power in the bloodless “Christmas Coup” after the death of longtime dictator Lansana Conté, who ruled for 24 years with an iron fist while allowing foreign companies to exploit the West African nation’s abundant natural resources.

Guinea is blessed with an estimated 25% of the world’s known reserves of bauxite, plus significant amounts of gold, diamonds, and iron as well as possibly uranium. But, little of this wealth has been used to develop Guinea, one of the poorest nations on earth.

Exploitation and underdevelopment in Guinea have their roots in the nearly seventy years of French colonial rule which came to an abrupt end in 1958. French leader Charles de Gaulle offered France’s African colonies a choice that year: immediate and complete independence or semi-autonomy within a French-dominated community.

 The people of Guinea, led by the trade unionist Ahmed Sékou Touré, voted for independence, the only French African colony to do so. Touré declared Guinea would prefer “poverty in liberty to riches in slavery.” In retaliation, France abandoned its former colony, destroying the little communications and transportation infrastructure that existed. Loading cranes in Conakry’s port, for example, were smashed to pieces by the French colonists.

The Soviet Union along with neighboring Ghana, which won its independence from Great Britain only one year earlier, pledged solidarity with Guinea and provided generous economic and political assistance.

Under Touré, Guinea remained closely tied with the Soviet Union and its allies. And it was often threatened by the imperialist west. In 1970, for example, mercenaries backed by fascist Portugal, which still clung to its African colonies at the time, invaded Guinea seeking to overthrow Touré.

When Touré died in 1984, Conté took power and abandoned the socialist policies of his predecessor, offering Guinea’s resources to the capitalist world. Guinea’s trade union movement often challenged Conté’s dictatorship with strikes and protests. Nevertheless, western companies firmly established themselves, especially in the mining sector, and following the mantra of capitalist bodies such as the IMF and World Bank, even basic services such as water and electricity were privatized.

Conté was reportedly ill for many years when he died in December2008 and Camara’s junta, named the National Council for Democracy and Development, assumed control.

Initially, there was some support for Camara’s promise of a transition to democracy but since this week’s events his regime has been resolutely denounced by leaders far and wide.

Navi Pillay, the UN Human Rights chief, declared the Sept. 28 “bloodbath must not become part of the fabric of impunity that has enveloped Guinea for decades.”

Even former Nigerian military dictator Oluseggun Obasanjo, who enjoyed the West’s embrace in his second incarnation as a self-styled democrat in recent years, asserted at “It is horrifying that in this day and age when the African Union has outlawed military governments and promoting democracy and good governance, 157 defenseless people will be gunned down in a country on the continent. “

The African Union, which suspended Guinea after Camara’s coup, has demanded he confirm by mid-October that he will not stand in January’s presidential elections. And ECOWAS, the West African economic community, is sending a fact-finding mission and threatening sanctions against Camara’s government.

Meanwhile, most residents of Conakry remain behind closed doors while others attempt to escape to neighboring countries such as Sierra Leone. On Friday, thousands visited a mosque where the bodies of the dead were brought for identificatio

It is anyone’s guess what will happen in Guinea now. Will Camara bow out of the presidential race and keep his promise to hold the elections in January? Will Camara himself be overthrown by another military officer in an internal coup? Or will Camara hang on to power and rig the electoral outcome, as most assume?

Right now the people of Guinea are looking to institutions like the UN and the African Union to force the junta to relinquish power to a democratically-elected government, one that is more accountable to its people and less to foreign capital.



Dennis Laumann
Dennis Laumann

Dennis Laumann is a Professor of African History at The University of Memphis. His publications include Colonial Africa, 1994-1994, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is a member of United Campus Workers-CWA.