The Republic of Guinea rarely finds itself in the global media headlines. Its west African neighbours Liberia and Sierra Leone are better known, largely for their tragic, decade-long civil wars featuring child soldiers and stories of blood diamonds. Another neighbour, Côte d'Ivoire, the world's leading cocoa producer and a country divided by conflict since September 2002, has also had more reason to attract international attention. In addition, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire still host thousands of United Nations peacekeepers.
The Republic of Guinea, by contrast - not to be mistaken with its tiny near-namesakes, impoverished Guinea-Bissau and oil-rich Equatorial Guinea - has never attracted much attention beyond that of bauxite exporters (the country owns over a third of world supplies) or multinationals with eyes on its abundant iron reserves.
Gilles Yabi is an analyst with the West Africa Project of the International Crisis Group.
All this started to change for Guinea's 9 million people in January 2007, with the escalation of an explosive political crisis that has cost (so far) around 120 lives and shaken the twenty-three year rule of its authoritarian president, Lansana Conté. The popular mobilisation, in which trade unions played a major role, withstood severe repression after the launch of a general strike on 10 January; it achieved a major concession on 27 February when the president was obliged to appoint as new prime minister (from a list submitted to him by the unions) a career diplomat, Lansana Kouyaté, rather than a regime crony.
The crisis is not over; Lansana Conté remains in power. But Guinea has changed in these seven weeks. For the first time in almost half a century, Guineans themselves have tasted the power to influence the course of their history. How did it happen, and what will happen next?
Lansana Conté's domain
Lansana Conté has been the single dominant figure in Guinea's political scene since 1984. He seized power a few days after the death of the first leader of the country after independence from France in 1958, Ahmed Sékou Touré (1922-84). The twenty-six years of Sékou Touré's authoritarian rule were marked by the president's fear of conspiracies, state-sponsored violence, severe repression and national isolation (all against the background of nationalist and anti-imperialist rhetoric).
Sékou Touré had become a liberation-era champion by standing for full independence against General de Gaulle's offer to its colonies of membership in a French-led association. Touré claimed to prefer "freedom in poverty over wealth in slavery". Under his long rule, Guineans ended up with neither wealth nor freedom.
Lansana Conté seized power in a coup on 3 April 1984, just days after Sékou Touré died of natural causes (to be briefly succeeded by his prime minister, Louis Lansana Beavogui). At the start, Lansana Conté appeared to embody hope of improvement for the Guinean people. But their excitement did not last. Underneath his affable image, Conté soon proved that his pretence of breaking away from the excesses of his predecessor was just that, as he concentrated power and eliminated his main rivals within the army and with links to the previous regime.
As times changed, Conté realised that allowing minimal civil liberties, political plurality and even elections would give his military, personal and brutal rule a democratic varnish. A democratic constitution written in 1990 paved the way to elections, though the regime had no difficulty in preventing opposition parties from speaking freely and in rigging the polls. The only real threat to the regime came from the army. Lansana Conté's years in power have been marked by a number of coup attempts (and many more rumours of coups); the actual or imagined event is always followed by arrests among army ranks.
More recently, after 2003, the president's deteriorating health - reflected in frequent medical trips to Geneva, as well as lengthy stays in his home village - emerged as a destabilising factor. The affairs of the country were left in the hands of cliques more concerned with safeguarding their material interests and securing the succession to Lansana Conté than with governing. The members of these cliques range from the president's wives to high-ranking army officials and representatives of business networks that monopolise the country's wealth. Beneath them, most of the 9 million Guineans sank into extreme poverty. These ingredients led some observers to fear the worst for a country which had escaped the conflicts that in the 1990s shattered Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire.
Indeed, the extent of Guineans' poverty amid the outrageous wealth of a tiny elite is a key factor in Guinea's troubles. The ever-worsening living conditions and the complete lack of hope experienced by the average Guinean citizen had generated signs of popular discontent for years, but it was only in 2006 that these were translated into straightforward demands for political change. In February and June of that year, trade unions called two general strikes that paralysed the country. The unions thus asserted themselves as the only force capable of defying the regime, and more effectively than the divided opposition parties which lack any strategy to confront the violently repressive regime.
The strikes were evidence of recognition by union leaders - along with the vast majority of their fellow citizens - that the poor governance, corruption, nepotism and incompetence of the Lansana Conté system of government are to blame for the condition of the country. That system is responsible for high inflation (which increasingly deprives the people of their livelihood); for daily power and water shortages; for the crumbling educational system and deteriorating hospitals; and for the decaying road network which has isolated entire sections of the country from each other and from Conakry.
The officially annual inflation figure of around 30% has been stable for the past two years, but the price of basic commodities has soared while salaries have stagnated. In a country that is abundantly green with good rainfall, and the source of several west African rivers, many families have stopped eating more than once a day.
The path of crisis
The immediate spark of the January 2007 revolt was the president's visit in person to Conakry prison to release two friends from the among privileged caste that rules Guinea: a former vice-governor of the central bank, and a businessman and close ally of the president, who had been indicted for embezzling $2.5 million from the central bank.
The strike that ensued evolved into an unprecedented popular revolt. The people initially stayed at home, but eventually followed the union leaders' instructions to fill the streets in tens of thousands to demand "change" - more precisely, the appointment of a prime minister who could assume some of the president's powers and head a broad, consensual government. The massive rejection of the regime extended throughout the country, far beyond the capital. The security forces, especially the police and the presidential guard, responded with live bullets to prevent demonstrators marching into downtown Conakry, the seat of government and symbol of presidential rule.
The ailing president conceded to the unions' primary demand in an agreement signed on 27 January. Two long weeks later, Conté appointed one of his close associates, Eugène Camara, as prime minister. The union leaders had demanded a high-profile personality uncompromised by association with the regime; instead, the president chose his current minister of state for presidential affairs. The popular reaction was immediate, violent and uncontrollable. There were spontaneous demonstrations throughout the country, accompanied by looting as protestors destroyed any sign of state authority and attacked properties owned by members of the government or the presidential entourage.
Once again, the regime's response was bloody. In just three days, the security forces killed dozens more civilians, bringing the death toll to around 120 since 10 January. Conté finally declared a state of emergency, imposing a strict curfew, martial law, and effectively gave full powers to the army. The substantial deployment of the military did restore some semblance of order but it was accompanied by grave abuses against the civilians, including unlawful arrests, torture, theft and reported cases of rape.
The next page
The popular revolt in Guinea of January-February 2007 has not removed Lansana Conté from power but it has brought about a transformation in Guinea that goes beyond the appointment of Lansana Kouyaté as the new prime minister. For decades, a few strong figures had disposed at will of the fate of millions of Guineans. This time, the people's own collective nationwide action has become a shaping force in the country.
The final outcome of the convulsion remains unclear, however. The interaction between a population which has finally realised its ability to determine its fate and a military regime that will do anything to stay in power could yet bring disaster. The death-toll from a repeat of this unequal confrontation - whose victims were commemorated in a national day of mourning on 26 February - could quickly escalate. In this context, Guinea offers a new test for the United Nations-sanctioned doctrine of the "responsibility to protect" which requires that the international community must act to protect civilians from the most serious crimes when their governments fail to do so.
Indeed, after the immediate dangers pass the world has a responsibility not to allow Guinea to return to its relative oblivion. This is a matter of principle, and one of direct relevance to the lives of people in the rich north. Guinea is not such a far-away country for the United States and Canada, for example, more than half of whose bauxite imports (used to make aluminium ore) come from Guinea. The two world leaders in aluminium production, Alcoa and Alcan, operate there. If Lansana Conté's government continues to kill its own people, using the proceeds of bauxite money to buy the loyalty of the security forces, "blood aluminium" may soon join "blood diamonds" as a further illustration of the scandalous conjunction of extreme human suffering and triumphant globalisation.