February 28, 2007 | World Defense Review

Au revoir, mon Général

Exactly four months ago in this same column space, I observed that just “getting the outside world to focus on the current terrorist and other security challenges in Africa is a difficult enough task” and thus “directing any significant attention to possible crises, irrespective of their potential for global impact, is almost quixotic.” Nonetheless, in that November 2, 2006, column as well as in a subsequent wide-ranging French-language interview with the GuinéeNews service, I singled the West African country of Guinea, which supplies nearly 50 percent of North America's bauxite imports (bauxite ore contains alumina, the primary ingredient for aluminum smelting), as deserving such consideration. I noted that:

Guinea is … both the most ignored country and, potentially, the most critical one in the West African subregion as it faces the end of the long tenure at the helm of President Lansana Conté … While the situation should be relatively contained as long as President Conté lives, all bets are off for the power vacuum that is expected to follow his eventual demise. Analysts are divided on whether having the largest standing military in its neighborhood will exacerbate or mitigate the coming chaos. Guinea is, after all, a prime target for one or another insurgency group because of long-simmering ethnic tensions … [especially as some of those groups] cut off from sources of power since independence, have in recent years become increasingly radicalized by Islamist clerics imported from the Middle East courtesy of the same Muslim “charities” that have sown the seeds of conflict across the globe. Part of the problem is that General Conté's personal political strategy has consisted primarily of a Machiavellian balance between ethnic favoritism and cynical manipulation of competing forces within his privileged inner circle. In all likelihood, this delicate balance will come undone when he dies or becomes permanently incapacitated and the country will face … concentric waves of conflict … Given cross-border ethnic solidarity … once the post-Conté conflicts begin, they could quickly spiral into a national and regional conflagration, threatening progress in other countries in the subregion, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, and exacerbating ongoing conflicts in others like Côte d'Ivoire.

Thus, I warned that while “there are no easy solutions to problems which run as deep as those of Guinea” and “grappling with this little-known, but very complex, situation cannot be done on the cheap,” the United States and its international partners “will find that the costs of having to deal with another massive humanitarian crisis will require far greater resources than a modest amount of preventive engagement today – not just in terms of human costs, but also in terms of shocks to the global economy of even greater increases in spot prices for a commodity vital to modern industry like alumina.” (On the London Metals Exchange the closing spot price for alumina was $2,870 per metric ton, an increase of 45 percent in the last year.)

It gives me little joy to survey the situation today and pronounce my analysis of the fragility of Guinea essentially correct, if somewhat optimistic in its allowance for time to prepare for the transition: it now appears that the reckoning will not wait for the President Conté's (natural) passing from this world. On January 10, the country's two main labor unions called a strike to protest the country's stagnant political conditions and even worse economic straits – at the time, a 50-kilogram sack of rice (the principal staple) cost about $35, or almost 50 percent more than the typical civil servant was paid for a month's work. Despite the plummeting standard of living, many were nevertheless surprised by how quickly the labor action soon turned into a nationwide protest against the Conté regime's incompetent governance, if not criminal rule. As the protests spread, the regime responded with brutal repression. The International Crisis Group reports “at least fifty-nine unarmed civilians, including some minors, were killed by security forces between January 15 and 24.” My own sources in the country, including several in government, acknowledge even higher casualties.

The protests only ended with the negotiation of an agreement on January 27 that provided that General Conté, a near-reclusive septuagenarian military officer who suffers from acute diabetes, leukemia, and a host of other known maladies, who seized power in a 1984 coup, would appoint a prime minister – defined as “a competent and trustworthy civilian of high standing who has not been implicated in corruption” – to oversee the implementation of a series of economic and social concessions aimed at alleviating the distress of the working classes. The implicit understanding was that the prime minister would also oversee the conduct of legislative elections that had already been scheduled for this coming June and which, if conducted in a free, fair, and credible manner, offered the best hope for arresting Guinea's downward spiral.

This hope was quickly dashed when, after thirteen days of suspense, General Conté announced that his nominee for the prime ministry would be none other than his minister for presidential affairs (i.e., de facto factotum), Eugène Camara. The reaction on the street was swift and violent, with rioting breaking out in the slums of Conakry on the evening of February 9, shortly after news of Camara's appointment was broadcast by state-owned media. When Conté's motorcade was hit by rocks thrown by protesters, the bérets rouges of the Presidential Guard responded with fire, killing several. Protests then spread throughout the country once more. Three days later, the general declared a “state of siege” across the country and ordered the military into the streets. Amazingly, however, not only have the protesters not backed down – as this column was being filed, the labor unions are still vowing to continue their strike until a new prime minister is found – but the National Assembly, where the ruling Parti de l'unité et du progress holds 85 of the 114 seats, bucked the head of state for the first time in memory, voted unanimously last Friday to not to extend martial law.

The crisis is quickly speeding towards a climax. Availing themselves of the support of international partners – former Nigerian ruler Ibrahim Babangida has been shuttling back and forth as regional mediator – President Conté and his circle can negotiate a “soft landing” for themselves and their country with Guinea's other stakeholders. Or, they can face a popular insurgency which could quickly spin out of control – Guinea is deeply divided along ethnic lines with three major groups, the Malinké, the Peul, and Conté's Sousou, often at bitter odds and increasing Islamist penetration from abroad – and engulf the entire subregion (see my earlier column for a scenario of what could take place).

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf noted last week after meeting with Conté and Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah: “If anything happens to Guinea, it could spill over…All our borders are porous.” (Johnson-Sirleaf has reason to be concerned: not only is the reformed military force at her disposal a risible 2,000 fresh recruits, but there are numerous reports of former fighters from Liberia as well as Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire gathering in Guinea's dense eastern forests.)

I have previously noted that “General Conté's personal political strategy has consisted primarily of a Machiavellian balance between ethnic favoritism and cynical manipulation of competing forces,” but that referred to past history. Well, as P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time; you can fool all of the people some of the time; but you can never fool all of the people all of the time.” That time of reckoning has come for Lansana Conte: the Guinean people are apparently unable to put up with his faltering performance any longer and, given the threat to an increasingly important neighborhood, neither should the members of the international community. The United States and the European Union – together Guinea's biggest political and economic partners – should send the old man a message: It is either accept a graceful “Au revoir, mon Général” or the whirlwind your grasping at power unleashes may well sweep you and yours into a quite definitive adieu.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.