December 10, 2009 | World Defense Review

Guinea: In Search of a Soft Landing

Guinea cannot seem to catch a break.

In 1958, it was the only French colony to opt for an immediate break with France rather than continued association with Paris leading to gradual independence; as a result, the French withdrew abruptly, severing political and economic ties, a blow from which the West African country has never quite recovered.

Then the new country's first president, Ahmed Sékou Touré turned out to be a Marxist despot who transformed the Oregon-sized land into an African gulag in which at least 50,000 people were killed in concentration camps like the infamous Camp Boiro, where he imprisoned the saintly archbishop of Conakry, Monseigneur Raymond-Marie Tchdimbo, for nine years in a cell the size of a large crate. Hundreds of thousand of Guineans were driven into exile. Guinea was only delivered from this nightmare when Sékou Touré died on the operating table while undergoing heart surgery in Cleveland.

Guinea then fells into the clutches of the army officer who, literally, served as the old despot's hangman. Colonel Lansana Conté seized power in a coup, promoted himself to general, and eased into the presidential office from which only death, which finally came for him just before Christmas last year, succeeded in removing him. While his tenure was nowhere near as brutal as his predecessor's, Conté presided over a kleptocracy where the overwhelming majority of Guineans wallowed in misery despite possessing more than half of the world's reserves of bauxite (bauxite ore is the source of alumina, the primary ingredient for aluminum smelting) and numerous other natural resources (see my earlier reports on conditions in the last years of Conté's reign as well as on his attempts to cling to power).

Conté's unlamented demise left a vacuum into which stepped a junior officer, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, who assumed power in the name of a Conseil national pour la démocratie et le développement (CNDD, “National Council for Democracy and Development”). While many took their cue from the citizens of the long-suffering country and gave the new ruler the benefit of the doubt, his increasingly erratic style and the violence he unleashed on ordinary Guineans gathered in a soccer stadium on September 28, which left hundreds dead and wounded, disabused even the most optimistic of any hopes they may have nurtured (see my report last year on the coup which brought Camara to power as well as the analysis two months ago on the situation in the country).

Just when it seemed that things could get no worse, a botched assassination attempt last week has left Camara seriously wounded, but not dead, and confusion and insecurity in the capital that threaten the country and the region with renewed upheaval.

While details are still sketchy, it seems that an altercation took place last Thursday at Camp Alpha Diallo, the sprawling military base near the Conakry airport that Camara has used as his headquarters, between the junta leader and his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Aboubacar Diakité, a.k.a. “Toumba.” Lieutenant Toumba reportedly felt that he was being set up to take the fall for the September 28 violence. As the discussion grew heated shots were fired, leaving Camara with a wound in the head. According to sources in the Guinean military one of Camara's bodyguards and his driver shielded him with their bodies and were killed during the assault. Toumba fled the scene before finishing the deed and is now being sought. Camara was evacuated to Morocco where he was treated for head trauma at a military hospital in Rabat. Although his physicians have issued a statement saying he is recovering, he has neither appeared in public nor made any statements. There have been reports that the injuries are worse than had been initially reported and that one of the bullets that hit Camara caused a splinter of bone to wedge itself in his brain, a potentially life-threatening condition.

In addition to speculation that Toumba was acting in anger over being blamed for the massacre, two other theories have been making the rounds. The junta accuses the French government of being behind the assassination attempt. Communications Minister Idrissa Chérif told Radio France Internationale that, although the investigation was ongoing, the junta had “evidence” that French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and French intelligence agencies had tried to “launch a coup d'état.” There are even rumors in Conakry, denied by spokesman at the Quai d'Orsay, that the French embassy is hiding the fugitive Toumba. On Wednesday, Agenzia Fides, the news agency of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, floated yet another theory in a report which quoted unnamed sources to explain that drug traffickers were behind the assault: “The circumstances that led Aboubacar Sidiki Diakité to shoot Dadis Moussa Camara, are not clear. Why did the aide of the head of the military junta try to kill him? In Guinea there is a possibility that behind it all are the interests of drug traffickers who have been affected by the anti-drug policy of the military junta… Camara can be criticized for many actions, but we must admit that he has promoted vigorous action to combat criminal organizations that use Guinea as a stopover for South American cocaine destined for European markets. This campaign has touched very strong interests and some people may have decided to present a complaint, perhaps by using an officer who felt threatened by the UN investigation into the massacre of demonstrators on September 28.” What makes this report curious is that the number two at the curial dicastery, which overseas Roman Catholic missionary work, is Archbishop Robert Sarah, a Guinean who was previous head of the Archdiocese of Conakry.

Meanwhile, the second vice president of the CNDD, Defense Minister Sékouba Konaté, hurried home from a personal business trip to Lebanon and assumed the leadership of the junta. Konaté is a well-regarded soldier who qualified as a parachutist and a commando after receiving advanced training in Morocco. He was wounded while fighting to put down several rebellions under the late President Conté and is said to suffer from some sort of liver or blood disorder resulting from the poor quality of treatment he received. He was a lieutenant colonel at the time of last year's coup-he was reportedly offered the presidency, but is said to have declined, although he accepted a promotion to brigadier general. Within the junta Konaté is said to have wanted Diakité's arrest after the September 28 massacre, but had not succeeded yet. It was not immediately clear why Konaté took charge and not the junta's first vice president, Security Minister Mamadou Camara, a.k.a. “Toto,” who also outranks him in the military as a major-general.

Meanwhile a reward has been offered for information leading to the capture of Lieutenant Toumba, with a toll-free number activated to receive tips from the citizenry. The junta also has begun arresting en masse those they deem connected with the attack on Captain Camara, leading to fears that the sweep will extend to civilian political opponents of military rule. Nor did the search for opponents respect the niceties of international law and diplomatic immunity: the new French ambassador in Guinea, Jean Graebling, had his official car stopped on Tuesday and forcibly searched by the junta's forces. There are also questions about whether the presidential election scheduled for next month which is supposed to facilitate the return to civilian rule in Guinea will take place (originally Camara had promised that neither he nor any of the other thirty-one members of the junta would run, a pledge he reneged several months ago).

In response to concerns about safety, non-essential personnel at some of the major mining firms operating in Guinea-their number includes UC RUSAL, Rio Tinto, Alcoa, and AngloGold Ashanti-have left the country. The latest evacuation is in addition to the half of the expatriate workers at theCompagnies des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG), the world's biggest bauxite exporting firm, who fled Guinea over security concerns earlier this year. On Monday, citing political instability, the African Development Bank suspended its operations in Guinea, including a $300 million commitment to a mining project. The flight of those operating the one productive sector of the Guinean economy is about the last thing the country-which defaulted on a repayment to the World Bank earlier this fall, leading to a freeze in its account-needs.

Add to the overall climate of uncertainty the eyewitness reports from veteran journalists like theAssociated Press's Rukmini Callimachi that, prior to being wounded, the increasingly isolated Captain Camara had imported Israeli and South African mercenaries to train an ethnic militia for him from his own minority Guerze kinfolk in the forest region of Guinea. Callimachi reported over the weekend that some 1,500 to 4,000 militiamen are being trained, which corresponds to the credible information I received two months ago that 2,000 Guerze had been inducted into a militia at a new base near Forécariah, not far from the border with Sierra Leone. Farther east along the same frontier, the Sierra Express newspaper reported on Wednesday that Guinean forces now occupy eight villages in the Kailahun District, including Yenga, Kolonsu, Sokoma, Lelema, Gbongoma, Gbondu, Fendu, and Payluan.

From the point of view of the United States, this latest crisis could not come at a more inopportune moment. In the last week, Somalia alone presented two different major crises with the seizure some 800 nautical miles off the Somali coast of the Greek supertanker MV Maran Centaurus, laden with some two million barrels of oil en route to New Orleans, as well as the suicide bombing in Mogadishu which left the three ministers of the tottering Transitional Federal Government (TFG) dead and two others wounded (although one cannot help but ask the question of why a embattled “government” that governs no territory needs separate ministers of education, higher education, health, sports, and tourism-one cannot imagine that the latter has much work to do since even the most adventurous tourist would want to give the Somali capital a wide berth). Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, the health of Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua continues to deteriorate, leaving the imminent prospect of a transition crisis in Africa's most populous country.

However, as inconvenient as the timing of Guinea's latest crisis may be, it might also represent an opportunity to ease out Moussa Dadis Camara, one which ought to be seized. Especially if the captain's injuries require prolonged care, perhaps the Moroccan government could be persuaded to let him live out his days in a gilded cage in one of the properties that the late General Conté purchased in the Sharifian Kingdom with his ill-gotten gains from Guinea. In the meantime, General Konaté needs to be engaged by the international community, if only to ascertain his intentions.

While the subregional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which condemned Camara's seizure of power last year, has been using President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso as a mediator for Guinea, perhaps the Burkinabé head of state isn't the ideal choice for the role. After all, Compaoré himself assumed power in a bloody 1987 coup and has stayed on ever since-hardly the example the international community wants to present to other putschists. Moreover, Guinean civilian politicians and members of civil society have complained that Compaoré's idea of mediation is to pressure them to make concessions that would prolong the junta's rule. In any event, since the junta has suspended participation in the talks in the absence of Camara, perhaps it might be time to switch mediators. A more suitable role model might be found in Guinea's neighbor to the north, Mali. The current Malian president, Amadou Toumani Touré, led a bloodless 1991 coup which overthrew the dictatorship in his country and then, incredibly enough, relinquished power a year later to a civilian president after organizing a national conference to draft a democratic constitution and a free election. After subsequently serving as a UN special envoy and then retiring from the military, Touré was elected president of Mali with 64 percent of the vote in 2002 and reelected to a final five-year term in 2007 with 71 percent of the vote. Perhaps Mali's “Soldier of Democracy” might be persuaded to have a chat with the Guinean brigadier.

While the roots of the malaise afflicting Guinea go back more than half a century, that mere fact is no excuse for not trying to do something to ameliorate the overall situation or to at least defuse the current crisis. As I have argued in the two books and numerous articles I have written on conflicts in West Africa, the nature of the Guinea and its neighbors in the subregion-with their closely interwoven historical, social, and economic fabrics being what they are, as the civil wars of the 1990s and the early part of this decade in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire amply illustrate-the slightest spark in any one country can quickly lead to a regional conflagration that destroys the considerable progress made in all the others. Consequently, the United States and the international community need to bear this destructive potential in mind in crafting a realistic strategy for a “soft landing” that both restores constitutional order to Guinea and preserves the delicate balance of stability in its immediate neighborhood.

– J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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