Guinea struggles to break strongman curse

International action may be needed to prevent the tensions behind this week’s lethal crackdown on anti-government protests in Guinea from igniting regional instability.

But even if confronted with sanctions and sent into isolation by neighbours and Western powers, Guinea’s erratic new junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara will not cede control of the world’s top bauxite exporter without a fight.

“He is a strongman, and strongmen tend to be immune to outside pressure,” Corinne Dufka of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) group said of the army officer who seized power in December 2008 on the death of Lansana Conte, another soldier-turned-leader.

Since independence from France in 1958, Guineans have suffered years of repression under first president Ahmed Sekou Toure and then Conte, who came to power in a 1984 military coup.

Yet even long-time observers were shocked by the brutality of troops who fired live rounds and, according to eyewitness accounts, subjected women to vicious sexual abuse as they dispersed a rally in the capital Conakry on Monday.

A local rights group citing hospital sources put the death toll at 157, three times the official figure, while the wounded ran into the many hundreds.

Camara insisted uncontrollable army elements were to blame. But others said it was merely the latest proof that his pledge to stand down within a year and allow the transition to civilian rule had fallen by the wayside.

“It finally reveals the very nature of the junta, both inside and outside Guinea,” independent analyst Gilles Yabi said of a leadership which has stepped up arrests of political rivals and questioned contracts with investors such as Russian metals giant UC Rusal and Rio Tinto.

Regional self-interest
Camara’s volatile performances, including humiliations in public of foreign diplomats and junior officials, have turned him into a minor internet star, with a “Dadis Show” clip getting more than 31 000 hits on the Youtube video website.

Guinean opposition leaders have vowed to regroup and launch fresh protests in defiance of a ban on “subversive” meetings announced by Camara late on Tuesday.

But it is unclear how many Guineans will be ready to take to the streets again, and analysts said the international response to Monday’s bloodbath could now be the critical next step.

France, which until now had given Camara the benefit of the doubt, has suspended military cooperation with its former colony and called a meeting of European Union counterparts in Brussels to discuss further measures, including possible sanctions.

Neighbouring Senegal—whose president only weeks ago called Camara his “spiritual son”—issued a stiff condemnation of the violence in a sign of growing regional concern over the potential for chaos in the country of close to 10-million.

“There is a great self-interest among neighbours to prevent Guinea from blowing up,” said Sylvain Touati of France’s IFRI think tank.

“What happens in Guinea affects Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia,” he said of three neighbours whose fragile recovery from their own civil wars in the last decade could be jeopardised by a new conflict across the border.

Touati said tensions could ultimately prompt regional West African grouping Ecowas to consider intervening to maintain order if things got worse.

Yet such a move could be months off, if ever agreed, and the threat of targeted sanctions could be the first tactic to seek to persuade Camara to stay clear of a January 31 presidential poll.

Stuck in a rut
France has put bilateral aid under review and the EU will study measures against individual Guinean officials, a possible reference to visa bans and asset freezes which the bloc has used on Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe—albeit with little effect so far.

The West will be reluctant to hit Guinea’s already impoverished population with tougher sanctions such as trade embargoes and Touati said such move could be undermined by China, which is keen for access to Guinea’s mineral wealth.

Yet Camara’s position is not the strongest, with the Guinean economy hit hard by a global slowdown that has sent its exports crashing and his own unruly army riven by divisions that mean he could be the target of a counter-coup at any moment.

“In coming weeks you could see a purge as he tries to regain support within the military,” said Touati, estimating Camara only held sway over an elite minority of the military.

Whether Camara clings onto power or not, independent analyst Yabi feared Guinea is stuck in a rut of military rulers which give foreign resource firms just enough stability to maintain operations without spreading the benefits of the wealth.

“Guinea will remain in this situation for some years, even decades,” he predicted.—Reuters



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