Guinea voters turn page on 52 years of dictatorship

Four million Guineans vote on Sunday in the first democratic election in the West African nation, which has seen a succession of dictatorships since independence in 1958.

With 24 civilian candidates to choose from, the majority of Guineans will be glad to see power leave the hands of a brutal, undisciplined army after 25 years of military rule.

They will be keen to turn the page on political violence that erupted in Conakry nine months ago when at least 156 opposition supporters were massacred in a stadium in the capital during a crackdown by defence and security forces.

After the killings, described by the United Nations as crimes against humanity, the international community spurned junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara, who came to power in a coup in late 2008 after the death of President Lansana Conte.

In a dramatic turn of events just three months after the stadium massacre, Dadis Camara was shot in the head in an assassination attempt by a close aide, which he survived.

Ejected from power and not particularly welcome in Conakry, “Dadis” is still recuperating in Ouagadougou.

For the past six months a transition government has been headed by General Sékouba Konate, the architect of the coup, who chose not to lead the junta.

Konate has kept his word that no military officer or member of the transition would be allowed to stand as a presidential candidate and has shown that he is keen to return power to civilians.

“We need to understand our people’s thirst for democracy and freedom,” he said in April.

And indeed, Guinea’s political history contains a litany of false hopes, broken promises, and promising leaders turned power-hungry dictators.

“Since 1958 there has been no free and transparent elections in Guinea,” said the chairperson of the National Observatory of Democracy and Human Rights (NOHR), Mamadou Aliou Barry in Conakry .

“Under Ahmed Sekou Toure [1958-1984], we had 26 years of a one-party state system. Sekou Toure was president for life,” he recalls.

Toure, known as the “father of independence”, was hailed for refusing the “Franco-African Community” proposed by General de Gaulle to the colonies.

Paranoid dictator
However, he evolved into a paranoid dictator conducting a reign of terror over his opponents, who either died in prison or were forced into exile.

“Then, with the military regime of Lansana Conte [1984-2008], there were only one-sided elections, with ballot-box stuffing,” says Barry.

In 2003, General Conté was re-elected with 95% of the vote in a race against one virtually unknown opponent.

Then, the “little captain” Camara, who promised to work for the “common people of Guinea” following his takeover in 2008, quickly dashed the hopes placed in him as he showed himself to be a despot intent on clinging to power.

This Sunday there are 24 candidates, including one woman, with three standing out from the pack: former prime ministers Cellou Dalein Diallo and Sidya Toure and a former opposition, leader Alpha Conde.

Each of them has an important electoral stronghold in their home regions: Middle Guinea for Diallo, Lower Guinea for Toure and Upper Guinea for Conde.

Foreign observers are in place to monitor the proper conduct of elections, with at least 70 observers from the European Union and 30 commissioned by American NGO, the Carter Centre.

The new leaders will have their work cut out for them in a country that is one of the world’s poorest despite massive mineral wealth in bauxite and iron stores, which multinationals are clamouring for.

“The new leaders must waste no time in addressing the endemic corruption and abusive institutions which have for decades blighted the lives of countless Guineans and systematically undermined respect for human rights,” Human Rights Watch researcher in Senegal Corinne Dufka said — AFP

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