Less than a month after taking office, Guinea's new prime minister has begun to woo international donors and opposition parties at home by pledging more transparency and the lifting of a ban on private radio stations.
Cellou Dalien Diallo, an economist and long-serving minister of President Lansana Conte, met on Wednesday with Guinea's main opposition grouping, the Republican Front for Democratic Change (FRAD), to try and relaunch a dialogue between the government and opposition that broke down with the sudden departure of his predecessor in April last year.
Urging opposition leaders to work with the president, who has ruled Guinea with an iron hand for 20 years, Diallo said the government was finally ready to authorise private radio stations and remove obstacles to free and transparent elections.
International donors, including the European Union (EU), have been withholding big aid packages to Guinea pending a move towards greater democracy, better governance and liberalisation of the media. The government allows private newspapers to operate, but has until now kept a tight control on radio and television.
“The situation has become so dire in Guinea that the government has decided this is a lesser evil,” Mike McGovern, the West Africa director of the Brussels-based think-tank, International Crisis Group (ICG) told IRIN. “It’s a good step in the right direction,” he added.
Discontent among Guinea's eight million people is on the rise. Soaring food prices, rising electricity bills and unpaid state salaries have sent former railway workers, students, miners and angry residents out onto the streets in the last few months.
In the worst of the protests, hungry and angry citizens attacked rice trucks in the capital, Conakry, in July. A fast depreciating Guinean franc meant imported rice was selling for US$ 30 per 50 kg bag -- more than many Guineans earn in a month.
At the talks on Wednesday, Diallo said: "This country belongs to us all. We of course have our differences, but those differences can only be ironed out at the negotiating table".
"I have been mandated by President Lansana Conte to restart these talks,” he added.
Diallo took over as Prime Minister in early December. That was a full eight months after his predecessor, Francois Fall, resigned during a trip to Paris and went into exile after only two months in the job.
Fall quit unexpectedly, complaining that Conte was blocking his attempts to impose genuine economic and political reform. The government never even acknowledged his departure.
Political analysts said Diallo would have his work cut out as prime minister, given Conte's iron grip on the reins of power and the crumbling state of the economy.
Even though the 70-year-old president is so ill with diabetes he can no longer walk unassisted, diplomats believe that he is still very much in control of government affairs.
The EU, which has traditionally been Guinea’s principal donor, has been withholding more than US$ 100 million of aid because the government has failed to implement political and economic reforms to improve the quality of governance in this poor and notoriously corrupt country.
At this week's talks with Diallo, former prime minister Sidya Toure said FRAD only wanted to discuss concrete issues that would help resolve the problems facing the nation.
The six party coalition pulled out of talks with the government last year citing Conte's failure to implement agreed measures such as the liberalisation of the media, the establisment of an independent election commission, and the free movement of opposition politicians across the country.
"I remain sceptical of the government's sincerity, even with this new approach,” one opposition politician told IRIN this week.
Fall was appointed prime minister last February to give Conte's government a reforming face. But he left complaining that the president had blocked efforts to reform the economy, tackle growing corruption, renegotiate Guinea's external debt, launch a new dialogue with the EUand clean up the justice system.
Conte won re-election for a further seven-year term in December 2003 in a presidential election which was boycotted by all the mainstream opposition parties. They subsequently claimed that the poll, which gave Conte 95 percent of the vote, was riddled with fraud.
Diplomats worry that Guinea has known only two authoritarian presidents since independence from France in 1958 and that Conte has appointed no obvious successor as the country crumbles beneath him.