Guinea was in a state of suspension the afternoon of 23 December as both the standing government and a group of soldiers claimed power following the death of 24-year president Lansana Conté.
Former coup leader Conté's death, following years of illness, comes at a time of socioeconomic and political crisis in Guinea – borne of longstanding strife inside the country, exacerbated by the global financial downturn. Observers say the question now is whether in post-Conté Guinea the population’s grievances will be addressed.
Despite a group of soldiers running communiqués on state media claiming they had dissolved government, Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souaré insisted that the government was still intact.
“Nothing is lost,” Souaré told Radio France International, adding he hoped the situation would return to normal. “A coup d’état now would turn our country back 30 to 40 years.”
Elizabeth Côté, head of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Guinea, said after the conflicting declarations throughout the day observers were expecting negotations would take place.
“Basically there is a lot of confusion. I don’t think anyone knows where this is going yet,” she told IRIN. “It seemed like a more constitutional approach in the middle of the night, and then we wake up to this military declaration.”
Hours after Conté’s death the evening of 22 December, the prime minister, National Assembly President Aboubacar Sompare and the army chief of staff appeared on the public airwaves saying that in conformity with the constitution the National Assembly president would assume power and organise presidential elections.
A few hours later, a military group overtook state radio and television and announced that the government and constitution were dissolved. They advised military generals and government ministers to congregate at the main military base in the capital Conakry “for their security”.
But the army chief of staff later publicly denounced declarations of a military takeover.
Presidential elections had been scheduled in Guinea for 2010. Over the past two years the country has repeatedly planned and cancelled parliamentary elections; the mandate of the current legislature was to be up last year.
Capital shut down
Streets in Conakry were mostly deserted throughout the day as soldiers patrolled, urging people to stay home. Markets and schools were closed. Routes into the city centre were blocked from early in the morning.
While no shooting was reported, a witness in Conakry said the soldiers claiming power were “armed to the teeth”. Guinea’s military has seen mutinies in recent years and observers say it is not clear how divided the military is.
|...Already people have a difficult time eating adequately or getting treatment when they’re sick...|
IFES’s Côté said there was a definite “social connotation” in the soldiers’ message.
The military group – calling itself the national council for democracy and development – in one of its declarations denounced corruption and living conditions in which so few Guineans have access to water, electricity and health care.
“What these putschistes are saying is that Guinea needs a radical break from the past in order to change.” But she said: “As an institution we are never happy to see military rule when the goal is to facilitate the construction of a democracy.”
Guinean citizens were hoping for a radical break from the past when they took to the streets in early 2007 calling for Conté’s ouster. But despite promises that the people’s grievances would be heeded a consensus prime minister has since been fired and living conditions have remained difficult.
Guinea is rich in mineral resources – including the world’s largest bauxite reserves – but most of the population lives in dire poverty.
“The socio-economic situation is extremely grave,” Bakary Fofana, vice president of the national council of civil society organizations, told IRIN on 23 December. “Already people have a difficult time eating adequately or getting treatment when they’re sick. Schools and hospitals are not functioning.”
He added: “The government failed to meet even the minimum needs of the population. The people had lost all hope.”