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Ethnic tensions threaten to explode in southeast

[Guinea] Guinean soldier patrols Nzerekore following communal clashes in the city in June 2004.
Soldat guinéen en patrouille dans Nzérékoré à la suite des affrontements interclaniques de 2004 (Pierre Holtz/IRIN)

An influx of arms and idle gunmen from Liberia threatens to inflame ethnic quarrels in the Forest Region of southeastern Guinea, leading to further violence and instability in this remote region, government officials, aid workers and human rights activists in the area said.

Tensions between the local Guerze ethnic group and incomers from the Konianke sub-group of the Mandingo people have simmered away for years.

About 100 people were killed in Nzerekore, the capital of the Forest Region, when clashes erupted between them in this ragged city surrounded by forest covered hills during local elections in 2001.

Humanitarian workers and political activists said at least two people died in a fresh round of fighting between the two ethnic communities in the city of 500,000 people last month.

Things could have got much worse had the Guinean security forces not intervened rapidly to quell the ethnic fighting in the city, which lies 850 km by road east of the capital Conakry.

There were several exchanges of gunfire, but the army eventually restored order and arrested over 200 suspects, most of whom were Konianke of Liberian origin.

A huge problem of insecurity

“The problem is very simple but, since the social and economic situation is getting worse and worse in the country, it was just about to degenerate into a conflict,” said Major Algassimou Barry, the Prefect (government administrator) of Nzerekore and the surrounding district.

“We have a huge problem of insecurity here, but we don’t have the human and financial means to deal with it,” he told IRIN.

“We’re at the heart of a region in turmoil. The flow of light weapons and hold-ups is increasing and we are always in alert,” he added.

Government officials in Nzerekore told IRIN that hundreds of people were arrested following the disturbances on 16 and 17 June and 90 percent of them were Liberians.

Jean-Marie Dore, leader of the opposition Union for the Progress of Guinea (UPG) party, who is from Nzerekore, said a total of 238 people were arrested, of whom 234 were Konianke. About 100 of them were caught carrying firearms, he added.

[Guinea] Nzerekore shakes out, a day after ethnic tensions and raids by armed forces.

Nzerekore, one day after ethnic clashes and raids by armed forces
[Guinea] Nzerekore shakes out, a day after ethnic tensions and raids by armed forces. ...
Wednesday, July 7, 2004
Ethnic clashes leave Nzérékoré resident worried about the future
[Guinea] Nzerekore shakes out, a day after ethnic tensions and raids by armed forces. ...
Nzerekore shakes out, a day after ethnic tensions and raids by armed forces.

Konianke traders from northern Guinea have developed a strong presence in the Forest Region ever since France established its colonial administration in the area during the late nineteenth century.

But in recent years, trouble has stemmed mainly from an influx of Konianke from nearby Liberia associated with the ULIMO rebel movement that fought against former President Charles Taylor and its successor LURD.

Residents in Nzerekore said the town was packed with hundreds of Liberian gunmen made idle by a peace agreement which ended 14 years of civil war in their own country in August last year.

“The town is full of them, everybody knows that,” a local human rights activist in Nzerekore told IRIN.

“We know where they live, we know that they’re still carrying their weapons and that they help their brothers the Konianke when the disputes explode between the two communities,” he said.

Liberian rebels recruited young Guineans openly

The human rights activist, who belongs to the Guerze community, said that when the civil war started in Liberia in 1989, ULIMO (United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy), the main faction opposing Taylor, recruited heavily in Guinea.

He added that during the early 1990s, ULIMO offered young Guineans a cash bounty to go and fight in Liberia and there were many takers.

The recruitment of young Guineans to fight Liberia resumed in 2000 after a two-year lull in the conflict, when LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) took up arms against Taylor from rear bases in Guinea.

Guinean President Lansana Conte was no friend of Taylor and diplomats say he was LURD's main backer.

Map of Guinea

Students strike in Guinea
Map of Guinea
Friday, January 24, 2003
Students strike following the arrest of a colleague
Map of Guinea

Residents in the Forest Region said that so long as the civil war in Liberia lasted, the rebel movement's fighters moved freely in and out of Nzerekore with no interference from the government security forces.

Since the conflict ended in August last year however, the army has tried to clamp down on the activities of LURD fighters in Guinea.

While the Konianke in the Forest Region tended to support their rebel kin in Liberia, and for many years received tacit encouragement from the authorities to do so, many of the Guerze sympathised with Taylor, who belongs to their own ethnic group.

“As a Guinean from the Forest Region, it was terrible to see the recruitment operations taking place in the main stadium of Nzerekore to fight against Taylor, a man from our own tribe,” one local employee of an international aid agency told IRIN.

But the Konianke are not the only ones to carry unauthorised guns in the Forest Region.

Many Guerze are also armed

Many Guerze youths and young men from other ethnic groups in the Forest Region were armed by the government and sent into combat as hastily trained militiamen when insurgents backed by Taylor tried unsuccessfully to invade Guinea from Liberia in 2000 and 2001.

Aid workers said that once the emergency was over and the militias were disbanded, many of these combatants kept their guns. Some of these young men - officially known as "volunteers" - now use them to set up clandestine road blocks in Nzerekore at night to extort money from passing motorists.

When ethnic clashes broke out in Nzerekore last month, an IRIN correspondent saw many armed men, identified by local residents as former volunteers, manning road blocks around the town set up by hastily formed self defence committees. Within a few hours, however, the army cleared them off the streets and took control of security.

Religious differences between the Konianke and Guerze have deepened the divide between the two communities.

The Konianke are predominantly Muslim, whereas the Guerze, who consider themselves to be the rightful masters of the Forest Region, are mainly Christian and animist.

“They (the Konianke) took the land, started to trade and tried to impose their own religion, culture and language on the Forest Region, causing enormous frustrations among the local ethnic groups,” the human rights activist told IRIN.

“In many villages, Guerze tribesmen refuse to allow Konianke people to spend the night. They are highly suspicious of them and of Mandingo people in general. There is no respect at all between them,” he added.

[Guinea] Ethnic tensions and weapon trafficking threaten the stability of the fragile Forest Region.

Tensions ethniques et trafic d'armes menacent la stabilité de la région forestière...
[Guinea] Ethnic tensions and weapon trafficking threaten the stability of the fragile Forest Region. ...
Wednesday, July 7, 2004
Les tensions ethniques menacent le sud-est
[Guinea] Ethnic tensions and weapon trafficking threaten the stability of the fragile Forest Region. ...
Ethnic tensions and weapon trafficking threaten the stability of the fragile Forest Region.

The Konianke themselves are reluctant to talk openly about the recent clashes to outsiders. "It was God's will" many of them commented as they shied away from questions.

Clashes between the two communities do not just occur in Guinea. Last month one person was killed in fighting between Konianke tribesmen and Guerze people in the town of Gbarnga in northern Liberia, where the Guerze are known as Kpelle.

That incident was sparked off by a dispute over a woman between a LURD fighter from the Mandingo ethnic group and a local Kpelle man.

Liberian gunmen move easily across nearby frontiers

The problem in controlling former combatants from Liberia in Guinea is not just that they are protected by the local Konianke community. They also melt into the 50,000-strong Liberian refugee community in southeastern Guinea, much of which is concentrated in five refugee camps.

Aid workers said people regularly moved in and out of these camps and across the border to Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, where rebels still occupy the north of the country, a year after its civil war was officially declared to be over.

Many are convinced that former Liberian rebels were the source of last month's trouble in Nzerekore.

“We think that ULIMO (as local people still call all the Liberian rebels) was behind the latest shooting,” said one Nzerekore-based aid worker. “They live in town, unemployed, and they are always ready to fight as they still have their weapons,” he added.

Guinean government officials said many former Liberian combatants had brought guns across the border since the UN peacekeepers began to disarm the three warring factions in Liberia in April.

Some of these had ended up in Cote d'Ivoire, where the United Nations proposes to pay US$900 to every fighter volunteering for demobilisation, they added.

UN peacekeepers in Liberia are only offering only US300 to ex-combatants and about half of those presenting themselves for disarmament so far have turned up at the demobilisation camps without a gun.

“We’re concerned that disarmed or not, they will install themselves in Guinea,” said Colonel Lamine Bangoura, the governor of Nzerekore.

“We want them to stay in their own country and the best guarantee of preventing raids across the border is to provide them jobs,” Bangoura said. “On the Guinean side, we can handle security on the border but it’s so expensive and we are short of equipment and money."

Patience grows thin in lean season before harvest

The governor said the Guinean authorities were particularly wary of further outbreaks of violence during the coming months as food supplies dwindled and people grew hungry waiting for the new harvest to begin in October at the end of the current rainy season.

[Guinea] A Konyanke tribesman is cleaning fresh cola nuts before selling them in Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia.

[Guinea] A Konyanke tribesman is cleaning fresh cola nuts before selling them in Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia...
Wednesday, July 7, 2004
[Guinea] A Konyanke tribesman is cleaning fresh cola nuts before selling them in Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia...
A Konyanke tribesman is cleaning fresh cola nuts before selling them in Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia.

“We are being very careful because we’re bridging the gap until the harvest period. People are hungry and fragile. If local communities refuse to give food or provide assistance to the others, things could get bad,” he said in apparent reference to the Konianke.

Aid workers warned that LURD fighters in Liberia were now convinced that the Guinean government had abandoned them following Taylor's departure into exile in Nigeria and the restoration of peace in Liberia. That made the situation more volatile than before, they added.

Dore, the opposition leader who is normally no friend of President Conte and his government, urged people in the Forest Region to collaborate with the authorities in removing weapons from unauthorised hands.

“Ex-fighters are waiting for an excuse to settle scores,” he told IRIN during an interview in the capital Conakry. “To solve the problem, we must gather the weapons and help the armed forces because the people know where they are.”

A senior UN official in Guinea said the United Nations had already appealed to donors for US$20-25 million to help to collect weapons in Guinea, provide rehabilitation facilities for former members of the militia force which helped to repel the incursions from Liberia three years ago and develop schools and health centres in the region.

These funds had been sought in the context of wider appeals for money to deal with the aftermath of civil war in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, he added.

“We must react quickly because right now is when we risk having problems regarding the social and economic situation in Guinea,” he told IRIN.

“We need to help the vulnerable populations, to mitigate the impact on environment and security with a disarmament plan and to develop social and health services,” the UN official said.

Meanwhile, the Guinean government is determined to keep a lid on the situation by continuing to impose tight security wherever violence threatens to rear its ugly head.

“We are responsible for what happens in Guinea. We are calling for calm,” said Bangoura, the governor of Nzerekore. “We have been able to control the situation for the past 10 years. This must continue or we will suffer the consequences.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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