Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The crisis in Guinea (guest essay)

A guest essay written by Chris Kirchgasler, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea from 2004-06. This is re-printed with his permission.

As you know, I served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, West Africa teaching English in a small town called Tougué. Everyday living was difficult for most Guineans and has only gotten worse in recent months. An example: A 50kg bag of rice, which cost 50,000fg back in July 2004, is today sold at 500,000fg. Meanwhile, a civil servant's salary has stagnated at around 600.000fg/month (much less for teachers and other low-ranking employees), meaning that a month's supply of food often exceeds a civil servant's entire monthly salary. In addition, government salaries are often withheld and delayed for no reason. Many teachers weren't paid for more than 8 months last year.

I left Guinea in June 2006 to the sounds of gunfire in the streets of the capital. The country was then in the midst of a general strike demanding for wage increases. Guineans were telling us at that time that the situation couldn't hold out much longer. At the last minute, however, the government was able to hold off political protests by promising an 10% wage hike to all state employees. Eight months later, it has never delivered on even this meager promise and last month, the issue came to a head when jilted union leaders galvanized to launch an unlimited general strike to absolutely paralyze all activity in the country.

The goal of this new strike was to see that the original promises of wage increases be met, along with with new price controls on basic commodities (rice, kerosene for lamps, and gas for transportation) so that Guineans could continue to work and feed their families. The strike relaunched peacefully on January 10th, but the government made it clear early on that it was unwilling to make concessions. And the strike leaders decided to make the strike political for the first time in recent years, demanding sweeping government reforms, including the creation of a new post to handle executive duties.

Why the government has shown itself unable to meet the strike leaders demands is not hard to understand if you've followed the Guinean economy: The government is bankrupt, the result of decadent and systematic corruption over recent years that earned Guinea a ranking as the second most corrupt country in the world (source: Transparency International study, 2006). Most news agencies have taken to describing the government as "kleptocracy:" Those who own posts of power steal money destined to fund projects and development to buy themselves mansions and Mercedes. In short, the country languishes in poverty and fails to provide basic services, such as electricity and running water, in its capital and major cities (the vast majority of the country has never been electrified and is without running water).

As the government has shown itself unwilling and unable to carry out its basic functions, strike leaders changed their demands in late January, demanding that President Lansana Conté and his entire Congress step down from power. On January 22nd, tens of thousands of ordinary Guineans spontaneously took to the streets, carrying banners such as "We are ready to die for change." President Conté obliged them, ordering the army to open fire on protesters on the crowds. More than 60 people were killed in confrontations across the country on that day.

Conté, for those unfamiliar with him, is a former Guinean military colonel, "a chain-smoking diabetic" (source: Reuters) who has never completed high school and crowned himself General upon assuming power in a bloodless coup after the death of the country's previous president-turned-dictator, Ahmed Sékou Touré. He added the title "President" after a rigged election several years later to appease donor nations. After the bloodbath of the 22nd, Conté offered no apology for his actions, crowing instead that he has "never lost a war." Such a comment shows that he views a popular movements by his own citizens as an act of war and has no compunction about razing his country and killing his own people in order to "win" another.

A few days after the bloodshed of the 22nd, union leaders and the president reached a tentative compromise, through which the president would cede almost all executive power to a Prime Minister chosen from a list of candidates provided by union leaders. Two tense weeks passed with only sporadic violence. Then, last weekend, the president named his new PM, choosing someone not only not on the list of candidates, but whose previous job experience comes from rigging Conté's most recent landslide election victory in 2002. As one of my fellow volunteers still in country wrote, "it's as if Conté himself spit in the face of each and every Guinean."

Upon hearing news of the nomination this weekend, many Guineans, well aware of the risks they were taking, took to the streets again, this time with a view towards destroying the palatial estates of many of those close to Conté who've benefited from his corrupt reign. The army, however, was prepared, and responded to the new wave of protests with tanks and urban assault vehicles. At least 20 people are estimated to have died on Monday, and many more yesterday. The Conté has refused to retract his nomination and instead declared a state of siege in the country for the next two weeks, banning all traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, but for four hours during the day. He has given the army explicit orders to shoot on sight any violators.

All this means, of course, the end of Peace Corps in Guinea (all current volunteers have long since been safely evacuated and are sitting in limbo in Bamako, Mali awaiting word if they can transfer to other countries in West Africa or if they must go home). All other humanitarian agencies are evacuating the country, but as all commercial flights in or out of the country have been suspended, many are still stuck in the capital. The U.S. Embassy yesterday evacuated all its non-essential personnel.

Can one dictator suppress the will of the people? Conté has shown himself determined to see his reign through to the bitter end, while preening his son, "Captain" (a fictitious title) Ousmane Conté, to succeed him upon his death. Conté has also shown his dictatorial reach in withdrawing a million dollars in personal funds to hire 400 mercenaries (former rebels Conté supported in Liberia's recent civil war) to protect him and his possessions and to send his wives and children to France. He even has allowed foreign soldiers from neighboring Guinea-Bissau into the capital last month to help put down the violent protests, when he feared his own soldiers would hesitate shooting at their fellow countrymen.

In recent days, Conté has further tightened his grip on the country. He refuses to receive delegates from neighboring West African states who seek to facilitate peace talks between the government and strike leaders. In the last week, he has shut down all private radio stations after one called for his removal from power. He regularly disrupts service of the state-run telephone company in order to prevent citizens from organizing against him. Two days ago, he handed out promotions to everyone currently enrolled in the army (turning all privates into corporals, all captains into majors, and so on), regardless of merit, as a means of increasing pay and ensuring loyalty within the ranks.

This new found level in carnage and bloodshed in a country I just recently knew as easy-going and peaceful is hard to fathom. When I was a volunteer, Guineans constantly amazed me for their tolerance for living conditions most would find impossible. My friends got by somehow, always peaceful and almost always friendly--with a healthy amount of what-can-you-do complaining, of course. This has changed in less than a year and now I'm hearing from these same people that the deaths of their countrymen in recent days will not be forgotten and that they, too, will fight to bring an end to Conté's reign. I want to emphasize what a remarkable transformation it is to hear this new resolve in the voices and actions of ordinary people. Perhaps it is the natural, though long-overdue reaction, of a people who've been pushed to the brink.

Who will break first? I would optimistically assume the government, but given Conté's delusions (he's quoted as saying Guineans must to accept his rule as "the will of God"), I'm loathe to imagine how far he is willing to go to ensure the succession of his rule passes from father to son, and how many Guineans he's willing to take with him, in order to realize that nightmarish vision, as the country spirals into anarchy. We can only wait and watch.

I'm asking that you please keep Guinea and Guineans in your thoughts over the next few weeks. Even if you know nothing else of country, know this: 10 million people who've suffered under the yoke of oppression for 50 years under French colonization, and then for 50 more under barely disguised dictators, are standing up for what they believe in and doing whatever they can to bring an end to a kleptocracy, risking their lives and those of their families in doing so.

Here are a few English websites for staying up-to-date on what's happening:

from the IRIN News Service

from BBC News

from Reuters

[Editor's note: Friends of Guinea's blog also has extensive coverage]

Feel free to pass this email on to others so that we don't allow another tragedy in our world to unfold without our even being aware.

Take care,

Chris Kirchgasler
Peace Corps Volunteer, Guinea (2004-06)


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