Saturday, February 17, 2007

Looking the other way as Guinea deteriorates

The situation in Guinea is deteriorating as the population is rising up against miserable living conditions and the almost quarter-century dictatorship of Lasana Conté. Conté has ruled the West African country since seizing power in 1984 and is seen as largely responsible for corruption and the widespread poverty in this country otherwise rich in natural resources.

Unions have called for a general strike and Conté has given the army wide powers to crush the rebellion. In the meantime, the world community does nothing.

This from Eric A. Witte and Kurt Bassuener in the International Herald Tribune:
As Western leaders sit on their hands, Guinea's authoritian president, Lansana Conté, is going in for the kill, crushing street protests as he tries to stifle his country's brave voices for democracy. Since he declared martial law on Monday, scores of people have been killed in violent clashes between protesters and security forces.

The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and the African Union must act quickly to prevent more bloodshed and keep the unrest from spreading to Guinea's fragile neighbors, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

Since seizing power in a coup 23 years ago, Conté has sought a veneer of legitimacy through successive fraudulent elections. He runs perhaps one of the more efficient police states in sub-Saharan Africa, financed by the export of bauxite — much of it to North America. Now the aging Conté is ailing, and one way or another, his tenure will soon end.

Fed up with corruption and cronyism, and hoping to present an alternative succession scenario to the widely expected military takeover, Guinea's labor unions took to the streets in January. Tens of thousands marched to demand Conté's resignation and a voice in their government. Conté's troops opened fire, killing around 90. The dictator took to the airwaves, explaining: "Those who want power must wait their turn. It is God who gives power and when he gives it to someone, everyone must stand behind him."

Yet as protests continue, Conté has offered concessions. The unions wanted greater strides for democracy, but, without foreign support, they accepted a deal in which Conté would appoint a consensus prime minister to take over as head of government.

As bad as this agreement was — it left Conté in control of the military and police — the United States and European Union offered only formulaic, low-level expressions of hope that the political crisis could be overcome. Contrast that reticence with their reactions to other "people power" movements, such as those in Ukraine and Lebanon.

Last week Conté reneged on the deal by appointing one of his cronies as prime minister, then unleashed his security forces on protesters. The death toll could climb much higher as rioting youths lose patience and martial law gives the military a green light for repression.

Western governments have long expected the military to step in once Conté steps down. If military leaders perceive that Conté can no longer maintain control, they may take over sooner. But a military regime would be unlikely to bring stability; its leadership and other Guinean elites are riven along ethnic and clan divides that could deepen precipitously in a post-Conté power struggle.

At stake is not just the stability of Guinea, but that of its fragile neighbors, whose recent wars were intertwined with events in Guinea. The last thing needed by Liberia's new democratic president is instability to her north. Sierra Leone is also struggling to overcome the legacy of its civil war, and ethnic tension has been on the rise ahead of July elections. Washington, London, and Brussels have invested heavily in the reconstruction of both. Their passivity in the face of Guinea's destabilization is difficult to fathom.

What would support for democracy in Guinea look like? The European Union, which resumed aid to Guinea in December, would suspend assistance until Conté agrees to step down. Western democracies would back efforts by the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union to mediate his departure. To prevent the rise of a new military regime, Western democracies would announce that such a government would gain neither recognition nor aid. They would channel new funds to Guinea's unions and rights organizations.

Fear of judicial accountability helped ensure the peacefulness of Ukraine's Orange Revolution two years ago. To deter more violence by security forces, the world's democracies would begin contingency planning for a tribunal to hold accountable those responsible for violence.

The United States forged military links with Conté in the late 1990s against threats from the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, in Sierra Leone and Liberia; Washington has a special responsibility to send these messages to Guinea's military.

A provisional government with international assistance could develop a free and fair election process. At that point, Guineans could finally control their own destiny.

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