Lines on a Map: Conakry, Guinea

It was blast from an unpleasant past. I was in Guinea this past August, and every night on Guinean television, Monsieur President Capitaine Moussa Dadis Camara would spend two, three, even four hours meeting softball questions with long, rambling diatribes.

He speaks weird French, mostly the stuffy, verbose version spoken by West African functionaries, but liberally sprinkled with all sorts of terminology straight from the revolutionary struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

He stares into the camera wearing fatigues, a red beret and sunglasses, every inch the picture of what he is – a junior army officer who somehow managed to take over the country.

Government soldiers opened fire on demonstrators demanding that the captain not stand in the elections he had promised. More than 150 people were killed. Many women were horrifically raped, and regular life in Guinea has been brought to a standstill as the opposition stages a series of strikes.

No one knows how or when elections might occur or what the fate of Camara’s junta will be.
Travelling around Guinea before the massacre, the prevailing attitude towards the junta – named with the usual complete lack of irony, The Committee for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD) – was not one of fear. It was an odd mix of derision, mockery and hope.

When the president got up in front of the cameras and spoke about defeating corruption, stopping the drug trade, bringing Guinea out of poverty and asserting its independence, people were watching.

Plenty of people even believed it, or at least said that they did. Then they remembered that the main visible impact of the coup has been the military checkpoints that have sprouted outside every town.

To date, the only purpose of these checkpoints seems to be allowing cash-strapped soldiers to extract $0.20 bribes from bush-taxi passengers. Every time we passed one of these checkpoints, the car erupted in mockery about 100 metres down the road.

Nevertheless, there was support for the junta, and for a time it was pretty widespread. The coup happened after the death of the last president, Lansana Conte, who had tottered on in power since 1984.

People were tired of him, tired of the ongoing economic collapse, tired of the repression. I never met a Guinean who even held out a hope of democracy emerging anytime soon; in the absence of that, the breath of fresh air that Camara offered was met with a pretty welcoming reception. Street vendors were doing fine business in Camara stickers and t-shirts, and you often heard quite sincere faith in the man.

To a foreigner like me, this all seemed sadly naïve. The CNDD seemed so obviously a caricature, just another group of army toughs looking to get their hands into the state till for a little while. It did not help that General Camara is, well, pretty silly to listen to.
As he gets more and more excited on whatever topic he’s theoretically speaking about, his voice rises up and up in pitch until it cracks like a 13-year-old.

It was also hard to take his leadership seriously when a major topic of his rants became that favourite amongst the insecure authoritarian – plots against the people’s government.

While I was meandering towards Guinea through the south of Senegal, Guinean government press releases were warning citizens about anti-government forces, in league with drug cartels, plotting invasions from Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

None of it is true, but external threats are the lifeblood of any insecure regime. The result of this is even more soldiers to demand bribes. To most foreigners, and cynical Guineans, the CNDD’s invocation of the international drug threat seemed a transparent plea for aid and attention from the drug-war-obsessed United States.

From this arose derision and mockery. However, there was also plenty of hope that elections will happen as scheduled, that life may get better and that the economy might pick up again.

I can only hope that some of that feeling survived the bullets. For all the apathy I encountered in Guinea, 50,000 people were in the stadium when the troops opened fire. I can only imagine that after the massacre, many of the fence-sitters have turned to opponents. The regime has been discredited. But where does that leave Guineans?

Having popped up on the nightly news for a couple days, they now see their country sinking back to obscurity.

The junta just signed a multi-billion-dollar investment agreement with a Chinese consortium that could well prop them up. The international community talks sanctions, but their efficacy is pretty dubious. Perhaps the best we can do is simply keep paying attention.
There has been a great deal of real progress towards democracy and better governance in Africa over the past years. Guineans deserve more than to see history repeated.

Josh Smyth is an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University. His column “Lines on a Map” will be a recurring feature in Cord International. It will document Josh’s travel adventures throughout Western Africa. In September 2009, Josh Smyth was travelling in Guinea and wrote this column.