In one of the poorest and most volatile neighbourhoods of Conakry new solar-panelled street lights line a boulevard for nearly three kilometres, the shiny lampposts standing out amid crumbling cinder block buildings and rutted dirt roads.
“That came with ‘le changement’,” one Guinean said, using one of the most often-heard phrases here these days – referring to the change of government that took place in March after weeks of unprecedented citizen demonstrations for better living conditions and the ouster of the president of 23 years, Lansana Conte.
In a compromise Conte named a consensus prime minister, Lansana Kouyate, who came in promising Guineans what most have been deprived of for decades – access to the most basic of services like electricity, clean water and sanitation.
Some seven months later precise data about how many have access to water and electricity is scarce. Sources with international organisations told IRIN they have only anecdotal information to date.
A source with the European Union delegation in Guinea said only: “As far as basic services, namely water and electricity, some improvements have taken place in the last weeks allowing to light some areas of Conakry, but a lot of work is left to do.”
But Guineans and international observers alike say they have seen marked improvement.
In the Cameroun neighbourhood of the Guinean capital, for the past two months running water has been more frequent in some households, residents told IRIN. “Since about two months ago there has been a change for the better,” Fatoumata Binta Lena said on 16 October. A faucet in the family yard, which was usually dry except for a few hours in the middle of the night, now flows more often during daytime hours.
Mamadou Dian Diallo, in Conakry’s poor and crime-ridden Hamdallaye neighbourhood, told IRIN he and his neighbours have electricity far more regularly than in the past. “Before, we could go for a week without electricity – often even as long as a month. For several weeks now, in many areas the power has been coming on nearly every day at 6pm.”
“There has been some progress,” said Rabiatou Serah Diallo, head of the National Confederation of Guinean Workers union which spearheaded this year’s strikes. “Even if we haven’t seen total satisfaction, all the same we’ve seen progress [on the problem of water and electricity in some areas].”
Anything close to “total satisfaction” is a long way off in Guinea, a country rich in natural resources but where – according to the UN – just 8 percent of the population has access to electricity and around 50 percent to clean drinking water.
The new water and power connections have not been consistent and many Conakry neighbourhoods remain in total darkness even as neighbouring houses glow with dim lightbulbs. Many wonder whether the changes are due to quick fixes rather than durable repairs to a decrepit infrastructure and decades of poor management.
Water or riots
How long the people are willing to wait for real and lasting change, and what will mollify them in the meantime, are crucial questions, observers say.
“Today Guinea is a place where one sees immediately and very directly how the lack of access to basic goods and services affects stability and security,” said one international observer not authorised to speak on the record.
A leader of Guinea’s labour unions – the sector that launched the January/February strikes – said stability is out of the question if the people’s basic needs are not met.
“If [access to water and electricity] is not achieved, it goes without saying that we cannot even talk about stability or peace in the country,” Ibrahima Fofana, secretary general of the Guinean Workers Union, told IRIN on 16 October.
After the events of early this year – in which at least 137 people died in a crackdown by security forces – Guineans will not be ready for another compromise, observers told IRIN. One analyst who could not be named said, “If people were to take to the streets again it would be far worse.” He added, “The next time they would go all the way” – referring to youths who stood ready to continue their protests, in the face of deadly military force, until President Conte was out.
“In January and February there were times when nobody was in control here,” a Western diplomat told IRIN. “And there are a lot of young people in the suburbs who have got nothing to lose. If their frustration comes out because of poor services and such, it cannot be controlled other than by the army shooting them.”
He added, “I still think the prime minister has a lot of support from the general public and they want him to succeed. But I think it’s clear that people are getting frustrated.”
Observers and Guineans alike say they are concerned about the upcoming anniversary of the strikes. “If there aren’t concrete achievements by then, I think a lot of frustration will come out, if it doesn’t come before then,” the diplomat said.
Diallo in Hamdallaye, whose 16-year-old brother was shot dead in the military crackdown, said for now his brother and others cannot be said to have died in vain. “This will turn bad if and only if we don’t achieve what we fought for – that is, improvements in our living conditions.”
Adequate basic services could even play a role in tempering long-simmering ethnic tensions, some observers say. In the past few months, friction among Guinea’s three main ethnic groups – Soussou, Malinké and Peulh – has surfaced with some accusing Kouyate, who is Malinké, of favouring people of his ethnic group in choosing prefects or awarding contracts.
Gilles Yabi, West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group said if the people were satisfied with Kouyate’s performance they would give less weight to the ethnic question. “Citizens would be less prone to fall into the ethnic debate if they saw the prime minister achieving steps that make a palpable difference in their daily living conditions.”
Back in the Cameroun section of Conakry, university student Oumar Ba held up the end of a gushing water pipe sticking out of the ground, demonstrating that there is water pressure even during the day. This was not the case in the past, he said. Asked why he thought this improvement came about, he smiled and said tentatively, as if he did not want to speak too soon, “Perhaps it’s because of le changement?”