GUINEA: Support for civil protests wavering

Monday, January 21, 2008

The sacking of a key reformist politician, and moves by President Lansana Conté to reassert control over the government, have confirmed fears that political reform is stalling.

At the same time a widespread reluctance among Guineans to endure another strike planned by unions to start on Thursday 10 January suggests support for civil protests is wavering.

Guineans have already endured four nationwide union-led strikes in the last 13 months in protest at high food prices, corruption and Conté’s continued leadership.

The strikes were initially seen as highly significant as they shattered the country’s image as an authoritarian, but stable, West African state, and raised expectations that a long-awaited transition away from Conté’s 23-year presidency might be coming.

However, faced with the prospect of more disruption for seemingly little reward, many Guineans say they would rather find a more peaceful and less disruptive way to show their concern.

“I’m not against the strike, but I am afraid because I’m not sure that it is the answer to our problems,” said Ban Mamadou Sanoussy, an English teacher in Conakry.

“I think it is time for the politicians, union leaders and civil society to find a durable solution. Otherwise, we will carry on trashing our belongings and losing our lives for nothing,” Sanoussy said, echoing doubts about “people power” that were rarely aired in public during the heady days of the first anti-government protests in 2006. Those doubts are more commonplace now.

Strike call

The latest strike call came from the prominent National Confederation of Guinean Workers (CNTG) union after Conté sacked one of reformist Prime Minister Lansana Kouyaté’s closest aides, Communications Minister Justin Morel Junior.

Kouyaté was appointed in a deal between Conté and civil society leaders after weeks of strikes and violent clashes between the army and anti-government protesters in early 2007 that left over 100 dead and thousands injured.

Kouyaté was criticised by the president in a New Year speech published by the Guinean state-run news agency on 1 January, but subsequently rescinded by the president’s office.
Conté’s moves followed months of speculation that his allies were preparing to oust Kouyaté, who had managed to improve Guinea’s image enough to win the confidence of several major donors, but in so doing had marginalised some of Conté’s most powerful supporters.

Parliamentary elections originally scheduled for October and then December 2007 have been postponed, and Conté has used presidential decrees to reassert control over key government functions which had been awarded to Kouyaté.

Bucking rumours that he would step down in protest, Kouyaté stayed in power this week, reportedly buoyed by a day of small but violent protests on 5 January in Conakry against the sacking of Morel Junior.

Scepticism about strikes’ impact

Hadja Yayé Thiam, a trader in the capital, Conakry, where there was some of the worst strike-related violence and disturbances last year, said: “They must find an alternative to another strike… We are still feeling the effects of the last strike. If commerce is frozen yet again, we will go back to square one… it is not news to anyone that the strikes have more negative consequences than positive, and what benefits there are go to just a handful of people.”

Kadiatou, a mother who sells cigarettes and sweets beside one of the city’s clogged highways to help support her family, says the strikes have made no difference to prices, and that is why she will not support another one.
“I’m definitely not OK with the strike because we are the only victims,” she said. “After all the deaths in 2007 nothing changed, or in any case, not at the household level. Prices of rice, oil and chilli are all the same as before the January 2007 strikes. We are not ready to relive this nightmare.”

Army still key

Analysts see bauxite and gold-rich Guinea as a potentially rich but politically unstable country menaced by uncertainty over how it will manage the transition away from the leadership of aging leader President Lansana Conté.

While initially seen as a reformer compared to his brutal predecessor, Conté has ruled Guinea uncompromisingly, and weathered long-running boycotts from international donors which have frequently accused his governments of condoning corruption and overseeing rigged elections while cracking down on journalists and opponents.

Although the successive strikes and civil disturbances in Guinea have raised fears of a wider collapse of all state institutions, analysts frequently point to Guinea’s national army as being the linchpin of the country’s stability and say as long as it remains loyal to Conté change is unlikely.

For two weeks in May 2007 mutinous soldiers looted Conakry and garrison towns across the country until a hasty deal for pay rises and mass promotions was reached.

Source: IRIN