There is a baseline level of corruption, abuse of power, ethnic infighting, and torture that we just tolerate in Africa. While we preoccupy ourselves with dithering over the more extreme cases the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda, the Robert Mugabes other, slightly better-behaved regimes continue with their dirty work largely unnoticed.
One such regime fell earlier this week, in West Africa, in the Republic of Guinea, leaving Guineans wondering what comes next.
International news outlets are reporting that Lansana Conté, Guinea's "President" of 24 years, died Monday morning after an extended illness. Not surprisingly, given the nature of Guinean politics, junior and midlevel military officers promptly pushed out the remaining civilian leadership in a coup, and the fate of a government recently described by the U.S. State Department as a "constitutional republic in which effective power is concentrated in a strong presidency" hangs in the air, pending further action by its new, self-appointed leadership.
The Herald Tribune reports that thousands of supporters have assembled in traditional funerary garb to mourn Conté's passing. The sad faces in white presumably do not belong to members of the Rassemblement du Peuple de Guinée, the principal political party opposing Conté's government. The RPG, largely comprised of Malinkes, Guinea's largest ethnic group Conté was a member of the minority Soussou group has been harassed and abused by government authorities over the years. Conté's people have shut down its presses and headquarters over trumped-up allegations of planned coups d'etat; RPG candidates for public office, and most notably its leading light, Alpha Conde, have been arrested and driven out of country; and the party's supporters have been intimidated and arrested, imprisoned, and tortured (see here and here) without charges.
"Strong presidency" indeed.
Most of what I know about Guinea I learned from a former client of mine ("Client") who sought (and ultimately obtained from an immigration law judge, after an absurd amount of posturing and delay from the CIS Asylum Office) political asylum in the United States. Client tells me that Conté came to power himself by coup d'etat in 1984, during a period of wrangling to succeed Guinea's first and only President to that point, Ahmed Sékou Touré. Sékou Touré, a Malinke, was a pan-African socialist; he took power after France granted Guinea independence, and he rejected France's proffer of membership in an elite "commonwealth" of African nations under its influence. The French regarded Sékou Touré's rejection as the height of ingratitude, and so they destroyed much of Guinea's infrastructure on their way out of the country. As bad as the imperalist French were, Sékou Touré, with his grand ideological designs, was arguably worse. He ruled over Guinea with an iron fist, nationalizing industries left and right (well, left and left). Members of the political opposition simply disappeared during his reign, and some 50,000 deaths have been attributed to his government. Sékou Touré's instinct may have been to reject all things European, and yet he was able to bring himself to appreciate the utility of the concentration camp.
Client, who is Malinke, did well under Sékou Touré, even if the country did not. Client went to university, and military recruiters handpicked him to join Guinea's nascent air force. Sékou Toure's socialism brought him into the Soviet orbit, and the Russians trained my client to fly MiG fighter jets in Central Asia. When Conté took power, and the Malinkes fell out of favor, Client was busted down to guard duty, then contracted out by the President to fly diamonds out of the mines in the Guinée Forestière region to their European buyers. It shouldn't be too hard to guess who profited and prospered from the mining arrangements — hint: not the Guinean people, and not Client.
When the RPG emerged as a legitimate opposition party, and Alpha Condé stepped forward as a legitimate civilian candidate for the Guinean Presidency in 1998, Client joined the party. The Conté regime regarded Client as a threat — he was, after all, a well-respected military officer who had retained his rank after Conté's coup (if not his duties). And he was Malinke. Thus began a series of unprovoked arrests by Conté's gendarmerie, culminating in a three-day stint in 2001 at Camp Alpha Yaya Diallo, a notorious torture prison named for a famous Guinean pop singer. Imagine Guantanamo's Camp X-Ray, but orders of magnitude more brutal, and renamed "Camp Elvis Presley." The gendarmes tied Client down and beat him brutally, burning him with cigars while they interrogated him. They demanded that he confess involvement in a fantastical plot to overthrow the state. Client didn't break, the authorities released him, and Client returned home to his family. After Conté's goons sent a car plunging into his parked jeep by the Conakry docks ("make it look like an accident," was no doubt one component of their orders), Client became convinced he wasn't safe. He went into hiding until friends, calling in favors from friends, managed to pull him U.S. and Schengen travel visas (or reasonable facsimiles thereof — it was never clear). Client managed to low-profile his way onto an Air France flight through Paris to Philadelphia and safety.
Client wasn't a high-level RPG operative. He wasn't fomenting revolution. He was just a party member who went to meetings. He didn't even speak at the meetings. The fact that he was targeted, tortured, and driven from his country says something about the depth and breadth of Conté's effort to suppress dissent. That the State Department described Conté's thug regime as "a strong presidency," and that the Herald Tribune should credit Conté for the "stability" of his government, say a great deal about the state of African national politics today. Conté's government is the sort of African government we don't notice and if we do, we tolerate it, because we see so much worse elsewhere on the continent.
Today's coupsters are promising elections in 2010 (no need to hurry, apparently). Word is that the junta is comprised principally of Malinkes. The interim President, Moussa Dadis Camara, is a veteran of minor insurgencies against Conté while he was alive — over matters like military pay. Camara's propaganda machine is already in full swing:
Camara himself, however, has been at pains to deny that personal political ambition has played any part in the coup, insisting he is a "calming influence."
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"We have no intention of clinging on to power. We must hold an election, free and transparent, in a dignified way to honour Guinea, to honour the army.
"The future of our country is peace, freedom, reconciliation. After that, the most important thing is to fight injustice and nepotism in order to take up the challenge of relaunching the economy of the country," he said in a statement directed at foreign leaders."
Despite this apparent modesty, Camara has not been shy in promoting his own qualities, telling a news conference: "I did not come to power by accident, it is due to a lot of qualities. I am a patriot."
Notwithstanding these noble protestations, you can expect Camara to be governing Guinea into the ground five, ten years from now. Toward that end, Camara would do well to follow Conté's example of measured, low-profile cruelty. Some rules Conté followed, to his substantial benefit:
(1) Try to be just slightly less murderous and brutal than your predecessor, and a lot less brutal than your most extreme contemporaries in Africa. You'll come off as heroic by comparison.
(2) Fear the military, but respect it, too. Conduct the usual purges, but know when to quit: it's enough to strip your potential rivals of their powers and responsibilities — let them keep their rank.
(3) When you arrest and torture members of the political opposition, be sure to set a "context" for these actions by circulating rumors of a military plot to overthrow the government. A coup is always plausible in Guinea, and it furnishes a legal basis for the abuse.
So long as you follow these rules, Captain Camara, your prospects for an enduring, brutal, unchallenged "strong presidency" are limitless. Now get to work fixing that 2010 election.