13 February 2007

Guinea: Conté Declares 'State of Siege'

President Lansana Conte of Guinea has declared a "state of siege" and instituted martial law after bloody nationwide demonstrations in which 23 people are reported to have died.

In a rare address on radio and television, lasting just under two minutes, Conte said he had ordered the army to "take all necessary measures" to restore order and "avoid the risk of a civil war."

His decree places all the country's security operations in the hands of the military for up to 11 days. Under Guinea's constitution, parliament would have to be convened to extend the emergency. Under its provisions, basic individual liberties and human rights are denied: the military can search private property, monitor communications and arrest, without warrant, anyone suspected of causing public disorder.

The president acted after a weekend of protests against his nomination of Eugene Camara, a close ally, as prime minister, a violation of a January 27 agreement with unions in which he had agreed to appoint "a consensus prime minister with extensive executive powers." The agreement secured a suspension of an 18-day general strike called by the unions, during which 59 people died in clashes with the security forces.

Conte seized control of the government in a coup in 1984 but has since won three elections. His latest action, coming after he indicated in January that he was open to dialogue and negotiation, is seen as a desperate measure to retain his position by falling back on those who brought him to power.

The 72-year-old leader has frequently stated that God put him in power and only God can remove him. In December, he went as far as to say, "I am the state, and I am justice," when he personally went to the central prison to release Mamadou Sylla and Fode Souma, two allies accused of corruption.

Guinea, lying on the west Atlantic shoreline, is rich in natural and mineral resources. The country has about two-thirds of the world's bauxite reserves, the raw material to produce alumina and aluminum.

Speaking in Washington on February 12, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia – which borders Guinea – indicated that if the situation worsened it would threaten the stability of the whole region.

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