18 February 2007

Guinea: The Case for U.S. Action

guest column

Washington, DC — While the United States government plans to send an additional 20,000 troops to shore up a flawed military strategy in Iraq, it has failed to support the people of Guinea, where its development efforts to bring about increased democracy through increasing civil society advocacy and participation in the political process have paid off, but at the unnecessary cost of at least 300 Guinean lives since January 22, 2007.

The U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) more than $15 million investment since 1998 to encourage Guinea's fatalistic and quiescent civil society to be more forceful advocates for democracy and good governance has now achieved demonstrated results. The question now is whether the United States will act to help protect Guinea's people from its brutal dictator, President General Lansana Conté.

It was in large measure America's refusal to aid the first President of Guinea, Sékou Touré in 1959, after the French abruptly ended economic support in an effort to punish Guinea for opting for independence in 1958, that forced Touré to align himself with the Soviet Union and establish 26 years of brutal Marxist rule in that country. Touré instilled a climate of fear and intimidation from 1961 until his death in 1984.

Camp Boiro in the capital city of Conakry was Guinea's "Gulag," where nearly 5,000 political detainees, including the country's intellectual, military, commercial and political elite, were killed from starvation, torture, or gunfire. Over two million people fled the country between 1961 and 1984.The military took over after Touré died in an American hospital in 1984, and they appointed General Lansana Conté, who has ruled with an iron hand ever since.

On January 22, twelve days after the beginning of the third non-violent national strike initiated by the two major public and private labor union federations, the USTG and CNTG, Guinea had the largest protest march in its history. Tens of thousands Guineans joined a peaceful protest march in Conakry, to dramatize their concern about President Lansana Conté's poor economic governance. President Conté's defence and security forces (DSFs), augmented by 150 commandos from Guinea Bissau, fired into the crowd of unarmed demonstrators, killing at least 60 and wounding hundreds of others. Twenty days later, on February 12th, Conté issued a decree imposing martial law in Guinea through February 23rd.

Draconian in nature, it permits unlimited search, seizure, arrests, control of all private media and telephone communications, and unrestrained use of force, and provides immunity from future punishment for acts committed by DSFs during the period of martial law. As a result, at least 300 have been reported killed, hundreds have been arrested, the two private radio stations have been shut down and their offices were ransacked, and journalists and others have been beaten, arrested, raped and robbed of cell phones, money DVDs, and other personal possessions through wanton, unlawful predation by Guinea's defense and security forces led by the Presidential Guard, the Red Berets.

Following a nearly one year effort by the USTG-CNTG led labor movement to bring about change in Guinea, this third union strike since February 27, 2006 was called to express Guinean concerns about:

• the president's interference with judicial decisions by liberating in December two citizens, Mamadou Sylla, a businessman and Fodé Soumah, following their arrest for corruption.

• Inability of the Central Bank to provide foreign reserves required by the commercial banks in Guinea for trade operations, which resulted in a large Guinea government (GoG) debt to the Central Bank, thereby increasing the cost of living for Guineans.

• Demonstrated inability of the GoG to stop the depreciation of the Guinean Franc, leading to inflation and the dramatic decline of Guineans' purchasing power;

• Violation of Article 18 of Guinea's Constitution and ILO Conventions Nos. 87, 98, which guarantee the independence of labor unions;

• Notable severe incapacity of the President after seven years of increasing failing health and recent dementia to correctly perform the duties conferred upon him by the Guinean people;

• Notorious indifference of the National Assembly, Supreme Court, and the National Economic and Social Council to this calamitous situation; and

• the USTG-CNTG no longer have any credible leaders either from the government or the private sector (Patronat) since Mamadou Sylla's arrest and destitution as president of the Patronat to meet with in order to ensure the full and comprehensive implementation of the tripartite accords between the GoG, Patronat, and labor unions agreed to on March 3 and June 16, 2006.

This lack of Washington's concrete action to end these atrocities and restore justice in Guinea is even more disturbing following condemnations from the African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States, the United Nations, the European Union (EU), France, Japan, the Pope, the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The U.S. Ambassador in Guinea finally did issue a statement expressing grave concern about the situation and calling for the resumption of dialogue and negotiations and the State Department's evacuated dependents and non-essential personnel from Guinea. Although there are reports that the U.S. is trying to work through the African Union and ECOWAS to end this crisis, the time has come for our government to take more concrete action.

There is not a civil war in Guinea, as suggested by Guinea's ailing, authoritarian, military President. Instead, his order to shoot peaceful, unarmed, marchers, renege on his written agreements, and impose martial law, unleashing brutal soldiers to steal, rape, arrest and torture innocent civilians, has provoked a popular uprising in Guinea.

His violent retaliation has radicalized what was principally a quest for good economic and political governance. After 48 years of harsh repression, lies, incompetent and corrupt rule - 23 years of which took place under Lansana Conté - the Guinean people simply could not take it anymore.

Why should Americans care?

Guinea matters to the United States for at least four reasons. First, because this West African country of nearly 10 million people has been the island of stability in the volatile sub-region of Africa that includes the neighboring states of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea Bissau – all states which have experienced serious civil wars over the past decade. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Benin, Nigeria and Guinea have all scheduled important national elections this spring. Political instability in Guinea might derail the Guinean and Sierra Leonean elections.

Second, Guinea is important because it possesses the world largest supply of bauxite required for aluminum, as well as gold and diamonds. North America's Alcoa-Alcan consortium is the largest investor in bauxite followed by the Canadian-American Company Global Alumina, and an American company recently received the concession to explore offshore oil in the Gulf of Guinea.

Third, eight-five percent of Guinea's population is Muslim and many of its younger clerics study in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and return to Guinea as proponents of the more conservative Wahaabi beliefs that inspired Al Qaeda. The Lebanese, many of whom support Hezbollah, dominate the middle class export-import sector.

Fourth, Guinea has been the one Francophone African country that looks first to the United States, rather than to France, as a friend and a model. In addition, the United States initiated the first bilateral U.S.-Guinea Consultations in March 2006 and just invested in a modern multimillion dollar embassy opened last summer. Moreover, many Guineans have immigrated to the United States, including several of its former officials, such as Cellou Dalein Diallo, the reformist former Prime Minister of Guinea sacked by Lansana Conté in April 2006. We should never forget Amadou Diallo, the innocent man brutally riddled with bullets by New York City police a few years ago.

What can be done?

The first order of business is for the U.S. and the international community to use more forceful diplomatic pressure to stop the martial law and the atrocities in Guinea. Then,

• The United States should request an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the crisis in Guinea;

• The Security Council should declare the situation in Guinea to be a threat to international peace and security as the dangers of escalation are real and do indeed represent a threat to the peace and security in West Africa, particularly to Sierra Leone and Liberia who remain fragile as they try to rebuild after their civil wars and prepare for elections this spring and to Côte d'Ivoire still in the throes of violence;

• The United States should take the position that President Conté's gross and systematic violation of the human rights of his citizens in Guinea is just cause for a "humanitarian intervention," the justification used to protect Somalis under the former President Bush. President Conté's failing health and increasing dementia have prevented him from ruling rationally for over a year; he has systematically violated the country's constitution, has now created crimes against humanity; and therefore is no longer a credible leader;

• Since President Conte has demonstrated time and time again that he does not honor his commitments, there no longer is any reason to enter into any dialogue with him. One option is to remove him to another country, as the U.S. did with former President Aristide of Haiti, perhaps this time to Morocco or Saudi Arabia, where he can do no harm.

The democracy movement in Guinea has acted peacefully in a manner consistent with the Guinean constitution to try to bring about change in Guinea, following persistent pressure on them by the U.S. Embassy in Guinea to do so. They continue to pursue their goals non-violently at great cost to their lives and the Guinean economy. The ball is now in the court of the United States, whose mantra has become democratic governance and "transformational diplomacy," and the international community, who need to help protect the Guinean people from the killings and pillaging of its brutal government.

The author is a former Team Leader for Democracy and Governance Programs in Guinea.

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