On the evening of January 27, when the government and the unions signed an agreement suspending a bloody general strike, Guineans took to the streets of Conakry, the capital city of this West African country, congratulating each other and honking their horns to celebrate.
It seemed that President Lansana Conte, 72, who suffers from severe diabetes, had yielded after the unions had called the strike to protest the high cost of living, mismanagement of the economy and the president's interference with the justice system. They demanded that Conte nominate a "consensus prime minister" with extensive executive powers for a three-year transition period during which parliamentary and presidential elections would be organized.
The strike, which cost 59 lives, was brought to an end after 18 days by Conte's agreement to appoint a prime minister who would have authority to nominate and remove cabinet ministers and other senior civil servants. He was to be a reputable person who had never served as a minister and had no links with partisan groups. The agreement also provided that the prices of fuel and rice – the main staple food – would be reduced.
Emerging from the 12-hour meeting which sealed the agreement, Elhadji Aboubacar Sompare, president of the National Assembly and coordinator of the government's negotiation team, declared: "There are no winners and no losers… This is a victory of all Guineans."
It took almost two weeks – and an ultimatum by the unions – for Conte to name the prime minister. He chose Eugene Camara, who had not only served as a minister in various Conte governments but was minister in charge of presidential affairs at the time of his appointment and is known as a de facto staunch Conte supporter.
Immediately following the nomination, and before union, civil society and political leaders denounced what they called "an insult to Guineans," violence erupted in several cities, including Conakry where three people were killed by anti-riot police on Friday night.
Violence and lawlessness continued nationwide on Saturday and Sunday. Mobs looted and destroyed private businesses and houses as well as government properties. In Kankan, about 400 miles northeast of Conakry, the headquarters of the United Nations World Food Program was attacked and its rice stocks stolen. Reports indicate that troops joined the looting.
Protesters, unions and civil society organizations consider that Conte has broken the agreement. Eugene Camara, they say, is too close to the President. They have called for the strike to resume and for both the new prime minister and the president to resign.
Guinea is now experiencing an insurrection. Heavily-armed troops are patrolling the street and they do not hesitate to use their weapons. The few international airlines flying to Conakry cancelled their flights during the weekend for "security reasons."
Local residents and the media report that in the early hours of this morning there was sustained gunfire within Camp Alfa Yaya, the main military garrison just blocks from the international airport. It is suggested that some soldiers, unhappy at the presence of mercenaries and foreign troops in their ranks, have mutinied. Several sources indicate the government is ready to declare a state of emergency.
What happened between January 27, when the agreement between the government and the unions was signed, and February 9, when Eugene Camara was nominated as prime minister?
There are two possibilities:
Whatever Conte's reasoning, he needs to realise that it is just not possible for a small group of people, no matter how well armed, to hold ten million people hostage. History has proved that even in the worst dictatorships – such as that of Mobutu in Zaire or Idi Amin in Uganda– the will of the people and their fight for freedom and equal economic opportunity always prevails.
Beyond Guinea, the future of the whole West African region is at stake. If the escalating conflict in Guinea results in massacres, cohorts of Guineans will flood into the fragile neighbouring countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Mali and Senegal, setting off a humanitarian catastrophe whose magnitude is not readily predictable.
Future generations will not accept the often-used excuse that Conte does not listen to anyone. If the international community, led by the African Union and Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States), backed by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, does not immediately press Conte to find a lasting solution, it will share responsibility for what happens.
The author of this column has requested that it be published without attribution.