- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

CONAKRY, Guinea

Entire neighborhoods in the capital haven’t had electricity or running water for years. The central bank is in such bad shape it sometimes turns to the black market to replenish hard-currency reserves. Doctors joke that the best medicine for the sick is Air France — a plane ride out of the country.

More than ever before, popular anger at Guinea’s plight is being aimed at President Lansana Conte, manifested in a crippling two-week nationwide strike that ended Sunday with an agreement to appoint a new prime minister with expanded powers. For many, it’s not enough.

“Conte must go,” said Sadio Diallo, 22, a university student standing near the hulks of overturned cars torched by a mob last week in a suburb that hasn’t had electricity in 20 months.

Yesterday, the embattled president signed a decree setting out the functions of the incoming prime minister in line with the deal with unions to end the strike.

The decree, according to national broadcaster RTG, said the prime minister’s post was the “chief of government and the coordinator of government action,” in line with union demands to rein in the power of the presidency.

Mr. Conte, who reportedly suffers from severe diabetes and a heart condition, is unlikely to go anywhere soon — at least not willingly. Among the last of Africa’s “Big Men” who clung to power by the gun, fraudulent elections and fear, he likes to say that God put him to power, and only God will remove him.

Guinea has managed to avoid the catastrophic wars that have ravaged its West African neighbors, but 23 years after Mr. Conte seized power in a military coup, his crumbling state looks like a shattered nation recovering from one.

Across the street from the presidential palace, trees and bushes sprout from the windows of an abandoned 15-story building. A few blocks away, Conakry’s poorest eat once a day and live in shelters cobbled together from rusted aluminum siding and debris.

A country half the size of Oregon with half the world’s known reserves of bauxite — the ore used to produce aluminum — plus deposits of gold, diamonds and iron ore, Guinea doesn’t have to be this way. Analysts say the nation at the confluence of several West African rivers could generate enough electricity to power the region.

But Transparency International, an independent group that monitors misgovernance, ranked Guinea as the most corrupt country in Africa in its 2006 annual survey.

Unions estimate the unemployment rate at 60 percent, and skyrocketing inflation means it costs more than a month’s pay for a civil servant to buy a sack of rice.

“We’re like a ship lost at sea,” said Rabiatou Serah Diallo, who heads one of Guinea’s two main unions and lives in a neighborhood that hasn’t had running water in five years. “We don’t know where we’re going. If we’re ever going to find land, we need to change the captain.”

Mr. Conte, who is in his mid-70s, is only the second head of state Guinea has had since independence from France in 1958. The first was Sekou Toure.

There is anxiety about what will happen after Mr. Conte goes.

By law, the head of the national assembly should become president, but many fear the army could undertake a coup if Mr. Conte dies, or even before. They worry, too, about civil war.

Many of those who took part in the nationwide strike hoped it might snowball into a popular, peaceful revolution. But when demonstrators tried to march on the presidential palace on Jan. 22, security forces opened fire, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

Trying to prevent further bloodshed, union leaders halted protests and scaled back demands, urging Mr. Conte not to step down but rather appoint a prime minister with more powers.

It’s a solution that would let everybody declare victory. But it’s a solution Guinea’s 9 million people have seen before.

During a 1996 army mutiny, soldiers angry at their low pay bombarded the presidential palace for several days while Mr. Conte holed up inside. He emerged unscathed, offered raises to his attackers and later named a prime minister for the first time to tackle national ills — problems that persist: water and electricity shortages and high prices for rice, among other things.

Nonetheless, analysts say the mass protests marked the start of a new era.

“The way people are making politically overt claims on the government is qualitatively new and different,” said Mike McGovern, a Guinea analyst at Yale University.

“This has never happened in the last 49 years. Guinea has crossed a threshold. Their aim is not just lower prices for rice and [gasoline], they’re saying, ‘We want to get to the root of the problem, which is bad governance and corruption.’ ”

Thierno Sow, head of Guinea’s main independent human rights group, agreed. “It’s the first time we’ve seen a movement so intense,” he said.

Real change won’t come easy.

Mr. Conte has survived coup attempts, military revolts, a failed attempt on his life and multiparty elections three times since 1993. During the last vote in 2003, the opposition was so discouraged it didn’t field a candidate.

Cheikh Tidiane Traore, a ruling-party lawmaker, concedes Guinea is in bad shape, but argues the president alone is not to blame.

“We must all take blame, especially the ministers. It’s a communal responsibility,” Mr. Traore said.

“We know people are angry. Water and electricity, they’re priorities, they’ll come, but we need time,” he said. And, he added, “the will to change.”

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