- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

As military juntas go, the regime in Guinea of Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara seems unusually sensitive to international criticism.

After human rights groups and aid donors said he was dragging his feet on holding elections in the small West African nation, Capt. Camara pledged this week to hold a presidential election in December.

Africa specialists applauded the move and said that Guinea, after decades of brutal and corrupt rule, was at a turning point: The junta could be the catalyst for Guinea to rebuild and democratize - or Capt. Camara could become the latest in a line of dictators.

The junta took over in December, after the death of Gen. Lansana Conte, who had presided over a notoriously corrupt and destructive government. Under Gen. Conte, government officials embezzled money from the state on a massive scale and cocaine traffickers from South America made drugs one of Guinea's primary businesses, said J. Peter Pham, an African politics and security specialist who lived in Guinea for two years.

Although Gen. Conte held supposedly democratic elections in 1993, the results were disputed. Mr. Pham said the Conte regime corrupted every corner of the government and destroyed any sense of the rule of law, leaving seemingly few prospects for reform.

"The problem with Guinea is that General Conte and his quarter-century of rule compromised civilian leadership in the country," Mr. Pham said.

After Gen. Conte's death, Capt. Camara jumped in to fill the power vacuum, forming the National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD) and promising to hold "free, credible and transparent elections" in 2010.

He capitalized on public outrage over corruption and held a series of televised confessions of top officials, including Gen. Conte's eldest son, who admitted to drug trafficking.

International and regional reaction was negative, however.

The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, dissatisfied by the time frame for elections, suspended Guinea.

The European Union and the U.S. State Department also demanded that Capt. Camara hold elections sooner. He bowed to those pressures last week.

"The CNDD is following the proposal made by political parties, trade unions and civil society organizations," government spokesman Mandjou Diallo said on state television.

The first round of presidential elections will take place Dec. 13, two months after legislative elections scheduled for Oct. 11, the CNDD said, Reuters news agency reported.

Still, concerns remain over Capt. Camara's leadership.

Corinne Dufka, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, based in Senegal, said that Capt. Camara is concentrating power in the hands of a small group of military officials. She also said that the military had engaged in extortion and bribery under the pretext of funding a crackdown on drug smuggling and that there had been reports of soldiers stealing cars.

"Guineans deserve a chance at having a better government," she said.

Guinea, an Oregon-sized nation of 10 million people, has tremendous potential.

The nation is rich in gold, diamonds and other minerals, and is the world's largest exporter of bauxite. But its promise has been dashed by poor leadership. After independence from France in 1958, the brutal Sekou Toure seized power, imprisoning and torturing opponents and eliminating freedom of the press.

Commuters traveling across the main bridge into the capital city of Conakry in the morning would often find bodies hanging from the rafters, and even government workers were killed.

Gen. Conte, who had previously served as the regime's hangman, took over after Mr. Toure's death in 1984, promising to rebuild the traumatized country. He restored freedom of the press and ended the slaughter, but his government quickly fell victim to corruption.

This bleak history has made the new junta popular among Guineans, but the challenges it faces are substantial after a half-century of chaos and graft.

Mr. Pham said the country desperately needs infrastructure and has only one road that travels the length of Guinea, making valuable minerals in the mountains difficult to access.

"This is an entire country with only 1,000 miles of paved surfaces," he said.

Other problems include retaining and attracting investment and aid workers. Contractors have historically been eager to do business in Guinea, but have been disenchanted by corrupt officials eager to fleece them through punitive fees and bribes. As a result, Guinea sparkles with untapped mineral fields and is littered with half-constructed buildings of companies and nongovernmental organizations that have fled the country.

The average Guinean lives in abject poverty, making about a dollar per day, according to the State Department. Nevertheless, there is hope, said Ms. Dufka of Human Rights Watch.

"Guinea stands at a historic crossroads," she said. "Improving the chronic human rights problems that have undermined the civil, political, social and economic rights of the Guinean population for decades must be a top priority of the current government."

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