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Cry my beloved Guinea
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 10 - 2010

Guinean leaders guffaw for political reform, laments Gamal Nkrumah
The spectre of Guinean political upheaval has reared its ugly head again. For two years a debate about political reform has been bubbling away in the upper echelons of Guinea's state apparatus.
While it would be nice to think so, a big caveat should be heeded. Guinea, a predominantly Muslim nation, in West Africa, and a veritable conduit between Muslim North Africa and Africa south of the Sahara, cannot seem to secure real independence, economic emancipation, and it is putting the whole future of democracy in Africa in question.
Guinea's interim leader General Sekouba Konate indicated that tough decisions and trade-offs have become inevitable in contemporary Guinean politics. The battle to become leader of Guinea is now joined. "Zero tolerance for delinquents," declared General Konate. Guinean reformers should not be deflected, but they cannot play the tribal card.
Guinea has been ruled by authoritarian leaders for the last half a century. But ultimately political oppression does not work. The Guinean people are restless. There is the ominous question of how a bloodletting session would affect the business of politics already unsettled by the democratic failure that prompted ethnic tensions. Then there is the pertinent question of how readily a successor to the Guinean leadership can be found and brought on board. But more important than the immediate effect is the long-term impact on West African democracy.
The antiquated system of petitioning the all-powerful potentate of Guinea is a poor way to address the Guinean citizen's legitimate grievances.
Guinea's postponement of the presidential run-off for the third time is an issue of tremendous importance to the entire West African region. Guinea is just about the only West African country that has not fully embraced Western-style multiparty democracy. Moreover, it is perforated by ethnic tensions. It is no wonder that the mood in the country is ugly.
Can Guinea shake off the yoke of 52 years of authoritarian rule? I believe it can. I first visited the country in 1972 as an impressionable adolescent for the state funeral of my father, Kwame Nkrumah, who was co-president of Guinea with the late Guinean leader Ahmed Sekou Toure. It pains me to see that the country today, if anything, is in a far worse state than it was four decades ago.
Adverse weather events have contributed to Guinea's economic crisis. Heavy rains and droughts have taken their toll on Guinea, a country whose people large live on subsistence farming. However, policy-makers in Guinea will determine whether the turbulence of recent years becomes a regular occurrence. Guinea must catch up with its more democratic neighbours.
We cannot summon the ghost of Sekou Toure today. He was a Malinke, but he was no tribalist. Whatever his faults he did not play the ethnic card. His ancestors, were after all, the valiant leaders of the Malinke people -- Sundiata was the legendary leader of the Malinke nation. He managed to unite the new nation, going about the business of unification in a characteristically dexterous way.
France penalised Guinea. The resource-rich country metamorphosed into one of the poorest and least developed countries in the continent. Climatic change has taken its toll. A mechanism was needed to keep markets open during volatile periods when the vagaries of the weather wreak havoc on the hapless Guinean population. This basic problem is still outstanding.
However politically difficult it is for the cash-strapped government to remedy Guinea's myriad economic problems, the next Guinean government needs to do a better job of managing the economy and to further advance the cause of democracy so that the country can catch up with its West African neighbours -- the exemplary Ghana, Mali and Senegal.
Guinea has promising economic potential. As a bastion of Islam in West Africa, it has tremendous potential as a vinculum between African north and south of the Sahara. The two main ethnic groups of the country -- the Peul and the Malinke -- have extensive tribal connections with peoples throughout West Africa, and beyond reaching the boundaries of Sudan, in Darfur and Kordofan.
Election chief General Toumany Sangare, a national of neighbouring Mali, was called upon to give a semblance of democracy to the embattled nation. Mali is a neighbouring country with a similar ethnic composition to the people of Guinea.
"The unity of the nation will be preserved at any price," Konate unequivocally declared. Ethnic tensions are ripping Guinea apart. Violence has erupted in the Guinean cities of Conakry, the coastal capital, and the inland metropolis of Kankan, the main Malinke economic centre in the heart of the inland region of the Niger River bordering Mali. Violence has also rocked Siguiri, another Malinke stronghold in the west of the country. Guinea is a multi-ethnic nation where the two main ethnic groups, the Peul and the Malinke have traditionally controlled the political process and have held the highest echelons of the military.
The enterprising Peul inhabit the central highlands, controlling commerce , while the Malinke are geographically concentrated in the west of the country on the banks of the Niger River and have extensive ethnic links with their kith and kin in neighbouring Mali and Ivory Coast.
The Peul, who have not had the chance of ruling the country, also have tribal ties to the formidable cabal of Fula or Peul across West Africa from Senegal north of Guinea to Nigeria and Cameroon further West.
The presidential hopefuls, with their moment of truth yet again delayed by General Konate's edict last week, include Alpha Conde, 72-year-old head of the main opposition party Union of Democratic Forces was accused of stoking ethnic tensions. He is widely perceived as the champion of the underdog, even though he is a Malinke. Conde is a seasoned opposition figure even though he hails from the ethnic group that traditionally monopolised power in Guinea. He makes the most political capital out of the ruling clique's lack of priorities.
Cellou Dalien Diallo, 58 years old, is a former prime minister and favourite who garnered 44 per cent of the first round votes. He is a Peul, Guinea's largest ethnic group. The Peul, or Fula, who are predominant in commerce and the economy, have failed to secure political power in the country for many decades.
Neither man is fomenting rebellion, but they both identified important problems facing Guinea. Conde and Diallo must improve their lines of communications with their people, the Guinean people, and not just with their fellow tribesmen. They must do so while the going still looks good for long-term democracy activism.
Public support for democracy and human rights from Guinean leaders is often little more than lip service.
The Guinean people are yearning for true democracy. They are debating whether Western-style democracy can solve all their problems, get rid of abject poverty and diminish the curse of tribalism.
This is a debate Guinea's people deserve. They have long been accustomed to fleeing their homeland and settling in France, and the relatively more prosperous neighbouring West African states of Ivory Coast and Senegal where many of their kith and kin reside. What they need now is to secure a viable democracy in West Africa and repair the damage done to their economy by years of misrule and economic mismanagement.
The Guinean electorate deserves better. Freedom of expression and association are the universal birthright of the long-suffering people of Guinea. The country's constitution guarantees them. Yet of all the West African countries, Guinea has grappled in vain for democracy since independence from France in 1958. Denying Guineans such rights betrays insecurity, not strength. Until the authority of Guinea's leaders is based on popular sovereignty, the insecurity will remain.
Interim Prime Minister Jean-Marie Dore declared a ban on demonstrations in the country. Dore, a Christian in a predominantly Muslim nation, has urged Guinea's political bigwigs to refrain from instigating violence. The international community, too, is worried about Guinea's political crisis.
Guinea is the world's largest aluminum ore bauxite producer and has vast reserves of iron ore, gold and other minerals. The 38 Francophone nations, at a summit in Switzerland this week, expressed "grave concern" about political developments in Guinea. However, like the United Nations and the African Union, the Francophone nations are incapable of resolving Guinea's political problems if the people of the country themselves are not willing or able to overcome the political impasse.

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