Guinea: A Setback for Africa

Stephen DeAngelis

October 15, 2009

Late last month, violence erupted in the small, west African country of Guinea when government troops fired on unarmed participants involved in a political demonstration in a stadium located in the country’s capital of Conakry. Most sources indicate that 157 demonstrators were killed; although the government disputes that number. Guinea is about the size of Oregon. It begins on the African coast and wraps around behind Sierra Leone and Liberia. Although it calls itself a “Republic,” it has had only three leaders since receiving its independence from France in 1958. The country’s second president, Lansana Conte, came to power in 1984, when the military seized the government after the death of the first president Sekou Toure. Although Conte held elections, in 1993, 1998, and again in 2003, he managed to remain in power until he died in December 2008. Upon his death, history repeated itself and Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara led a military coup, seizing power and suspending the constitution as well as political and union activity.

Anyone familiar with that part of the world knows that violence has stalked it for decades. Guinea’s neighbor, Sierra Leone, has particularly suffered from violence that has occasionally spilled over into Guinea. What is most worrisome about the violence now being seen in Guinea is that government soldiers appear to be targeting women [“In a Guinea Seized by Violence, Women Are Prey,” by Adam Nossiter, New York Times, 6 October 2009]. It’s impossible for the government to deny allegations because the attacks have been caught on cellphones and circulated around the world. Nossiter writes:

“Cellphone snapshots, ugly and hard to refute, are circulating [in Guinea] and feeding rage: they show that women were the particular targets of the Guinean soldiers who suppressed a political demonstration at a stadium here [in late September], with victims and witnesses describing rapes, beatings and acts of intentional humiliation. … One photograph shows a naked woman lying on muddy ground, her legs up in the air, a man in military fatigues in front of her. In a second picture a soldier in a red beret is pulling the clothes off a distraught-looking woman half-lying, half-sitting on muddy ground. In a third a mostly nude woman lying on the ground is pulling on her trousers. The cellphone pictures are circulating anonymously, but multiple witnesses corroborated the events depicted.”

Women have always been an at-risk population during conflicts — be they internal or transnational. Even United Nations “peacekeepers” have been charged with raping women they have sworn to protect. In 1977, Michael Walzer wrote a book entitled Just and Unjust Wars. In that volume, he wrote:

“Rape is a crime, in war as in peace, because it violates the rights of a woman who is attacked. … When soldiers respect these bans [on rape and murder], they are not acting kindly or gently or magnanimously; they are acting justly. If they are humanitarian soldiers, they may indeed do more than is required of them — sharing food with civilians, for example, rather than merely not raping or killing them. But the ban on rape and murder is a matter of right.”

The soldiers committing the heinous crimes digitally captured by cellphone deserve to be imprisoned; but Camara has turned a blind eye to their actions. His complicity in the violence has, Nossiter reports, “irreversibly undermined Mr. Camara’s standing with other countries.” The murders and rapes have hardened opposition against Camara’s leadership and more violence is likely to result. Camara has two choices: step down from office or step up the crackdown. Few men who seize power by force ever leave power voluntarily. That means the most likely outcome is that Camara will “tighten his grip with an even more authoritarian government.” In a follow-up article, Nossiter reports that the United States has now taken a stand against the violence in Guinea [“U.S. Envoy Protests Violence in Guinea,” New York Times, 7 October 2009].

“The Obama administration has injected itself into the crisis in Guinea, taking the unusual step of sending a senior diplomat to protest the mass killings and rapes. … Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for ‘appropriate actions’ against a military government that she said ‘cannot remain in power.’ ‘It was criminality of the greatest degree, and those who committed such acts should not be given any reason to expect that they will escape justice,’ Mrs. Clinton told reporters in Washington. She said that the nation’s leader, Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara, and his government ‘must turn back to the people the right to choose their own leaders.’ … On [5 October], William Fitzgerald, deputy assistant secretary of state, met with Captain Camara for two hours. He said he insisted, in strong language, that Captain Camara was responsible for the violence, despite the military strongman’s repeated denials. Mr. Fitzgerald said he also repeated that Captain Camara should not run in the elections, a key opposition demand. … The response from the captain was noncommittal, he said.”

Things are not likely to go well in Guinea. Camara is quickly becoming a pariah internationally and a tyrant at home — exactly the opposite of the kind of leadership necessary to usher in an era of development, hope, and peace. Given the right kind of leadership Guinea could have a very promising future. The country has major mineral, hydropower, and agricultural resources. It sits atop almost half of the world’s bauxite reserves — the most important aluminum ore. Unfortunately, Guinea’s military junta looks like it is going to be propped up by Chinese investments [“Guinea Boasts of Deal With Chinese Company,” by Adam Nossiter, New York Times, 14 October 2009]. Nossiter reports:

“Guinea’s military government, facing international sanctions and heavy strictures over a mass killing of unarmed demonstrators, is highlighting a recent agreement with a Chinese company that could provide it with billions of dollars. Mamadi Kallo, the military junta’s secretary of state in charge of public works, confirmed … that the deal had been in the works for months…. China has yet to confirm the deal, leading some analysts to suggest that the Guinean government was trying to bolster its legitimacy in the face of international condemnation. But if the deal has progressed as Guinean officials have described, it could clash with the tough positions laid out by the junta’s critics, including France and the United States.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that Chinese officials have provided what many in the international community consider rogue aid (for more on that subject, see my posts entitled Rogue Aid and Foreign Aid (Good and Bad)). While technically the deal in Guinea is not foreign aid (it’s a deal between the Guinean government and a private Chinese company), it couldn’t have been concluded if the Chinese government didn’t approve. There can be little doubt that China wants access to Guinea’s resources.

“Mr. Kallo said … the company had agreed to invest ‘up to $7 billion’ in electricity and aviation infrastructure — an enormous sum for a country whose gross domestic product is only $4.5 billion. Electric service in Guinea’s capital is shaky at best, and the country of 10 million people, about the size of Oregon, is virtually without internal air links. ‘How the Chinese are to be compensated hasn’t been decided,’ Mr. Kallo said. China has been determined in its pursuit of minerals in Africa, often without consideration of how countries are governed, and analysts said a number of Chinese had been seen in recent months at Guinea’s ministry of mines.”

If the deal is concluded and money starts flowing soon, getting Camara and his military cronies to give up their political positions voluntarily will be an almost impossible task. On a continent in desperate need of good governance and wise leadership, Camara’s remaining in office could be a real setback.