The West African curse

2009-12-16 00:00

THERE have been political horrors in other parts of Africa, like the genocidal former regime­ in Rwanda, the current regime­ in Zimbabwe or any Congolese regime you care to name. But the worst regimes in Africa seem to arise along the stretch of tropical coastline between Ghana and Senegal.

Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast have all lived through nightmarish civil wars after long-ruling dictators died or were killed and junior officers seized power. Gambia has been ruled for the past 15 years by a former army lieutenant, who now imports witch doctors from Guinea to hunt down the witches whom he believes are trying to kill him. And now Guinea has fallen into the hands of the junior officers.

It’s the classic pattern. For 50 years after independence, from 1958 to 2008, Guinea was ruled by just two “big men”: Sekou Toure for 26 years and then Lansana Conte for another 24. They and their cronies stole all the money, of course, while over 90% of the mineral-rich country’s 10 million people continued to live on less than a dollar a day. But at least they lived in a relatively safe and orderly poverty.

Then Conte died late last year, and within hours a group of young officers broke into the main television station to announce that they were taking over the country. Their leader was an army captain called Moussa “Dadis” Camara, who promised to hold free and fair elections by 2010. He also promised that he would not run for the presidency himself.

Sensible promises, because before 2008 nobody except his own family and his junior officer friends had ever heard of “Dadis” (as he calls himself). He has no experience or qualifications relevant to running a government. But a presidential palace is a nicer place to live in than a barracks, and the pay and perks are much better too. The experience kind of grows on you, and eventually you ask yourself: why leave?

If a general had taken power after­ Lansana Conte’s death, he might have kept a promise to hand power over to a democratically elected civilian president, for generals already have comfortable houses, limos and lots of stolen money. However, generals usually don’t have direct command of troops.

That’s why it’s so often the junior officers who seize power in Afri­ca: they have the troops, and they are not much constrained by traditional ideas of military discipline. They seize power because it’s the only way to change their own lives for the better — and they generally start to quarrel among themselves after a while, because they have already broken all the traditional bonds of hierarchy and discipline.

Guinea has now moved on to the next stage of the process. Dadis began talking about running for president himself last August. “I have been taken hostage by the people, a part of the people, with some saying that president Dadis cannot be a candidate and others saying president Dadis has to be a candidate,” he told Radio France Internationale in an interview. In a burst of frankness, he added that if he did not stand for election, another military officer would take over the country.

At that stage, Dadis probably had still had the backing of the other young officers. They were doing very nicely too. Why would they complain so long as the supply of girls, drink and drugs kept flowing? But then the civilians got involved.

Various political groups that had opposed Conte for years now saw democracy being stolen from them again. They held a rally in Conakry’s sports stadium in late September to protest against Dadis’s presidential plans. Lieutenant Abubakar “Toumba” Diakite­, another member of the military junta and the head of the presidential guard, was sent to deal with them.

He did so by massacring them. His soldiers slaughtered 157 people and raped dozens of women inside the stadium. Twenty women were kidnapped and filmed for several days while they were being raped and tortured. It is possible that Toumba exceeded his instructions. The reaction certainly exceeded his expectations.

The junta denied it all, but the evidence was overwhelming. The African Union, the United States, the European Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) all imposed sanctions on the junta, with Ecowas president Mohamed Ibn Chambas saying bluntly that Guinea’s military rulers are using state power “to repress the population … If the military junta has its way it will impose yet another dictatorship on them.”

The United Nations sent a mission to investigate the massacre, raising the possibility that the International Criminal Court might bring charges against junta members for crimes against humanity. So Dadis apparently concluded that it was time to throw Toumba to the wolves.

On December 4, Dadis went to the barracks where Toumba’s troops are based in Conakry. It was not a wise move, because Toumba shot him in the head and went on the run. Dadis was flown to Morocco for emergency surgery, and the remaining junta members chose “General” Sekouba Konate to act as front man in his absence.

If things run true to form, the final step in this tragedy will be for Toumba to start an insurgency in the interior, plunging the country into a long and horrible civil war of the kind that has ruined several of its neighbours. This part of Africa seems cursed.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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