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Guinea’s story is tragically familiar: the post-independence promise of a socialist utopia, the slide down the slippery slope to xenophobic isolation and murderous cultural revolution, and more recently the transformation into ramshackle klepto-capitalism. As the current regime slips into senility, Guineans have their hearts in their mouths: is life set to improve at last, or is chaos just around the corner?

Poverty in liberty

Guinea was part of the Mali empire, which covered a large part of western Africa between the 13th and 15th centuries. From the mid-1400s Portuguese and other European traders settled Guinea’s coastal region, and the country eventually became a French colony in 1891.

The end of French West Africa began with Guinea. It was granted independence in 1958 under the leadership of Sekou Touré, who rejected a French offer of membership in a commonwealth and demanded total independence, declaring ‘We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery’. French reaction was swift: financial and technical aid was cut off, and there was a massive flight of capital.

Sekou Touré decided to model Guinea on the revolutionary Chinese pattern, collectivising farms and industries. It was an unmitigated disaster, and his paranoia triggered a reign of terror. ‘Conspiracies’ were detected in one group after another, and dissidents were either imprisoned or executed. By the end of the 1960s over 250, 000 Guineans lived in exile.

Towards the end of his presidency Touré changed many of his policies. A major influence was the Market Women’s Revolt of 1977, in which several police stations were destroyed and some local governors were killed, as part of the fight against state plans to discourage private trade.

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Democracy’s disappointments

Touré died in March 1984. Days later a military coup was staged by a group of colonels, including Lansana Conté, who became president. He introduced austerity measures, and in 1991 bowed to pressure to introduce a multiparty political system. Presidential elections were held in late 1993 amid tight security and official secrecy. Conté won with 51% of the vote, and in the elections of December 1998 was re-elected with 56%; accusations of fraud accompanied both campaigns. Not long after, Conté’s main rival was detained and imprisoned for alleged sedition.

In November 2001 a nationwide constitutional referendum, also marred by irregularities, repealed the two-term limit for presidents and lengthened the term from five to seven years, effectively setting up Conté as president for life. Not surprisingly, he won the December 2003 election. Key opposition leaders, citing government obstruction, boycotted both this and the earlier parliamentary elections.

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Guinea today

Conté, a chain-smoking diabetic, has rarely appeared in public since before the 2003 election and has reportedly been on his deathbed several times. A united opposition has urged the ailing septuagenarian to resign for the sake of the nation and proposed a transitional government. Conté has ignored their advice and it appears he has not planned for his succession.

Today Guinea faces an unknown future. Despite rising mining revenue (Guinea holds over 30% of the world’s bauxite), the economy is faltering and there have been some anti­government street protests. Some observers, including the International Crisis Group, say Guinea is in danger of becoming a failed state. Others cite the Guineans’ unity and abhorrence of violence and predict that whatever happens will be peaceful.

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