The agony of a nation

Lansana Gberie. The Free Library. January 2010

There has been a chaotic situation in Guinea ever since the military took power in December 2008. The leader of the junta, Capt Dadis Camara, was shot in the head in late November 2009 and was battling for his life in a Moroccan hospital.

In the early morning of 23 december 2008, an eminently predictable coup happened in Guinea. Shortly after government officials announced that the long-term President Lansana Conte had died the previous evening, a group of soldiers announced on state radio that they had dissolved the government and taken over. Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare briefly insisted that the government was still intact, but on Christmas day, Souare and other government officials turned themselves in at Alpha Yaya Diallo army barracks, the headquarters of a brand new junta.

Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, formerly in the logistics wing of the army (with oversight over its petrol and diesel supplies) emerged as leader of what the soldiers were pleased to call the National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD).

Events in Guinea then took on a markedly neurotic—not to say confusing—turn. First, on 25 December 2008, Camara announced that presidential elections would be held after a two-year transition and that he would not be a candidate.

In early January 2009, alarmed that the already evident instability of the junta would threaten international peace—Guinea shares long borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia, both emerging from prolonged brutal wars which touched Guinea profoundly, as refugee recipient, peacekeeper, and target of massive attacks by rebels from both countries—an international contact group on Guinea was formed, with representatives from Ecowas, the African Union Commission, the European Union, the Mano River Union, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the UN Security Council.

At first, on its own, then followed by the AU and the UN, Ecowas bluntly told Camara that it would not accept a military-led transition in Guinea and barred junta members from attending meetings of any decision-making bodies of the regional group.

For a time Camara feigned to ignore this regional stance, and instead launched what came to be known as the ”Dadis Show”, He arrested the son of the deceased President Conte, Ousmane Conte, as part of a crackdown on suspected drug traffickers, as well as many former government officials, and paraded them on television in a show trial with himself as chief inquisitor or anchorman.

No one, of course, ended up being actually tried or punished for drug trafficking or corruption. But for a time, bemused Guineans watched, transfixed, by this, not knowing whether to discern in the hyperventilating earnest soldier, hope or vapidity or an inchoate viciousness.

But they did not have to wait for long. It was always clear that Camara's high-minded buffoonery would not last, but its dissolution into frenzied massacre shocked the world.

First, Camara announced on 19 August 2009 that he was not sure whether he would run for president; that, he said, ”is up to God”. Though a largely Muslim country, few Guineans were willing to bet on divine wisdom on such a very secular matter.

And so leaders of political parties and civil society, under the umbrella of Forces Vives, called for a mass rally to protest, on 28 September. That day, tens of thousands of Guineans gathered at the national stadium in the capital Conakry, to protest the candidacy of Camara, defying a ban by the authorities. A few hours later, soldiers, armed with automatic guns and other lethal weapons, opened fire on the gathering, killing over 150 people and injuring over many others.

These killings, and in particular the broad-daylight rape of women by the soldiers—some of whom had bayonets and other foreign objects inserted into their genitals (the pictures were captured on mobile phones)—shocked the world profoundly.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the executive president of Ecowas, denounced Camara's junta as “arbitrary and irresponsible”, and the Nigerian president, Umaru Yar'Adua, chair of Ecowas, called for a special regional summit to discuss Guinea.

The international contact group on Guinea called on the UN secretary general, in collaboration with the AU and Ecowas, to set up a commission of inquiry into the “gross human rights violations” of 28 September, “including the massacre of unarmed civilians and rapes”.

The UN quickly announced that it was sending a team of investigators, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) said that it had opened “preliminary” investigations. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, decried the junta as “vile”, and France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, announced the suspension of military aid, and declared: “It seems to me that one can no longer work with Dadis Camara, and there should be an international intervention.”

Amidst all this, Camara was found daily sitting in his small office at the Alpha Yaya Diallo military encampment, surrounded by soldiers, like him, in military fatigues and toying with AK-47 rifles. Speaking to foreign journalists shortly after the massacre, he launched into a rambling disquisition on Machiavelli's views of the character of a “Republican” army and on the most appropriate way of making a coup.

But Machiavelli had warned about the dangers of mercenary armies, something that Camara took no account of, for he quickly brought in South African mercenaries and ex-Liberian fighters to bolster his faltering regime—the Liberians in particular are implicated by Guineans in the September massacre.

In the event, the corruption of a Republican army which fires on its own citizens came to haunt Camara, for in late November he was shot in the head by his aide de camp, Aboubacar Sidiki Diakite, who was getting all the blame for the massacre and felt betrayed by the leader of the junta.

Camara is now being treated in a hospital in Morocco, but sources there say the wound, which touched part of his brain, is so severe that he might not return to Guinea in any condition that would make him a relevant player in the country's affairs.

The former defence minister, Colonel Sekouba Konate, who worked, like Camara, in the logistics wing of the army, is now acting as head of the junta, a position he is likely to occupy until Guinea holds an election.


The tragedy of Dadis Camara plays out an old tragicomedy: he is very much a cross between Eugene O'Neill's False Redeemer and Evelyn Waugh's tragic hero in Black Mischief, who is corrupted by naivety and enthusiasm, and consumed by ancient intrigues he could not understand but which he helped unleash.

Guinea, with a population of 9.4 million people and the world's largest bauxite exporter, wrestled independence from France in 1958 under a charismatic former trade unionist, Sekou Toure, who declared defiantly: “We, for our part, have a first and indispensable need, that of our dignity. Now, there is no dignity without freedom… We prefer freedom in poverty to riches in slavery.”

These high words have probably been forgotten by now, for Guineans have since realised that poverty was no condition for freedom or human dignity. The French reaction to this act of defiance was perplexingly brutal: they withdrew immediately from the country.

Newly independent Ghana loaned Guinea what was a handy £ 10m in those days, and Eastern Bloc states rushed in to help. But the impact of the French departure was such that only sustained assistance could make any difference. There was even talk that the new nation would not survive its first anniversary. It did, but at the cost of both freedom and wealth.

Sekou Toure imposed an autocratic regime which banned all opposition and made his sole party the dominant factor in the country, directing, in his own words, “the life of the nation; the political, judicial, administrative, economic and technical” aspects of Guinea.

Toure's army chief, Lansana Conte, staged a coup—exactly copied by Dadis Camara—shortly after Toure died in 1984. However, corruption grew in all sectors, and his rule became only marginally less autocratic than his predecessor's.

Alas, the gallant independence of Guinea, which inspired so many oppressed around the world, has not meant much for its people.