The quiet revolution

Observations on people power

A February revolt in the West African country of Guinea against the ailing autocratic president, Lansana Conté, failed to stir much media interest worldwide. Another African dictator gets his dues, you might have thought, if you came across the story. Except that this time, unlike in the past, the coup attempt did not originate among disgruntled army officers but started with a people-led general strike, with implications for oppressed populations far beyond the borders of this former French colony.

"It looks like people power has won the day," said Africa analyst Kissy Agyeman, of the political risk consultants Global Insight. "The pressure by the unions and the population was too huge."

Conté, a former army head-turned-civilian strongman, had been ruling the country for 33 years, after taking power in a coup in 1984. Guinea is the world's largest producer of bauxite - an ingredient necessary to make aluminium - and the government has been amply lubricated by revenues from western companies eager to cash in on its lucrative reserves. Despite years of deepening poverty the final straw came when Conté paid a personal visit to the country's central prison in the capital, Conakry, in January, and sprung two close friends who had been jailed on graft charges.

The country's trade unions and opposition parties called a general strike, in which 59 people - mostly unarmed civilians - lost their lives in a brutal repression.

Stakes were high. The unrest raised the spectre of trouble spilling over the region's porous borders into Liberia and Sierra Leone, shattering a fragile peace in countries only just starting to recover from a decade of their own brutal civil wars, and plunge the area into fresh bloodshed.

The government backed down - a first for Conté - and the strike temporarily ended when it agreed to appoint a new prime minister "of consensus" - someone who would signal a break from the troubled past. When Conté then nominated a loyal cabinet minister, the strike degenerated into street battles between protesters and army battalions loyal to the president.

"The boss gave us the order to shoot anyone provocative, so whoever provokes me, I will shoot him without any hesitation," one Kalashnikov-toting soldier told a local reporter.

More than a hundred demonstrators were shot dead by the security forces and martial law was imposed. The army chief, General Kerfalla Camara, told journalists at a press conference that a commission had been set up to look into allegations of army abuse. But locals dismissed the claim, pointing out that no security personnel have ever been prosecuted for serious crimes, which included the shooting of 13 unarmed students during a previous strike in June last year.

None the less, civil society in Guinea had begun to wake up. At the end of February, in a rare act of defiance, Guinea's parliament refused a request from Conté to extend martial law.

"The assembly deputies present unanimously refuse to renew martial law," the national assembly president, Aboubacar Somparé, told parliament after a vote on Conté's request.

The opposition hailed the parliament vote as the "first time" that a presidential decree had been refused unanimously.

Meanwhile, expatriate workers had been hastily evacuated and the capital was virtually closed. The important mining sector had also shut down, with the result that the state's revenue streams dried up.

Instead of backing down, as strikers and protesters had done in the past, the strike gathered force, threatening to topple the government itself.

Finally, Conté conceded. He dismissed his prime minister and agreed to appoint a new one picked by the unions and opposition, a triumph (and precedent) for popular revolt.

In the town of Kankan, east of the capital, thousands of youths shouted for Conté's death, and declared victory to the people.

It could all make uncomfortable reading for the rest of the continent's strongmen, eager to hold on to power and continue the rule of the "big men".

Could it be that a younger generation of Africans will, like the Guineans, start to hold their leaders to account? Will other African countries follow in their footsteps?

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour