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What’s behind the military coup in Guinea-Conakry?

Published Jan 11, 2009 5:34 PM

After years of political and economic turmoil, lower-ranking military officers—led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara—in the West African nation of Guinea-Conakry took power on Dec. 23 in the aftermath of the death of longtime Western-backed dictator Lansana Conté. The coup appeared to have enjoyed support among some segments of the population in the capital of Conakry.

This is the second military coup that has taken place on the African continent since August when military officers took power in Mauritania. Both Mauritania and Guinea were former French colonies and have, since independence, moved closer politically and economically to the U.S.

Lansana Conté came to power in a military coup in April 1984 during the immediate aftermath of the sudden death of President Ahmed Sékou Touré, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG).

Conté, 74, who had fallen into bad health over the last several years, turned in his military uniform and ran for president in 1993. Amid allegations of vote rigging and repression of the opposition, Conté won the election and continued to rule despite continuing controversy among civilian political parties as well as lower-ranking elements within the Guinean military.

The first indications that a change of power was underway took place with a radio broadcast over Guinean national radio on Dec. 23, which stated that the military had taken control of the national government and suspended the country’s constitution. Immediately key leaders within the higher echelons of the military and the government were detained, while key regiments of the army moved into the streets in the capital of Conakry to set up positions in strategic locations.

Captain Moussa DadisCamara, representing what he called the National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD), read a statement that included: “At the time of celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence on 2 October, Guinea was ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world despite its abundant natural resources.

“Guinea could have been more prosperous. Unfortunately, history and men have decided otherwise,” Capt. Camara continued. (news.bbc.co.uk)

According to Capt. Camara: “Embezzlement of public funds, general corruption, impunity established as a method of government and anarchy in the management of state affairs have eventually plunged our country into a catastrophic economic situation which is particularly tragic for the overwhelming majority of Guineans. All these woes have been worrying the population for a long time and have caused deep despair for the future.”

Yet the widespread poverty, underdevelopment, corruption and poverty did not begin in recent years. The entire reign of Lansana Conté was marked by a deliberate repudiation of the founding principles of the Guinean state under the late President Ahmed Sékou Touré. In order to fully understand the developments that arose in Guinea in December, it is important to review the political history of Guinea within the context of the development of its political economy, particularly since its national independence a half-century ago.

The betrayal of the revolution

Guinea was set apart from other states in West Africa that were colonized by France when in 1958, under the leadership of the Democratic Party of Guinea, the people broke with the neocolonialist scheme of Charles de Gaulle, who sought to keep all the former colonies within the political and economic framework of imperialist domination.

As a result of the growing mass agitation in the aftermath of World War II and the emergence of the armed revolutionary struggle for national independence in the North African colony of Algeria after 1954, the French colonial regime offered their subject territories in West Africa the option of becoming part of a semi-independent, neocolonial federation or striking out on their own as genuine independent nations.

Guinea, under the leadership of the PDG and its Secretary-General Sékou Touré, voted a resounding “No” and, on Oct. 2, 1958, declared itself an independent state. In retaliation for this act of political defiance, the French colonial authorities withdrew all structural, monetary, material, political and diplomatic support for the transitional Guinean state.

The independence process in Guinea became a model for other liberation movements in Africa and other parts of the world. In a study of decolonization movements in West Africa, Guy de Lusignan, in his 1969 book entitled “French-Speaking Africa Since Independence,” notes that “The Guinean venture was seen as a challenge to the rest of Africa and the Third World: a country starting without help, beginning everything from scratch, gathering together all the national effort within one strong nation-wide party that would reach out to and rouse everyone, even in the remotest bush village.”

Characterizing the political atmosphere of the times in Guinea, Lusignan wrote that “Around President Touré there was an integrated team, intelligent and selfless; responsible party members were few but earnest and hard-working. In the towns, in the bush, people were busy organising party cells and passing on slogans.

“Youth brigades built bridges, village women brought their crops, everyone toiled, with or without recompense, for the country’s sake. As early as 1956, before independence, Sékou Touré, then a young trade-union leader and party dialectician, had argued that human investment, so easy to come by in Africa, could replace or at least supplement the financial investments from overseas.”

The country was well-endowed with mineral resources and agricultural and hydroelectric potential. Encompassing 95,000 square miles, the center of the country has the high mountain ranges of the Fouta-Djallon, which reach almost 5,000 feet. At this range are four of the greatest African rivers: the Senegal, the Niger, the Gambia and the Konkoure. Another northern mountain range on the border with Liberia holds tremendous resources in timber and minerals.

During the colonial period the French considered Guinea one of its most prosperous territories. There are gold and diamonds mines, iron ore and the largest bauxite deposits in the world. In the Kaloum area, near the capital of Conakry, iron ore mines have been exploited for decades. One of the most abundant bauxite deposits is to be found on the small island of Loos, which is opposite Conakry. Other deposits are found in the Fria mines in the western region of the country.

In the early days of the Guinean Revolution, the country was assisted with a loan from the government of Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah. The creation of the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union in 1960 sought to set the pace for larger political and economic alliances among independent states in Africa.

Despite the country’s break with the former French colonialists, during the early days of independence, the mining sector was still dominated by several French-based firms. By the end of 1961, the French firm Societé des Bauxities du Midi was ordered to cease operations. The government began to work with the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

In fact, according to Lusignan, “Aid agreements with Eastern countries enabled Guinea to start on its industrial programme—brick and cement factories, a light hydro-electric plant, printing works—but they worked, at the beginning especially, at a low capacity.”

By 1962, Guinea signed new mining agreements with a number of U.S. and Canadian aluminum firms. Bauxite was utilized in the production of aluminum, which therefore made Guinea a valued partner for the international mining industry.

Again Lusignan reports that “An agreement related to the Boke scheme was signed with Harvey Aluminum for the building of three factories—one for bauxite, one for alumina, one for aluminum—a harbour and a railway line. The firm was also granted exploitation rights for the bauxite deposit of Kassa on Loos Island.

“In 1965, Alcan Aluminum, a Canadian firm, joined Harvey Aluminum in the proposed exploitation of Guinea’s bauxite. These arrangements were maintained through the mid-to-late 1960s when relations between Guinea and the United States became strained in the aftermath of the right-wing, US-backed coup against Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana.”

Nkrumah, who was overthrown with the backing of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency on Feb. 24, 1966, relocated to Guinea and was made co-president by Sékou Touré. By 1967-68, a new international consortium was created known as the Compagnie Bauxite de Guinee. The arrangements were that the Guinean government controlled 49 percent of the firm and receive 65 percent of the profits.

However, despite the tremendous potential for economic development, Guinea remained an underdeveloped country. Due to the fact that it was virtually alone among the countries in West Africa that sought an independent course, it continued to be isolated from other countries in the region that followed a pro-Western course of development.

During the 1960s the country declared itself committed to building a scientific socialist society and maintained alliances with the nations of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. The PDG government revealed numerous imperialist plots aimed at overthrowing the ruling party.

In 1970 an attempt to invade and overthrow the country was backed by Portugal. Guinea had provided a rear-base for the armed struggle being wage by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which was fighting to destroy Portuguese colonialism in neighboring Guinea-Bissau.

President Touré made two trips to the United States in 1979 and 1982 in an effort to build closer ties with the successive administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

However, Touré’s death from a heart attack in a hospital in Cleveland in 1984 portended much for the future of the country.

In the immediate aftermath of Touré’s death, a military coup against the PDG led by junior officers took place. Lansana Conté and Diara Traore took control of the state and subsequently abolished the PDG and other popular organs of the state. In 1985, a dispute between Traore and Conté led to the removal of Traore from his position of leadership. Later Traore was lured back from exile and then tried and executed under Conté’s aegis.

After the military coup against the PDG, the country moved closer to France and the United States. Despite this neocolonial political orientation, Guinea remained underdeveloped and still dependent on the Western mining companies for the generation of foreign exchange.

Over the last several months, there have been a series of strikes and rebellions in Guinea in response to the worsening global capitalist economic crisis. Conditions within the military and the police became acute with rising discontent over working conditions and pay that helped to lead to the present coup.

Lessons for the anti-capitalist movement

The fifty-year history of the postcolonial struggle in Guinea illustrates the difficulties in developing and sustaining an economic and political course aimed at genuine national independence and socialism. Even though the early years of the liberation movement brought about tremendous strides in the struggle for a noncapitalist path of development, the relative isolation of Guinea along with other anti-imperialist and Pan-African states such as Ghana created the conditions for imperialism to place a stranglehold on the efforts to build development strategies that would prove beneficial to the workers and peasants of these states.

During the 1980s, other African states, which had set out to extend the national democratic revolutions into a socialist-oriented phase, met with fierce resistance from the imperialist world. In addition, the decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe further strengthened the imperialist camp.

Nonetheless, despite these setbacks, in reality there is no way forward under imperialist domination in Africa as well as other former colonial, semicolonial and currently neocolonial states. With the deepening economic and political crises within the United States and the European Union member-states, even the facade of creating a consumer-based society allied with the West and capitalist Japan has become even more elusive.

Ultimately, the popular classes of workers and farmers must regroup to build revolutionary movements and parties that will effectively challenge imperialist domination and hegemony. Only when this movement takes root will there be the potential for real development and the elimination of poverty and economic exploitation.

Abayomi Azikiwe has been closely following the political and economic situation in Guinea over the last several months.