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Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Guinea: Between Fear and Democracy

Conakry, Guinea: As the West African nation of Guinea approaches its first free election in its history on Sunday June 27th, the mood in the capital of Conakry is tense, but optimistic.

While journalistic organizations and a newly created National Independent Electoral Commission are working hard to help Guineans prepare for the vote, elements of the feared “red berets” – a presidential guard, race through the streets on machinegun mounted vehicles. The tension between aspiration and intimidation is there on a constant basis.

A long tradition of military regimes since the end of French colonialism in 1958, often with the collusion of western powers has left the population nervous, despite repeated promises by junta leaders to create democratic and civilian governments.

This time may be different, largely because the Obama administration has made a commitment to African democracy that, in both style and substance, promises to support a peaceful transition away from past practices and previous US administrations’ neglect.

The US and the French embassies in Conakry are actively engaged with development groups to assist in ensuring free and fair elections. The European Union is also sending election monitors as is the United Nations and the Carter Center International.

(Despite strong contacts between Guineans and Québec  -many studied in Montreal and Québec City - there is no apparent Canadian diplomatic presence in Conakry at this crucial time).

Guineans are already flooding the lines to call-in radio programs about their hopes for a post-election society. But they are also deeply wary of promises especially after the bloody events of September 28, 2009.

That day, a pro-democracy rally in Conakry was held against then junta chief Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. The presidential guard – known as the “Red Berets” opened fire on the crowd killing more than 150. The guard then went on a rampage of mass rapes in the streets that shocked and traumatized a country already brutalized by an extensive history of political violence.

For several weeks after those events, bodies continued to wash up on the shores around the capital. The number of women raped is unknown and because of a strong cultural reflex in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, may never be accurately tallied. But one doctor told the magazine “Jeune Afrique” that he estimated the number to be in the hundreds.

Reactions in other African capitals and in the international community was swift: The United States restricted travel of junta members, the African Union imposed US-supported sanctions including freezing of junta members’ bank accounts and France halted economic co-operation with the regime.

These small pressures had the desired effect: a month after the September massacre, Camara was overthrown by his own presidential guard and wounded in a gun attack. He was med-evacuated to Morocco for treatment and is now convalescing in neighboring Burkina Faso. Rumors persist (often spread by the caretaker prime minister, veteran politician Jean-Marie Doré) that Camara will attempt to undo any election result and try to return to Conakry, thus adding to the atmosphere of tension and uncertainty.

Camara may be sidelined, but his “Red Berets” remain a sinister presence around Conakry. At the same time, community groups, local and international non-governmental organizations and journalists are working feverishly to create the right conditions for elections that are open and transparent.

One critical element is how the results of the vote will be communicated to the public. In the past, the logistics of gathering votes from far-flung rural communities made it impossible to know the results in a timely manner.

This time, the National Independent Electoral Commission headed by the respected Guinean journalist Thierno Sadou Bayo has been holding daily news conferences at the US and French sponsored “Maison de la Presse” in Conakry. At every opportunity, Mr. Bayo patiently explains how the ballot with 42 presidential candidates will work in a country with a literacy rate of less than 20% for men and half of that for women.

The Commission has also come up with some unique strategies to get out the vote: in a country without a newspaper culture, radio is king. Mr. Bayo has convinced the dozens of privately run FM stations to air a single election night program in which results – no matter how small – will be read out every half hour by Mr. Bayo himself.

Cell phones are another media platform that is being exploited especially among younger Guineans: they are being encouraged to be “citizen whistleblowers” and send text messages on their phones to Commission HQ if they see examples of election fraud.

Even “Miss Guinea” – a well-known local beauty queen has been brought on board to make radio and television public service announcements on behalf of the Commission. (For the record, Miss Guinea says she does not support any of the candidates for president).

But the strongest and most unpredictable element in this election may be the Obama administration itself. His symbolic appeal to Africans cannot be overstated. Guineans believe that under this president, their democratic hopes will not be crushed again and they are convinced, that this time, they will not be disappointed.

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