In-depth: Guinea: Living on the edge

GUINEA: Guinea’s Forest Region - Living on the edge

Photo: IRIN
Returnees from the cocoa area of Cote d'Ivoire close to the Liberian border, who have returned to the region forestier destitute
NAIROBI, 10 January 2005 (IRIN) - (January 2005) - Guinea has remained one of the few relatively stable countries in West Africa, even though it has been shaken at times by the shockwaves coming from its neighbours. However, its Région Forestière, or Forest Region, in the far southeast of the country has become a reservoir of inter-communal tensions and a potential source of instability in the region.

Wedged in by Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and 800 km away from the capital, Conakry, with which it has few direct links, the Forest Region has suffered the consequences of a convoluted series of conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire over the past 20 years.

Hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and, more recently, Ivorians have found a natural refuge in the Forest Region.

According to UN officials, the Forest Region hosted some 150,000 Liberian refugees at the end of October 2004.

Over half of these were crammed into its rundown towns. Most of the others lived in three official refugee camps established by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. But many Liberian refugees simply drifted between the towns and camps, while at the same time making occasional forays back across the border.

According to a census of camp residents carried out by UNHCR in July 2004, the three refugee camps in the Forest region had a registered population of nearly 59,000 people.

The end of Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war in 2001 led to the return of most of 55,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who had sought shelter in the Forest Region during the 1990s.


Photo: IRIN
Map of Guinea’s Forest Region
By the time the UNHCR closed its official repatriation programme in June 2004, only 2,000 of them were left in one refugee camp.

However, their departure had done little to ease the heavy burden on Guinea's crumbling local infrastructure.

Those who came back

The Forest Region has also played host over the past two years to thousands of returning Guinean migrants, many of whom have lived for generations in neighbouring countries.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), up to 100,000 Guinean migrants fled home from Côte d’Ivoire after that country erupted into civil war in September 2002. These “returnees” are mostly packed into villages close to the long porous border between the two countries.

“You have to be born here to understand and put up with the suffering,” says Veronique Toure, one of the returnees.

Although she was born and brought up in Guinea, Touré has lived most of her adult life in Côte d’Ivoire. She was married to an Ivorian civil servant who was killed in the early days of the civil war between President Laurent Gbagbo and rebels who have seized control of the north of the country.

“Before all this I had water, electricity, people to help me, food to eat," explains Véronique, a lively 40-year-old. “Today our hands are empty, our children are in the street and we beg for help from our brothers, the poorest of the poor”.

Like tens of thousands of her compatriots who fled Côte d’Ivoire, Véronique and her two children are doing their best to survive with little official assistance.


Photo: IRIN
Ethnic tensions and weapon trafficking threaten the stability of the fragile Forest Region
She embroiders sheets for young married couples and sells "cane juice," a raw spirit made from sugar cane which comes over the nearby border from Liberia.

But she is selling in a community which faces more and more difficulties in feeding and taking care of itself.

The prefecture of Lola, where Véronique has found refuge, has about 40,000 inhabitants as well as more than 5,000 Guinean returnees, nearly all of whom have been housed by local families.

“These are people in real need,” Lazare Gonotey, the local mayor told IRIN. “These people arrived in extremely difficult conditions, without money or possessions. Until now, we have tried to avoid tensions, but land is becoming scarce and food is becoming more and more expensive.”

The Guinean authorities, be they government representatives or local officials, express the same concerns.

“In the last few years we have lost much more than we have gained," says the Minister of Territorial Administration, Kiridi Bangoura, who is widely seen as one of the most influential figures in the Guinean government.

"Crime and prostitution have gained ground, while swathes of forest have disappeared, our infrastructure has deteriorated, people have become poorer,” he told IRIN in an interview in October.

Combatants and communities

Crime and banditry have flourished in this already impoverished region, fanned by a flow of guns from the conflicts in neighbouring states, despite the efforts of the authorities to clamp down on security.

According to OCHA, the presence of around 4,000 former Guinean militiamen, recruited to combat incursions from Liberia in 2000 and 2001, along with an unquantified number of Liberian fighters who rejected the disarmament and demobilisation process in their own country, has further destabilised the Forest Region.

In addition to this, tensions between rival ethnic groups remain high. There have been sporadic clashes between communities, threatening the peaceful coexistence that generally prevailed in Guinea before the Liberian war broke out in 1989.

Although UN peacekeepers disarmed more than 100,000 former combatants in Liberia during 2004, there have been continuing rumours of infiltrators from that country coming into the Forest Region.

There has also been a busy trade in light arms heading into Guinea. This has led to numerous arrests and a strengthening of security controls on the borders with Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone.

These measures, although necessary, have disrupted normal cross-border trade, a cornerstone of survival strategies in the region.

Traders interviewed by IRIN said they still crossed into Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire to buy and sell goods, but they complained it was increasingly difficult to move and get basic goods to local markets.

As a result, prices have risen. Guineans in the Forest Region now have to pay a small fortune for Ivorian palm oil and Liberian soap.

The Guinean authorities have systematically denied all reports that former combatants have been recruited in Liberia to join training camps inside Guinea's Forest Region for the launch of a fresh conflict. But Bangoura admitted to IRIN: “It is impossible to verify systematically that no one infiltrates the country.”

Guinea under pressure

Meanwhile there are fears that Guinea's government could succumb to internal pressures as well as the overspill from conflicts in neighbouring countries.

On 19 January, President Lansana Conte escaped unhurt when unidentified gunmen opened fire on his motorcade as he was heading into the capital, Conakry, from his home in a nearby village.

The president is a former army colonel who seized power in a 1984 coup and has ruled Guinea with an iron hand since then.

But his government has failed to reverse a steady economic decline. And over the past year it has faced mounting internal protests from ordinary Guineans who can no longer survive on their meagre earnings.

Rising food prices led to rice riots in Conakry in July 2004. Since then there have been several strikes and demonstrations to protest against rising prices and low wages, including a week-long stoppage by teachers at the beginning of January 2005.


Photo: IRIN
Girls in a Conakry shantytown in front of an election poster of President Lansana Conte
Conte's government has also faced external threats, particularly from Liberia when it was ruled by his arch-enemy Charles Taylor.

In September 2000 a motley force of Guinean, Liberian and Sierra Leonean combatants attempted to invade Guinea from Liberia. It seized several towns in southeastern Guinea and found some support from ethnic allies on Guinean soil.

For more than a year, the Guinean security forces fought back and eventually repelled the invaders.

According to residents in Nzérékoré, the capital of the Forest Region, professional ‘rangers’, trained by the US army eventually secured the nearby border and restored order to the town.

“We've done what was necessary to reinforce security in our towns and along our frontiers,” said Minister Bangoura. “We observe, we verify, we are very vigilant about what goes on around us.”

Diplomats say Guinea in turn needled Taylor by backing the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement. LURD launched guerrilla attacks into northwestern Liberia from the Forest Region of Guinea in 1999 and eventually forced Taylor to relinquish power by seizing half the Liberian capital, Monrovia, in 2003.

The presence of LURD fighters in the Forest Region has become more discreet in recent months, but residents say these former combatants, most of them from the Malinké or Mandingo ethnic group, still come and go across the border, if only for commercial reasons.

The Guinean government has consistently denied supporting LURD, whose chairman Sekou Conneh, was resident in Conakry throughout the Liberian civil war.

However according to Guinean human rights activists and residents of the Forest Region, the rebel group was organised and supplied from Guinea. Eyewitnesses told IRIN that LURD did much of its recruiting in the Liberian refugee camps in Guinea.

What choice for the international community?

Looking at the risks at large in the sub-region, the UN Security Council has recommended that Guinea be included in the sub-regional strategies aimed at securing frontiers and reducing the risks of conflict. The dangers have been made even more apparent by the renewed tensions in Côte d’Ivoire and the resumption of hostilities there in November.

UN agencies and international NGOs working in the Forest Region say it is essential to stabilise the region, particularly if there are going to be new waves of refugees and migrants coming from Côte d’Ivoire, where the political and military situation could easily deteriorate.


Photo: Pierre Holtz/IRIN
Guinean soldier patrols Nzerekore following communal clashes in the city in June 2004
They warn that the organised repatriation of Liberian refugees, which began in October 2004 under the direction of the UNHCR, will not necessarily ease the problems there, not least because the international aid flowing into the Forest Region to support the refugees will dry up.

"When the refugees go, the region will fall like a ripe fruit if there are no transitional structures," warns one UN employee, who prefers to remain anonymous. “It is crucial to make the country stable again to avoid further population movements".

But although some international aid programmes to assist the people of the Forest Region have been drawn up, they remain chronically underfunded by donors.

"As long as the European Union freezes financing, we can’t put these programmes into place," said Hervé de Lys, the head of OCHA's Regional Support Office for West Africa in Dakar.

The EU says it remains committed to an ambitious development programme in the region, but in January 2005 it continued to maintain a freeze on 221 million Euros (US$ 293 million) in aid earmarked for Guinea, pending reforms by the government to allow greater democracy, reduce corruption and improve economic management.

An unpromising political landscape

"Today, we are at a crossroads facing a generalised crisis into which the country has plunged. On the one side there is the violence of popular revolts or coups d’etat and on the other side the possibility of consensus and negotiation," said Mamadou Ba, who leads the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), one of the main opposition parties in Guinea.

"Patience and resignation have their limits," the UFDG warned in a statement in September 2004. "The daily life of the Guinean is one of deprivation, misery and insecurity. If nothing is done, this will lead to the collapse of all the institutional and economic structures of Guinea."

This fear, shared by Guinea's traditional donors and many of its West African neighbours, is made stronger by the knowledge that the whole economic and political system rests on the shoulders of an aging authoritarian president, who is too ill too walk unassisted and has no obvious successor.

The opposition has little room to manœuvre in a country in which its leaders are frequently harassed and arrested and are all but ignored by the state-controlled radio and television, and elections systematically return Conte and his ruling Popular Unity Party with massive majorities whether the opposition chooses to contest the polls or not.

The opposition contends that there is little point in taking part in elections in the face of massive vote-rigging by the government, but diplomats point out that the opposition movement is also weakened by its own internal divisions.

It is heavily divided along regional lines and between rival personalities, even though the six main parties try to present a common front through a coalition group called the Republican Front for Democratic Change (FRAD).

Several attempts by Conte to relaunch a political dialogue have broken down and many opposition leaders have been reduced to simply hoping for change in the "post-Conté" period.

Diplomats and local political analysts point to a major three-way ethnic split within Guinea's eight million population which holds the potential for ethnic conflict should law and order break down.

The Malinké of northern Guinea are deemed to have held sway under Guinea's first president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, who led the country to independence from France in 1958. The LURD rebel movement in Liberia is also dominated by people from this ethnic group. Conte, the current head of state, belongs on the other hand to the Soussou people of western Guinea.

The other major ethnic group, the Peuls of central and northern Guinea, are seen as being allied with many of the smaller ethnic groups in the Forest Region.

Diplomats warn that in the event of a power vacuum at the top, Guinea's security forces, as well as the country's political parties, could also become split along ethnic lines.


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