Ailing Conte is sworn in for another seven term

Guinea's ailing head of state, General Lansana Conte, was sworn in for another seven-year term on Monday.

The swearing-in ceremony took place before a panel of Supreme Court judges. While Conte was able to take his oath of office in a loud, clear voice, the difficulty he experienced in getting from his seat to the rostrum has led to further speculation about the President’s decline and his ability to embark on another seven years in power.

Conte, 69, who first came to power through a coup d'etat in 1984, cleared 95.2 percent of the vote in the elections on December 21.

But the poll was boycotted by opposition parties (most of whose candidates had already been ruled ineligible to stand by the authorities) and the results were announced amidst accusations of electoral fraud and vote-rigging.

Leaders from Cote d'Ivoire, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali and Sierra Leone flew to Conakry for the ceremony, along with the Secretary-General of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), Mohamed Ibn Chambas.

But opposition critics were quick to point out the non-attendance of President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, and his Senegalese and Ghanaian counterparts, Abdoulaye Wade and John Kufuor, the current chairman of Ecowas, all seen as important regional figures with high profiles both in West Africa and on the international stage.

Jean Marie Dore, spokesman for Guinea's opposition Republican Front for Democratic Change, (FRAD), said the absence of key heads of state reflected “the murky nature of the occasion”. Dore described Conte’s swearing in as "a sad day for Guinean politics".

A silent protest

Unlike in 1998, when Conte was returned to power for a second term, there was no sign of jubilation on the streets of Conakry on Monday, with even the president's most ardent supporters expressing concern about his future.

Kekura Bangoura, a party worker for Conte's Party for Unity and Progress (PUP), said as he was leaving the ceremony: "I am happy today because of the swearing-in, which is history, but I am sad over the state of the President's health".

Conte is known to have diabetes and heart trouble, and walks with a pronounced limp. The condition of his health is a constant source of speculation in Conakry. In December 2002 rumours spread that Conte was dead, prompting a public appearance from the president and a firm rebuttal of the story.

In a television broadcast to the nation, marking his new term, Conte promised a major drive against corruption. "From public officials to private economic operators, we will ensure that corruption is discouraged and government revenues will be used to give people their needs including schools and hospitals and the essentials of feeding", Conte pledged.

Rich in resources, but eluded by progress

Though Guinea has reserves of gold and diamonds and is known to have a third of the world's bauxite reserves, the country remains impoverished. Corruption, which is rife in Guinea, is a major impediment to development and detractor for potential foreign investors in the country.

After a long courtship with the former Soviet Union, Conte has sought better relations with the United States. The US credits Conte with keeping his country at peace during his time in office while neighbours Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone have all descended into chaos.

However, most western donors including the European Union have shunned Guinea, not least for its reluctance to accept democratic principles.

The constitution was amended in November 2001 to allow Conte to serve a third elected term. At the same time, the length of the presidential mandate was extended from five to seven years. The EU refused to finance or send election observers to Guinea because of doubts over how the polls would be conducted.