New prime minister finally appointed after eight-month gap

Ailing Guinean President Lansana Conte has finally appointed a new prime minister eight months after the previous holder's shock resignation.

In a presidential decree issued on Thursday, former Fisheries Minister Cellou Dalien Diallo was named as the replacement for Francois Fall, who quit in April after just two months in the job protesting that his political and economic reforms were being blocked.

Diallo, an economist who used to work at the central bank, is one of Conte's longest-serving ministers, having entered the cabinet almost 10 years ago. He is widely regarded as a good technocrat and made his mark as minister for public works, overseeing improvements to Guinea's battered road system.

But commentators say he will have his work cut out as prime minister, given Conte's iron grip on the reins of power despite being barely able to walk because of illness. Furthermore, the economy is crumbling and a new group of Guineans is out protesting on the streets every month.

"I have no doubt that if given a free hand, Diallo will deliver the goods," one central bank official told IRIN on Friday. But he went on to say that if Diallo's predecessor's woes were anything to go by, that was unlikely.

Earlier this year, former prime minister, Fall, made the almost unprecedented decision to resign of his own accord in a country where ministers normally only leave office when they are fired by the president. He had been brought in as the reforming face and promised some room to manoeuvre but he left, complaining that Conte vetoed everything.

He said the president, who came to power in a military coup 20 years ago, had blocked efforts to reform the economy, tackle growing corruption, renegotiate Guinea's external debt, launch a new dialogue with the European Union and clean up the justice system.

Fall went into exile in France to guarantee his safety before announcing he was standing down and the government did not actually acknowledge his defection.

Diallo takes on the prime ministerial mantle at a time when discontent in the West African country is on the rise.

Rising food prices, high electricity bills and unpaid state salaries have sent former railway workers, students and angry residents out onto the streets in the last six months. Teachers are due to stage a protest on Saturday.

In the worst of the protests, hungry and angry citizens attacked rice trucks across the capital, Conakry, in July. A fast depreciating Guinean franc meant imported rice was selling for US$ 30 a bag -- more than many Guineans earn in a month -- so they decided to take matters into their own hands.

There is also a chronic shortage of foreign exchange, caused by the country's steady economic decline, falling returns from exports and the unwillingness of western donors to give money to the government.

The European Union, Guinea's principal donor, is withholding more than US$ 100 million because the government has failed to implement political and economic reforms to improve the quality of governance in this poor and notoriously corrupt country.

Diplomats are also fretting about Conte's health. He is now 70 and diabetes and heart problems mean he can no longer walk unassisted.

Conte won re-election for a further seven-year term last December in a presidential election which was boycotted by all of Guinea's mainstream opposition parties. They subsequently claimed that the poll, which gave Conte 95 percent of the vote, was riddled with fraud.

Diplomats worry that in a country which has known only two authoritarian presidents since independence from France in 1958, Conte has chosen no obvious successor and the country is starting to crumble beneath him.