Civil society crystallising around unions

Guineans in the capital Conakry have already shuttered their shops and stayed home twice in the past year for citywide strikes, but a third, more ambitious indefinite national strike underway this week is proving a strength and unity among Guinea's civil society not seen since independence.

"There's really a growing solidarity among the movement now, it's becoming more like a social movement and the strength of civil society is really showing itself," Elisabeth Cote, Guinea representative of the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) said on Thursday, the second day of the strike.

The strikes in March and June last year and again this week were organised by the National Confederation of Guinean Workers (CNTG) and the Guinean Workers Union (USTG), two formerly rival unions that united in 2005 to protest 30 percent inflation, tripling fuel prices and worsening standards of living for ordinary Guineans.

After last year's strikes, opposition political parties and other civil society members complained that if they had been consulted by the unions beforehand they could have contributed support and weight.

This time, two non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the National Council of Civil Society Organisations, an umbrella group for NGOs, and the Civic Alliance, a new grouping with branches nationwide, have coordinated with the unions. They plan to hold demonstrations calling for "a return to the rule of law" in the wake of persistent human rights abuses and impunity on and after 15 January, despite a government ban on demonstrations issued on Tuesday night.

Both Guinea's main political opposition parties, the Rally for the Guinean People (RPG) and Union of Republican Forces (UFR), have also thrown their support behind the unions and called for their members to follow a campaign of civil disobedience, also from 15 January onwards.

"We have supported the unions that have taken all the responsibility for saving the republic and have given the word ordering the general unlimited strike. We call on our members not to wait with their arms crossed," Sidya Toure, president of the UFR, said on Tuesday.

Leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and the city's mosques, and the two NGO alliances, met with Guinea's First Lady Henriette Conte on Wednesday to present a proposed exit strategy from the strike. President Conte is in his 70s and is said to rarely make public appearances or attend meetings.

"While there is a hard dividing line between what are considered unions, political parties and civil society as far as Guineans are concerned, there is definitely a dialogue or a conversation happening at all levels, and that is as true now as prior to the strike," a senior Western diplomat in Conakry said.

Representatives of the unions, political opposition and civil society have also been meeting a military committee set up after the June strike to avoid repeats of clashes between students and riot police when 11 youths were shot and dozens injured. The civil-military committee does not include any members of the government. There have been no reports of fighting between civilians and state security services anywhere in Guinea this week, although soldiers are maintaining a heavy presence in Conakry.

The union-led movement is able to unite Guinea's previously weak and fractured civil society because Guineans perceive it as more legitimate than the political opposition, Mike McGovern, a Guinea expert at Yale University said. "The opposition parties have shown themselves intent on capturing power but have not presented a credible programme showing how they would govern differently to the government in place."

"When people say politics in Guinea it means dirty politics, where the game is to come out on top, but the unions are talking about the wider field of politics in which social, economic and cultural factors come into it," McGovern said. "[The unions] are talking about people's life chances, so when they say they are only concerned with people's well-being, that's tremendously powerful."

Guinea's unions are seen as symbolically important because of their key role in ending colonisation in Guinea and installing the country's first post-independence president, former union leader Sekou Toure in 1960, although Toure went on to break up and then ban the unions because they threatened his heavy-handed one-party rule.

After Toure died in 1984 and Conte took power, unions and opposition parties were nominally reauthorised, but it was not until 2004 when the unions started agitating for improved standards of living and stabilisation of Guinea's runaway economy that they won support from beyond their traditional bases.

The ruling Party of Unity and Progress (PUP) party has nonetheless accused union leaders of moving beyond their social mandate to adopt political goals, and of being backed by opposition political parties.

"Behind these unions are the opposition parties that do not want peace in this country," Sekou Konate, secretary general of the PUP said on Tuesday. He pointed to a new demand this week by the unions that a prominent businessman accused of corruption, who has ties to President Conte, be imprisoned, and the transport minister be removed as evidence of politicisation.

Ibrahima Fofana, secretary general of the USTG, dismissed the accusation of politicisation but said it is impossible to talk about the economic and social problems in the country without criticising the nation’s leaders. "All the country is tired of this regime that has shown its incapability at every level in the course of the last years," he said on Wednesday evening.

Guinea has some of the richest seams of gold, iron and bauxite in Africa, as well as thousands of kilometres of fertile land and vast water sources but Conte, an eccentric military colonel known for his love of fast cars and cigarettes, has failed to translate the vast natural wealth into either improved employment, income or life expectancy for the majority.

Although he is credited with overturning Toure's authoritarian regime and improving human rights, elections returning him to power have been widely discredited and the country has been deemed among the most corrupt in the world.

"If the strike goes on longer than one week the economic and political consequences are going to be felt," McGovern predicted. "The condition for the strike going forward is that people have little to lose. Staying home, not working or collecting a paycheque is inconsequential given the lack of purchasing power. The longer it goes on, the more cards are in the hand of the unions."