Two months ago Guinea was abuzz with talk of a newly launched electoral commission amid signs that the country, without a parliament for five years, was finally moving towards a legislative election. Today the talk is of identifying the bodies of Guineans killed in street clashes and of preventing a slide into inter-ethnic bloodshed.
The trigger for the latest unrest was yet another opposition march in the capital Conakry. Long-running tension between government and opposition hardliners over the holding of the polls, the angst of people fed up with police brutality and impunity, as well as dire living conditions and rampant crime, underpin the violence.
“I’ve never heard a single politician talk [about the importance of unifying Guineans],” said a youth in Conakry who requested anonymity given the current climate of fear and suspicion. He was seated outside a shuttered car parts shop in Madina neighbourhood.
After days of economic standstill, on 6 March some vendors ventured out, but most kept stores closed, he said, opening briefly only for familiar clients.
The government on 7 March launched a dialogue led by the prime minister which it says aims to resolve electoral disputes and ease the deadlock that has prevailed since President Alpha Condé took power in late 2010. The electoral commission set the parliamentary polls for 12 May.
Guinea has been here before, said Vincent Foucher, a Dakar-based analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.
“These past two years Guinea’s been through many cycles - the opposition protesting, people being wounded, people being arrested, then the government and the opposition starting to talk, people being released from detention,” Foucher said. “A little progress, but very soon after, another blockage.
“This is the fourth or fifth cycle since late 2010. It degrades the climate. It degrades trust. It makes the opposition more and more suspicious and the government more and more tense.”
The opposition insists the government plans to rig the election and among other grievances rejects the company selected to revise electoral lists and tally the votes.
“The problem is Prof. Alpha Condé’s insistence on pushing ahead with a unilaterally crafted electoral process with zero transparency,” Cellou Dalein Diallo, opposition leader and Condé’s rival in the 2010 presidential election, told IRIN. “It’s the stance of a veteran opposition leader who is now in power - defiant and wanting only to show he alone is boss. The people will no longer accept this in Guinea.”
In a recent report ICG said the government “shows contempt” for the opposition, and the opposition “maintains that President Condé was elected through fraud”, noting that it is dangerous to hold elections under such circumstances.
Spokesman Damantang Albert Camara said the government is open to working with the opposition to resolve disputes, but that the opposition was being unreasonable.
“A lot of efforts have been made towards ensuring a sound electoral process,” he told IRIN. “If each party comes forth with good faith and the political will, we can come to a minimum of consensus.”
Guinea-watchers say it is difficult to discern which side is more to blame for the impasse.
“What’s clear is that the two views are very conflicting and that’s a bad climate for elections,” Foucher said. “We’re calling for some sort of dialogue that can allow for a minimum of mutual trust and a minimum of credibility to the electoral process.”
The independent electoral commission seems to have recognized that consensus on all points is impossible but work can proceed nonetheless, said one analyst who preferred anonymity.
“There are two schools of thought among the political class which are reflected in the electoral commission,” the analyst said. “One group wants to go to elections as quickly as possible to end the transition no matter what; the other wants to iron out disputes before continuing.”
The analyst added that the electoral commission seems to be dominated by the first sentiment: “The sense is the political parties will never agree so let’s go forward. And it seems this is frustrating for the opposition.”
ICG says it is up to the Condé government to take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of further conflict and hold legislative elections, and the opposition to cooperate with the government. For now the opposition is taking to the streets.
“But going to the streets doesn’t solve a thing,” said Sona Baro Doumbouya, deputy mayor of Conakry’s Kaloum District. “It only creates new problems.” She said people need to realize the ensuing unrest opens the door for looters. “And in that, no one is spared.”
The fallout paralyses business in a city where most people live hand to mouth. “Rare is the family who has a month’s or even a week’s supply of rice in the house,” said Conakry resident Mamady Mansaré.
“Imagine when just a couple of vendors come out to sell - today my wife said it was a veritable brawl just to obtain one kilo of rice."
The street protests also fuel hostility between Guinea’s main ethnic groups the Malinké (Condé’s ethnicity) and Peulh (which dominates the opposition).
The Madina car parts vendor is Malinké and has a Peulh girlfriend. “The two groups get along - we are all Guineans. It’s politics that has bred mistrust and antagonism between the two.” He said in recent days he has seen Malinké mug and beat up people solely because they are Peulh.
Following an appeal by religious leaders in Conakry, local officials, traditional leaders, elders and other community members are working to prevent inter-community conflict. A number of local NGOs are going around talking to youths throughout the capital.
Doumbouya said: “Community leaders are telling residents this is not about one ethnic group against another. The dispute is an affair for the politicians but not between ethnic groups.”
Still, Conakry is full of seething youths seemingly impenetrable to any messages of peace, said one conflict resolution expert in the capital.
“There are groups of 20 to 30 youths assembled along the main roads - armed with stones and clubs or whatever they can find.” He said many of them have parents who lost all they had in the looting; some have family members who have been in detention since the unrest.
“Now is the moment to alert the international community; it must get involved to prevent a slide into civil war," said Mamadou Kaly of local NGO Cercle d’orientation pour la consolidation de la paix. "All the conditions are there. We’ve seen ethnic tensions before but never on this magnitude."