Image: Man does laundry
Schalk Van Zuydam  /  AP
A man does his washing at a local fishing village at Conakry, Guinea. Entire neighborhoods in the capital haven't had electricity or running water for years. 
updated 1/29/2007 10:22:05 PM ET 2007-01-30T03:22:05

Entire neighborhoods in the capital haven't had electricity or running water for years. The central bank is in such bad shape it sometimes turns to the black market to replenish hard currency reserves. Doctors joke the best medicine for the sick is Air France — a plane ride out of the country.

Popular anger at Guinea's plight is being aimed at President Lansana Conte more than ever before, manifested in a crippling two-week nationwide strike that ended Sunday with a deal to appoint a new prime minister with expanded powers. For many, it's not enough.

"Conte must go," said Sadio Diallo, a 22-year-old university student standing near the charred hulks of overturned cars torched by a mob last week in a suburb that hasn't had electricity in 20 months.

Conte, who reportedly suffers from severe diabetes and a heart condition, is unlikely to go anywhere soon — at least not willingly. Among the last of Africa's "Big Men," who have clung to power by the gun, fraudulent elections and fear, he likes to say God put him to power, and only God will remove him.

Guinea has managed to avoid the catastrophic wars that have ravaged its West African neighbors, yet 23 years after Conte seized power in a military coup, his crumbling state resembles a shattered nation just recovering from one.

Across the street from the presidential palace, trees and bushes sprout from the windows of an abandoned 15-story building. A few blocks away, Conakry's poorest eat once a day and live in claptrap shelters cobbled together from rusted aluminum siding and debris.

Guinea doesn't have to be this way.

Rich in resources
The Oregon-size country boasts half the world's known reserves of bauxite, the ore used to produce aluminum, and it has deposits of gold, diamonds and iron ore. Analysts say the nation, at the confluence of several West African rivers, could generate enough electricity to power the region.

But Transparency International, an independent group that monitors misgovernance, ranked Guinea as the most corrupt country in Africa in its 2006 annual survey.

Unions estimate the unemployment rate at 60 percent, and skyrocketing inflation means it takes more than a month's pay for a civil servant to buy a sack of rice.

"We're like a ship lost at sea," said Rabiatou Serah Diallo, who heads one of Guinea's two main unions and lives in a neighborhood that hasn't had running water in five years. "We don't know where we're going. If we're ever going to find land, we need to change the captain."

Conte, who is in his mid-70s, is only the second head of state Guinea has had since independence from France in 1958, and there is anxiety about what will happen after he goes.

By law, the head of the national assembly should become president, but many fear the army could stage a coup if Conte dies, or even before. They worry, too, about the chances for civil war.

Many of those who took part in the nationwide strike hoped it might snowball into a popular, peaceful revolution. But when demonstrators attempted to march on the presidential palace Jan. 22, security forces opened fire, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

Trying to head off further bloodshed, union leaders halted more protests and scaled back demands, urging Conte not to step down but rather appoint a premier with more powers.

It's a solution that let everybody declare victory. But it's a solution Guinea's 9 million people have seen before.

During a 1996 army mutiny, soldiers angry over low pay bombarded the presidential palace for several days while Conte holed up inside. He emerged unscathed, offered raises to his attackers and later named a prime minister for the first time to tackle national ills — problems that still reign: water and electricity shortages, high prices for rice.

Start of a new era
Nonetheless, analysts say the mass protests marked the start of a new era.

"The way people are making politically overt claims on the government is qualitatively new and different," said Mike McGovern, a Guinea expert at Yale University.

"This has never happened in the last 49 years. Guinea has crossed a threshold. Their aim is not just lower prices for rice and petrol (gasoline), they're saying, 'We want to get to the root of the problem, which is bad governance and corruption.'"

Thierno Sow, head of Guinea's main independent human rights group, agreed. "It's the first time we've seen a movement so intense," he said.

Real change won't come easy.

Conte has survived coup attempts, military revolts, a failed attempt on his life and multiparty elections three times since 1993. During the last vote in 2003, the opposition was so discouraged it didn't field a candidate.

Cheikh Tidiane Traore, a ruling party lawmaker, acknowledged Guinea is in bad shape, but argues the president alone is not to blame.

"We must all take blame, especially the ministers. It's a communal responsibility," Traore said.

"We know people are angry. Water and electricity, they're priorities, they'll come, but we need time," he said. And, he added, "the will to change."

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