Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Current Political Strife in Guinea

The political situation isn’t getting any better in Guinea, and could be headed for a significant downward turn if momentum continues in the current direction. There have been an increasing number of relatively small protests in Conakry over the past weeks, but several have resulted in police violence. Tear gas is being used liberally to disperse protesters and rubber bullets as well as life rounds have been employed in the past week. We are getting regular messages from our Country Director instructing those of us who are in Conakry to avoid certain neighborhoods on specific days based on publicly announced protests. These are in addition to updates sent in real time in response to developments in the security situation. It is standard procedure to warn Peace Corps Volunteers and Embassy staff to avoid all large public gatherings, but the increased frequency and its location relatively close to the neighborhood of the Peace Corps office has resulted in unusual restrictions on our movement since early last week.

The most recent event was yesterday when security forces stifled a planned (but illegal) protest in the neighborhood of Matoto. Police movement began late the night before when 30 members of the opposition, including the son of the lead opposition candidate, Cellou Dalein Diallom, were arrested. Security forces proceeded to occupy the planned meeting location and shut down major intersections in Conakry. As protesters arrived in small groups they were pushed back with tear gas and the houses of opposition leaders in the area were also teargassed. As reported by the AFP,
The opposition has been holding regular protests to stand up to what they say is President Alpha Conde's attempts to tinker with the electoral code. At issue is this the country's parliamentary race which has been delayed many times due to disputes between the ruling party and the opposition over the makeup of the electoral list, and of the commission that will referee the race.
Over the weekend, the governor of Conakry issued a decree, outlawing the protest planned for Monday. The opposition decided to go ahead, despite the ban.

Confrontations between protesters and security forces ensued. It is difficult to track down the number of injuries after such events (press coverage of these events is minimal and spotty since there appears to be a low international media presence in Conakry and the Guinean press is not particularly well developed), but it sounds like there were a handful of injuries and a few dozen arrests. Most worryingly, the Associated Press is reporting that live rounds were fired on a car transporting the three top leaders of the opposition to President Condé’s government:

"It's the first time that I have seen something like this happen in Guinea. They were throwing the cannisters, aiming for the car's reservoir. Then they started to shoot," Sidya said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Kouyate's house, where the three had taken cover.
"They completely destroyed the cars that were in the convoy behind us. ... At first, when I heard the shooting, I thought they must be shooting more tear gas. It was when we got out that we saw the impact of the bullets. ... Thank God we were in a bullet-proof car," he said.
 The entire Associated Press article is worth reading. Update August 29: A video of some of these events has been posted on YouTube. The opposition has decided to retaliate by removing all politicians who are members of their parties from government, a move which seems risky to me, and could greatly increase tensions. While there currently is no parliament to remove members from because legislative elections have been repeatedly delayed over the past few years (this is one of the issues the opposition regularly protests about), this still means that the opposition is pulling out of the National Transition Council and the National Independent Electoral Commission. The former is currently functioning in the place of parliament and the importance of the latter is paramount. While this move feels drastic (and we'll see whether it actually is acted upon), an attack on the opposition’s convoy is absolutely unacceptable and serious action needs to be taken to ensure that security forces do not continue to perpetrate such acts. Assuming that the details in the report are correct (the only reason I have to question it is that I have only heard this story from one source), I think the full rammifications of firing upon a convoy of opposition leaders will not hit us for some days, and could be quite strong. Update: For a detailed account of the opposition's response (in French), check out Jeune Afrique.

As far as we volunteers are concerned, while travel restrictions within Conakry may be inconvenient at times, it is not yet disrupting our daily lives. There have been a number of small-scale protests in Conakry in recent weeks, and the effect has been minimal on our movement. The streets around the office have been quieter than usual on days when traffic was affected by additional police barrages in the the city, but otherwise we have been able to circulate in a normal way and feel safe when doing so.

Some of these protests have been motivated by violence perpetrated by security forces in Zogota and Siguiri, in the interior of the country. The Associated Press reported in early August on the killing of six people over the course of two different protests. Neither of those two protests were directly aimed at President Alpha Condé and his government, rather they focused on local issues. However, as would be expected, the political opposition to President Condé has been capitalizing on this added disapproval of the ruling party. The opposition has been responding vocally and calling for an independent investigation into the events. For more info on the background of the political problems in Guinea, check out IRIN.

On a less serious, but still security-related note, the Peace Corps office had its annual fire drill/evacuation training with embassy staff last week. We received top marks and a lot of praise from the embassy! In case of emergency, we are prepared.

On the public health side of life in Guinea, the country is still struggling to keep under control a cholera outbreak which began in February of this year. As of AFP reports via ReliefWeb, 2,054 cases have been recorded and 82 people have been killed since the beginning of the outbreak. Fortunately NGOs such as MSF and Action Against Hunger are stepping up to fill the gaps that the government cannot meet. There are no signs that the outbreak is currently affecting the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the Peace Corps office.

For a hauntingly beautiful photo of Conakry taken by MSF staff, click here. The grey sky is typical of the weather over the past month, although in the last week or so we have been starting to get sunnier skies for half of the day if we are lucky. Yesterday, eating lunch on the roof of the office, the view was stunningly gorgeous and a striking reminder of how with a little development Conakry itself could have a thriving tourist industry (currently the best beaches/resorts are on the northern coast of Guinea).

And finally, click here for another quality post from Bruce Whitehouse on the cultural challenges associated with shooting photographs in Mali. Many of the described issues apply to photo-taking elsewhere in West Africa, and it's worth a read!