Saturday, September 1, 2012

Repercussions of August 27th Conakry Protests

Things have calmed down considerably in Conakry since last weekend, but there are ongoing repercussions and rumblings of discontentment in the population. Reflecting on recent events with an experienced international consultant in Conakry, my colleague asserted the common view that Guinea has been teetering on the edge of falling apart for years. When it comes down to it, individual actions taken by leaders can have an unfortunately large effect on the future of a country. In no way trying to sound dramatic, President Condé truly holds the fate of the country in his hands. If not handled properly the underlying tensions can explode outward. Or, on the other hand, if he manages to shepherd Guinea toward transparent elections, stability could take hold and development could accelerate. As my colleague said, although Guinea hasn't been touched by the same kind of civil war experienced in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, that does not mean that with some bad luck and bad decisions things can't shift in that direction. It is a very real possibility in a country with underlying ethnic tension, deep poverty, poor governance and deep political divisions. For a slightly more in-depth look at some of these challenges Guinea is facing, see an article over at IRIN.

In further follow-up on the August 27th protests I found out this week that a Peace Corps vehicle carrying our country and regional security officers (but no volunteers) encountered the protests firsthand whlie returning from a trip to the interior last Monday, with some interesting results. Entering Conakry they drove straight into an arm of the protest which had spread across the neighborhood. Rocks were being thrown by citizens and tear gas was being used by police. A menacing group quickly gathered around the Peace Corps vehicle which was forced to slow down facing the crowd. Once the passengers made it clear they were American (and not French, although it's not clear whether it was being "not French" or being "American" that was most helpful), they were defended by some of the protesters and allowed to leave. Nevertheless they were told "you shouldn't be driving here," as if the driver wouldn't have taken any other route had he known what layed before him! The fact is, although this protest was planned in advance, in any developing country there is the risk of spontaneous and unpredictable protests. It's not a reason to avoid these countries, only a reason to exercise good judgment and minimize risk whenever possible.

Following the aftermath of the protests and crackdown, according to news published this morning, the opposition's promise to pull its representatives out of government is holding true. As reported by Reuters, two government ministers have just resigned. I have also heard (uncomfirmed) that several members of CENI (the national independent electoral commission) have resigned as well. In addition, according to opposition leaders quoted by AFP, 120 people were arrested in response to the protest. Over at the UN, the High Commission for Human Rights is expressing its concern:
31 August 2012 – The United Nations human rights office today voiced concern about the excessive use of force by security forces in Guinea in a number of incidents over the past few weeks, and stressed that demonstrators must be allowed to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and expression.
I forgot to mention in my last post that about two weeks ago while taking a taxi to Taouyah through the neighborhood of Dixinn (Conakry) we ran into President Condé. Or rather, he ran into us - traffic ground to a halt as the President's motorcade pushed through the already heavy afternoon commute. Preceded by blaring sirens, the head of state's car, a dark sedan with tinted windows, was clearly identifiable once it emerged from behind the wall of security forces. It pulled up shortly after passing our taxi and Condé emerged, instantly surrounded by guards, to wave to the crowd. Within a few seconds he had stepped back into the vehicle and the motorcade continued on its way. The whole street was on edge because of the large security presence, namely two pickups with mounted machine guns and at least four dozen soldiers/gendarmes carrying automatic weapons (mostly AK-47s it appeared), fingers on the triggers. At the time it didn't seem like the safest way to get publicity given the unpredictable nature of the streets of Conakry and the decent likelihood that the President would get stuck in traffic. According to a Conakry-based journalist on Twitter, he went out again later in the week in the neighborhood of Kaloum. He also showed up over the weekend at a hospital in Conakry to witness the aftermath of the capsized boat incident described below and did some more meeting and greeting with citizens on the streets.

In Peace Corps news, on Friday I went with office staff to the US Embassy for an awards ceremony for United States Government (USG) employees in Guinea. Several Peace Corps staff were awarded for exemplary service and milestones such as five/ten years with Peace Corps. Amusingly, at least ten minutes were spent awarding embassy drivers (they have many more drivers than Peace Corps) with certificates for having driven for the embassy for 1, 5, 10, 16 and then all the way up to 22 years of service without getting into an accident. Two takeaways from this: accident-free driving is an impressive feat in Guinea, and in the United States we are security-obsessed.

Lastly, in a tragic event yesterday (Friday), a boat leaving Conakry for the islands just offshore capsized, and 30 out of almost 60 passengers are unaccounted for and presumed drowned according to AP. The boat appears to have been loaded with heavy cargo, and when combined with the difficult weather/seas at this time of year (nearing the end of the rainy season) it is a sad but not completely shocking eventuality. Among coastal West African countries such boat accidents are far from rare; in fact in July in a similar event off the shores of Conakry 20 people perished.

On the cholera side of life in Conakry, the outbreak continues to accelerate. According to IRIN, while not quite as hard hit as Sierra Leone, the number of cases in Guinea is rising steadily:
Guinea's capital, Conakry, has been the hardest hit in the country, with 3,247 cases so far. Cholera has also broken out in nine of Guinea's 33 districts, OCHA said.
The reasons why easy the disease can spread so easily here are well documented:

In Guinea, only 19 percent of the population has access to improved sanitation and just half its 10 million people have access to safe drinking water sources.
Myself, another expat and some volunteers are currently seeking ways to support organizations fighting the outbreak such as the NGOs like Doctors without Borders (MSF) and Action Against Hunger (ACF). If you are reading this and know anyone in this line of work in Guinea who can use a hand, please don't hesitate to reach out to us!