[Updated with my friend's report.]
For the past two weeks, there has been a general strike in Guinea (West Africa). Thousands of union and grassroots marchers have been protesting throughout the country. Government forces have killed at least 59 people and injured over 250.
This is the third strike in a year marked by rapid inflation and rampant corruption in the country. While most of the country is shut down, those merchants still doing business have doubled the price of staple foods.
President Lansana Conte has been in office since 1984. There have been elections but their validity has been contested.
On Saturday, in a speech calling for calm Conte said:
Those who want power must wait their turn. It is God who gives power and when he gives it to someone, everyone must stand behind him.
On Wednesday, Conte agreed to appoint a new prime minister. However, according to Reuters:
Union leaders have said they will not call an end to their action until … President Conte [agrees to] hand over all his powers to a prime minister acceptable to the unions.
The BBC has some photos from Monday’s protests – including where someone is holding a placard reading (in French) “We are ready to die for change”.
The BBC carried this eyewitness account of Monday’s violence by Bah Rahim, 32:
The march was huge and I saw the military kill two people right in front of me.
It started when I went outside to join the protesters at nine o’clock.
We were in my suburb of Hamdallaye and as the soldiers began shooting everyone ran to the police station but the shooting continued. It was there at the police station that I was shocked to see two people shot dead.
But this didn’t stop the crowd. We moved forward towards the 8 Novembre Bridge – the way into the centre of Conakry. It’s a long way, about 10km.
At the crossing there were so many soldiers and they started shooting their guns again, and killed more than seven people.
It was not my first terrifying experience with the military. Last Thursday I saw two young boys – aged about seven or eight – throw a stone at a military vehicle as it passed by.
The soldiers responded with machine-gun fire. The children ran inside and were not hurt, but you can see five bullet holes in the wall near my compound.
From the WaPo (finally reporting on this 2 weeks after it started):
Tensions eased considerably Wednesday after an announcement that Conté had agreed to name a prime minister, a move his critics hope will be a step toward his relinquishing some power.
On Thursday, a commission including government officials, union leaders and representatives of civil groups met to discuss the powers of the prospective prime minister. The panel is supposed to present its proposal to Conté soon.
The true death toll from the violence might never be known. Residents said some bodies were not taken to hospitals but were swiftly buried by family members. Muslim custom in Guinea requires that the dead be buried within 24 hours.
Many residents have accused the government of corruption and misrule, which they blame for leaving much of the country without adequate water, electricity or jobs.
Many also worry that Conté’s resignation or death could create a power vacuum, plunging the impoverished country of 10 million into civil war. Conté is in his 70s and reportedly suffering from a heart condition.
A friend of mine, Mardi Kendall, with close ties to Guinea is writing up what she has heard from her friends there,
I will add that to this diary when I recieve it [now added below]. One of her friends lost a 12-year-old brother in the violence.
Guinea: The Forgotten Country by Mardi Kendall
I have been watching and helping my friends in Guinea, West Africa for many years, as I struggle to set up a documentary about a country few have heard of. When I first went there in 2000, the overall cultural verve and exuberance were palatable, and I longed to show the world these proud people surviving in a despotic regime never knowing where the next meal would come from, but surviving like grass that finds its way up through the pavement.
In the last two weeks, that fragile balance fell apart. The entire country has risen up to topple the regime of President Lansana Conte, and every man, woman, child, union official, and miner, has taken to the streets in protest, even though street protests were outlawed. They marched because their staple food, rice, has been too expensive to buy for a long time, and education and medical care are out of reach.
Conte has been president since 1984, when his military took control. He maintains power through the military, and has done nothing for Guinea, while his many wives and children thrive in luxury. In every book I’ve read about Africa, it has said that Guinea could be the richest country there, as it has copious amount of bauxite, iron ore, water for agriculture, gold, and diamonds.
Yet it took the slaughter of dozens of people for this situation to even make the news on the Internet. On Monday, in cities and villages all over Guinea the people of Guinea took to the streets in the thousands. Their main demand was for the aging and very ill president to step down. Many crowds were composed largely of women and children. And all over Guinea, the military fired into the crowds.
I have been speaking daily with my friends there, and sending all the money I can muster to keep them alive. My friend Idrissa Sylla told me that they were living like animals, with no water, food or electricity, in horrible unsanitary conditions. It has been stiflingly hot. They have been cooped up in their houses, too afraid to move. Then they couldn’t contain themselves anymore and flooded out into the streets, even as President Conte steadfastly maintained that God put him into office and that others should wait their turn.
Idrissa was shot in the leg, and his little brother of twelve was shot in the heart. Yesterday, as Idrissa struggled to find medicine for his festering leg, they went to the morgue to find his brother’s little body, stepping over the dead and the blood, amidst the crowds of wailing and weeping relatives.
Idrissa has only recently gotten out of jail, where he was tortured. He went there for demanding that a friend receive a passport, that it was his right. His family found a visiting lawyer from Senegal to get him out, and again, my pitifully small donation was the difference between life and death. Idrissa’s best friend died just after he too was released from prison, broken and starving from his treatment there.
I fear for my friend’s sanity. It is too much for one person to bear, and yet his story is being repeated all over Guinea. While we have Iraq endlessly battered into our brains, people like Idrissa are quietly being broken, and “leaders” like Conte are allowed to thrive.
This is the third strike by the people in a year, and Guinea is supposed to be the bulwark of stability for the region, which has seen wars in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau.
I know we are overloaded with the insanity of the world at every step, but a whole country brave enough to die and starve and stand up to tyranny? This should not be overlooked.