Guinea ethnic divide defies ‘West Africa’s Mandela’

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Two years ago, Guinea’s first freely-elected president Alpha Conde promised to unite “every son” of his nation; today the man with ambitions to become West Africa’s Nelson Mandela is struggling to halt a wave of ethnic unrest.

Report by Reuters

Tribal violence in the world’s biggest bauxite exporter is threatening to delay parliamentary elections, scare off foreign investors and deepen strains in neighbouring countries across Africa’s fragile “coup belt”.

Rights groups and political analysts say Conde (74) has fallen far short of his promise to unite Guinea in the way that Mandela united South Africa after apartheid. Some even say he has inflamed ethnic hatred as much as the opposition, an accusation which the government denies.

“Conde inherited a difficult situation with virtually no institutions and a decaying state,” said Lydie Boka of risk consultancy StrategiCo. “But he knew that having the number one job was a tall order, so now he should deliver.”

“He also knew he would be accused of tribalism, but he has not done much to prove the contrary,” she said.

Conde made his promise in 2010 when he narrowly won a presidential election held under Guinea’s transition to civilian rule following a coup d’etat two years earlier.

However, ethnic riots have exploded across the ramshackle capital of Conakry in recent months, most recently in September when youths from Guinea’s two largest ethnic groups, the Malinke and Peul, fought each other with rocks, clubs and machetes.

“It was chaos here,” said Adama Mara, a 35-year-old mechanic in Conakry. “The Malinke were targeted in Peul neighbourhoods, and the Peul were targeted in Malinke neighbourhoods.”

Security crackdowns, including the use of tear gas in the home of an opposition leader in August, have drawn criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups.

Investors have also got cold feet over billions of dollars’ worth of resource projects due to the political tensions, a mining contract review and falling iron and aluminum prices.

Fears are growing that the turmoil will further delay the parliamentary elections that foreign donors say must be held before they can resume aid payments halted after the 2008 coup. These polls have already been postponed to this year from 2011, and diplomats doubt they can be held even in early 2013, regardless of whether the government and opposition co-operate on the arrangements — and accept the outcome.

“Even if suddenly both sides were able to get together and agree on things, it would be impossible to organise an election before next spring,” one diplomatic source said, asking not to be named. “But the real worry is the result will be contested and will drive the country even further apart.”

Guinea lies at the heart of Africa’s “coup belt”. Neighbouring Mali has slid into chaos this year after a coup and an Islamist rebellion in its northern desert. Other neighbours, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Liberia are struggling to recover from civil wars and would be hard pressed to handle the knock-on effects of any ethnic crisis in Guinea.

Like in many parts of Africa, politics in Guinea are traditionally drawn along ethnic lines.

Conde’s ruling party is largely supported by Malinke, who make up 35% of the population and the bulk of the army. The opposition led by Cellou Dalein Diallo is mostly backed by Peul, descendants of migrant Muslim herders who are Guinea’s largest ethnic group at about 40%.

Conflict between the two groups, mostly over land, dates back centuries, but tensions have repeatedly flared since Guinea became independent from France in 1958.

Guinea’s first post-independence president, Ahmed Sekou Toure, ran an authoritarian regime for nearly three decades that promoted Malinke to top government posts.

In 2009, security forces killed more than 150 people who protested in Conakry against the then military junta and raped scores of women, with rights groups citing evidence the soldiers had targeted Peul.

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