Hopes for Guinea’s first election in half-century emerge with wounded junta leader in exile

By Todd Pitman, AP
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Exile of Guinea junta leader sparks hope back home

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — After only a year in power, Guinea’s dictator is in exile, his departure having breathed surprising new life into a country he had terrorized, and hopes are even stirring that the nation will hold its first democratic elections in half a century.

But true reform may be long way off and his legacy lives on through a military junta with bloody hands that’s still in charge.

Guinea’s Capt. Moussa “Dadis” Camara has been reduced to a feeble shell of his former self — exiled to Burkina Faso after a bullet grazed his skull during a Dec. 3 assassination attempt by one of his own men. No longer are there nightly television shows devoted to the dictator’s rants, no life-size posters of himself adorning his own walls. No trucks full of soldiers guarding him.

Camara, an erratic 46-year-old who governed at night, had crammed cabinets and drawers in his office with looted cash, gold and diamonds, handing them out “as if he was a king,” according to Mamadou Bah Baadikko, who heads a Guinean opposition party.

Times have quickly changed in tiny Guinea, a bauxite-rich country on Africa’s west coast with the recent appointment of an opposition politician as prime minister and Camara gone.

“People have a little more hope with him out of the picture,” Thierno Sow, head of Guinea’s main independent human rights group, told The Associated Press from Guinea’s capital, Conakry. “But for now it’s only hope. There’s a long road ahead.”

Guinea “remains a dangerous place,” Sow said.

Camara seized power in a coup only hours after strongman Lansana Conte passed away in December 2008, ending more than three decades of dictatorship. Appealing to a downtrodden public in one of the poorest capitals in Africa, Camara promised things would finally change and led a very public drive against corruption and drug smuggling.

But as the months passed, impunity spiraled so far out of control that soldiers were hijacking even diplomat’s cars in the streets. Camara began hinting he would run in presidential elections despite a promise not to — prompting a Sept. 28 protest at Conakry’s stadium. Camara’s red-bereted presidential guard troops crushed the demonstration with astounding brutality, blocking exits, opening fire with live ammunition and raping women. At least 156 civilians died in the massacre.

A U.N. investigation established by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon fueled tensions within the junta over who would take the blame. When Camara confronted the head of the presidential guard, Lt. Abubakar “Toumba” Diakite, on Dec. 3, Diakite shot Camara in the head and fled.

“For the population, Toumba has become an improbable hero,” Baadikko noted wryly. “For us, Toumba is a still criminal who needs to face justice.”

The wounded Camara was flown to a military hospital in Morocco, but the Moroccan government abruptly put him on a plane to Burkina Faso on Jan. 13.

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore — who himself took power in a bloody 1987 coup — pushed through a deal in which Camara agreed to remain in exile while his nation embarks on a transition toward elections later this year without him.

International pressure helped box the junta into a corner: Europe and the African Union imposed an arms embargo, a travel ban and froze the assets of most junta members.

Camara allowed his deputy, Gen. Sekouba Konate, to act as interim leader. Konate swiftly swore in a new civilian prime minister, Jean-Marie Dore, on Jan. 26. Dore was an opposition politician who was among those beaten by the presidential guard during the September massacre.

The appointment of an interim government composed of about 32 members — 10 to be appointed by the opposition, 10 by the junta and 12 by unions and civil society leaders — is also imminent. But skepticism abounds. The junta is still in charge. The soldiers who carried out the massacre haven’t been arrested, much less punished.

“The question is whether the new government will actually make concrete changes,” Baadikko said. “We’ve had four civilian prime ministers in four years. What difference has it made? None.”

Each of Guinea’s last four premiers was appointed by either the dictatorships of Conte or Camara. Dore, however, is the first opposition figure to be sworn into the post.

Corinne Dufka, of Human Rights Watch, told AP she sees positive signs but that deeds must follow promises.

She said Konate “has recognized the importance of separating the military from political life” and noted there have been pledges to reform the judiciary and the security forces.

“That’s good news, but it’s all still in the balance. If their words don’t go beyond rhetoric, it’s going to be business as usual,” Dufka said.

Aside from two public appearances in which he was visibly wooden and weak, Camara has kept quiet since arriving in Ouagadougou. He resides in a guarded, single-story state villa with a small garden in an upscale neighborhood with his wife, immediate family and two Guinean doctors, according to a presidential adviser here who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Still a night-owl, Camara takes strolls after dark through wide, deserted streets, the adviser said.

He also calls Konate every day, but “doesn’t talk much about politics anymore,” the adviser said. “Every time I’ve been over there, he’s been watching football on TV” — mainly the recently concluded African Cup of Nations tournament.

The International Criminal Court, which launched a preliminary investigation the stadium massacre, could eventually issue a warrant for his arrest. A U.N. inquiry also recommended Camara, along with top members of his presidential guard, be brought to trial.

Sow said the soldiers who carried out the massacre should be tried, but believes it’s unlikely anytime soon.

“They’re roaming the streets freely with guns,” said Sow. “The women they raped are still in hiding, scared, and still being threatened not to speak.”

Sow said none of the 110 women who were raped dared testify before a Guinean commission which carried out its own investigation of the slaughter. The commission blamed Diakite, the would-be assassin, and absolved Camara and other soldiers. Opposition leaders say the commission was biased in favor of the junta.

“The thing you have to understand is that there is still no state in Guinea. Justice does not exist. Everybody is on their own,” Sow said. “The military … needs to be completely overhauled. We sincerely hope that will happen, but for now they are still in charge.”

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