Ethnic divide in Guinea widens: Exercise in democracy turns into racial contest

By Rukmini Callimachi, AP
Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ethnic divide in Guinea widens, threatens election

CONAKRY, Guinea — Ibrahima Diallo spends his days in Bed No. 7 of the municipal hospital here, waiting for the bones in his face to glue themselves back together. His teeth are tied shut, so it is hard for him to talk — but even if he could, he’d have little to say to the patient in Bed No. 8.

That man also has a broken cheekbone. And like Diallo, he too was injured in the spasm of pre-election violence that swept Conakry last month. Yet the gulf between the two hospital beds is a mirror of the ethnic divide at the heart of Guinea’s political life, which is threatening to derail what was supposed to be the country’s first democratic election since independence in 1958.

Mory Keita, 25, was rushed into surgery after being slammed in the face by a rock. The rocks started raining down on the party headquarters of presidential candidate Alpha Conde, a Malinke politician, whose supporters, like Keita, are overwhelmingly from his ethnic group. Keita says the last thing he heard before he was knocked unconscious was the screams of people speaking the Peul language.

On the same day, the last thing Diallo, 46 — a Peul — heard before passing out was the Malinke dialect. He was on his way to a soccer tournament in support of Peul candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo, whose Union for the Democratic Forces of Guinea, or UFDG, has the nearly unanimous support of Guinea’s Peul population. The men who surrounded him insulted him in Malinke, telling him they would never accept a Peul president. They punched him until he spit up his own teeth.

Only four months ago, journalists flocked for a rare ‘good news’ story to this African capital ranked as one of the world’s poorest, where black mold coats buildings and the smell of the sea mixes with that of the sewer. For the first time in Guinea’s history, there was no incumbent to rig the election, and the army that had installed two of the country’s three dictators had vowed not to meddle. A successful election was also expected to open the door to billions of dollars in planned mining investments.

But the mood of celebration fizzled when none of the 24 candidates won a majority, forcing a run-off between the No. 1 and No. 2 finishers, who are from the two largest ethnic groups, with a history of animosity. A shadow has since fallen over Guinea and the surrounding region, as the country’s exercise in democracy degenerated into a contest along racial lines.

It’s an all-too-familiar script in this part of Africa, where three of the six countries bordering Guinea — Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia — are only now emerging from civil wars fueled by ethnic divisions. The duelling groups in Guinea, the Malinke and the Peul, are ethnicities that span the borders.

“People are no longer voting for a political platform. They are voting for an ethnicity,” says Lama Bangoura, a youth leader in the violence-prone Enco-5 neighborhood. “You go into the neighborhoods and ask who people are voting for. And you’ll immediately see that all the Peul are voting for the UFDG, and all the Malinke are voting for the RPG.”

The ethnic question has always hovered just under the surface in Guinea, but like in the former Yugoslavia under Tito, it was kept under a tight lid by the country’s successive strongmen. Each favored their ethnic group, stacking the government with their kin and violently silencing opponents.

Of the country’s four major groups, the Peul are the largest, representing around 40 percent of the population of 10 million, and yet they are the only ones not to have had one of their own in power. Last year, they were singled out in an army-led massacre of protesters calling for an end to army rule. Peul women — identifiable by their lighter skin and Semitic features — were gang raped by soldiers chanting anti-Peul slurs.

In a market in Conakry, a Peul woman selling condiments from a Tupperware basin says the pride she felt just months ago at finally being able to cast a vote which she knew would be counted is gone. She says in the past few weeks, she stopped wearing her campaign T-shirt with a picture of Diallo. The last time she wore it, Khadiatou Bah says, a Malinke vendor approached her apparently to buy one of her sauces, and then grabbed her shirt as if trying to twist out the face of the Peul candidate.

“He said no Peul woman had ever carried a future president on her back. He said that if we Peuls toy around with the idea of being in power, they will kill us all,” says Bah.

Salimatou Balde, 39, says the ethnic issue didn’t come up until July, when the field of candidates was suddenly reduced to a Malinke and a Peul, exposing a faultline that has long existed between them. Guinea’s first president Sekou Toure was a Malinke, and thousands of Peul fled to neighboring countries after he claimed to have uncovered a ‘Peul plot’ against him. Countless hundreds were tortured to death or starved in a gulag-like prison.

Balde says in the last four months, she has started to have fights with the Malinke tenants who rent a room in her house. When they put up a poster of Conde, she yanked it down. In retaliation they have stopped paying their rent.

Both candidates accuse the other of using ‘tribal rhetoric’ in their stump speeches. It’s hard to ignore the racial homogeneity of their party offices, located just a half-mile apart on the national highway crossing Conakry’s potholed boulevards.

At the RPG headquarters, the uniformed security guard at the entrance as well as the party supporters inside greet each other saying ‘i nike’ — “hello” in Malinke. Head to the squat building that houses the UFDG, and the first words out of people’s mouths are ‘on dyaraama,’ a greeting in Peul. The majority of the people inside have one of four last names — Diallo, Barry, Balde or Bah — immediately identifying them as Peul.

The exceptions all have a story to tell about the ostracism they faced when they decided to back the opposing candidate. The secretary-general of the RPG in the Fouta district, the traditional homeland of the Peul, is a Peul. He has received threats from Peul community leaders who call him a traitor. They have vowed to chase him out of town if Diallo wins.

Bangoura, the youth leader from Enco-5, is a Soussou, a group allied with the Malinke. He is, however, voting for the UFDG because he says he prefers Diallo’s economic policies to Conde’s. He is paying the price in daily snubs from his Malinke neighbors.

“If we push on this ethnic button, it’s going to explode,” he says. “People are becoming radicalized. The Malinke say don’t vote for Cellou because he’s a Peul, and the Peul say we need to vote for him because he’s a Peul.”

Despite problems, including too few polling stations and a large percentage of irregular ballots, the first round of voting was largely deemed free and fair, said Guinea-based election expert Elizabeth Cote of the International Foundation for Election Systems. But instead of a run-off in July as planned, the vote has been delayed multiple times, allowing the electoral commission to remap voting districts and add more polling stations near remote villages. Last week, the United Nations warned that Guinea risks another army takeover if voting is further delayed.

Every postponment was viewed as politically motivated by Diallo’s party, which clinched 44 percent of the vote in the first round to Conde’s 18 percent. The UFDG accuses the election commission and members of the transitional government of purposely delaying the vote to prevent a Peul from winning. The disagreement spilled over onto the street on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12 when at least 54 people were injured, including the two patients in the Maxillo-Facial Surgery wing of the National Donka Hospital.

The whites of Ibrahima Diallo’s eyes are pierced with red lines. He moves his bulbous lips slowly as he explains how his attackers yanked off his party pin before saying in Malinke that they planned to kill him. He acknowledges that Keita’s attackers probably said the same thing in Peul.

Keita has gone to lie down in the cot in the corner of the room next to the chalk mark of the number 8 on the wall. His broken face is jutting out, as if he’s tried to stuff an apple in one side of his mouth. When he wakes up, he’ll probably go to charge his phone in the plug next to Bed No. 7.

“I let him charge his phone here. I give him my water. I share my food,” says Diallo. “If they are alone, they’re OK. But they’re not OK when they’re in a group. When they are in a group I am afraid.”

Associated Press Writer Boubacar Diallo contributed to this report.

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