Guinea: Junior officers seize power

Where is the new regime going?

When Guinea’s president since 1984, Lansana Conte, died on 23 December, lower ranked officers quickly took power. The new president, Moussa Dadis Camara, an army captain, promised a review of all the country’s mining contracts and 22 top military leaders were purged. The masses in Guinea, suffering from poverty after decades of economic decline, seem to have welcomed the new regime. The African Union and the imperialist powers, on the other hand, condemned the military coup.

The critique from Western governments is totally hypocritical. On 6 January, the United States declared it would suspend aid to Guinea as the new rulers had now arrested the previously purged top officers. The White House called for a "return to civilian rule", despite their long standing backing for Conte, who ruled as a de facto dictator since 1984. The latest "elections" in 2003 gave Conte 95% of the votes, a result no one believed to be genuine. The US statements, supporting the former chief-of-staff, the navy chief and other arrested top officers, is a continuation of Washington’s support to Conte.

Western powers and the African Union demand elections in Guinea, but electoral fraud in 2006-2007 in Congo, Nigeria and Cameroon did not stop their support for those governments. The African Union has suspended Guinea from membership and sent Libya’s not exactly democratically elected leader Muammar Gaddafi as its representative to Guinea, where he only spent a few hours at the national airport in Conacry. Moreover, the AU decision to support ’democracy’ in Guinea was taken at its head office in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, where the prime minister Meles Zenawi is suppressing all opposition. The ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States, with 15 member states) first said the coup leaders should be given some time to explain themselves. But now, ECOWAS too, with Nigeria’s president Yar’Adua as its chairman, is planning to expel Guinea.


These critics obviously fear instability and maybe even that pressure from the masses could push the new regime to cut into the profits made in Guinea by multinational companies. Imperialism always prefers stable regimes. The west encouraged Lansana Conte to strengthen the military and praised Guinea as a contrast to civil war-ridden neighbouring countries Liberia and Sierra Leone. To support Conte was also obviously the priority for world leading mining and metal companies with long standing businesses in Guinea, such as Rio Tinto Group and Alcoa.

The Wall Street Journal explained the strong reactions to the coup:

"Some of the world’s largest mining companies, already grappling with a depressed market for minerals and metals, are facing added uncertainty amid political unrest in the mineral-rich nation of Guinea. Rio Tinto, Alcoa Inc., Russia’s United Co. Rusal, South Africa’s AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and some smaller miners have been told by the Guinean government that their existing contracts with the government will be re-evaluated, after the death last week of the country’s mining-friendly President Lansana Conte was followed by a military coup."

The multinationals are particularly nervous because of the sudden and sharp global capitalist crisis which has depressed commodity prices and threatens their profits.

Mass struggle

However, the coup in Guinea follows a long period of sharpened class struggle by the masses. Early last year, an 18-day long general strike shook Conte’s regime. It was only defeated by heavy repression, including the use of military from neighbouring countries, and the eventually conciliatory position of the trade union leaders. 120 people were killed by state forces. Strike leaders came from the relatively small trade unions, for example the teachers’ union, but the strike had massive support from the urban poor and within all ethnic groups. While the strike started with demands for unpaid wages to be paid, it rapidly became a threat to the entire regime of Conte.

In the coup on 23 December, the junior officers stepped in to defuse a potentially explosive situation as Conte’s relatives were preparing to take over. They in turn were backed by the top military brass.

The president since the coup, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, was not a prominent figure in Guinean society. However, he and his fellow putschists understood the need to purge the generals in order to avoid inter-military clashes. The old government at first declared it was still in control, but later submitted to the army barracks, stating "we are at your disposal."

As the new prime minister, the junta chose Kabinet Komara, a banker working at the African Export-Import Bank in Cairo. He is one of six civilians in the a government out of 32, under the name of the National Council for Democracy and Development. Komara, incidentally, was the candidate for PM put forward by the unions during the general strike last year.

According to media reports, cheering crowds met the new president Camara when he paraded through Conacry with thousands of soldiers. ”Some, especially the young, were enthusiastic; anything must be better than the old man”, one observer reported. The new regime seems to draw its biggest support from young people.


Guinea’s economy has gradually deteriorated since it voted for independence from France following De Gaulle’s coup and establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The corrupt regimes of Ahmed Sekou Toure (1958-84) and Lansana Conté both became close allies of Western imperialism. The country has for a long time been exploited because of its mineral resources. It has half the worlds’ bauxite resources and is the fourth biggest producer of bauxite, which is indispensable in aluminium production. 80%-90% of foreign exchange earnings comes from bauxite. Guinea also has large iron ore reserves, as well as diamonds, gold, nickel and uranium.

The sharpest drop in the economy and living standards, however, came with capitalist globalisation and neo-liberalism in the 1990s. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund instructed Guinea and other African countries in Structural Adjustment Programmes to encourage privatisation, deregulation and public sector cuts. Foreign investments, particularly from the US, are given special conditions. Global capitalist measures of economic "freedom" especially praise Guinea’s small public sector and it’s "flexible" labour market.

The cost of these policies has been paid by workers and the poor. In 1958, Guinea was a food exporter, today it’s an importer. Food price rises in 2007-08 hit the population hard. Unemployment is very high. A normal wage is around 2 US dollars a day and gross domestic product is only 4.5 billion dollars, for a population of 9.5 million.

Where is the new regime going?

It is obviously difficult to predict how the new regime will develop. Immediately after the coup, Camara organised a meeting with political leaders and said that "activities in the gold-bearing zones" were "arrested at the moment". Mining companies were approached with the same message. Most of them, however, claim that activities are now back to normal.

Many governments have been successful in increasing taxes and the state-share of incomes from natural resources in recent years. In Africa, Congo’s president. Joseph Kabila, was forced to promise a re-examination of mining contracts during the election campaign of 2006. Any extra money earned by the state in the case of Congo, however, has not benefited the poor masses. Instead, the struggle for control over natural resources is part of the recent armed conflict in Kivu, in Eastern Congo.

On the other hand, the regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has been able to use oil incomes to finance projects in health care and education, as well as for a time lowering food prices. Chavez at first issued quite a limited challenge to the national capitalists and US imperialism, but enough to provoke the attempted coup in 2002 against his regime. The masses’ defence of Chavez pushed him to the left, including the social projects based on increasing oil incomes. With the capitalists still in control of the economy, however, the reforms under Chavez are under threat from capitalism and imperialism. Only real socialist policies, a completed socialist revolution with mass participation, can abolish the threat of counter-revolution and secure a way forward.

In Guinea, the masses can in no way trust the new regime. Mining giant, Rio Tinto, declared in the Wall Street Journal that it will explain to the government its need for land rights as part of a big iron ore project. When commodity prices were rising, both the state and mining companies could increase their incomes even if taxes were raised. With the global crisis, companies can blackmail states to give concessions, as has happened in many countries over the last months. In Zambia, copper mines threaten to close down if energy prices are not cut.

Despite some tentative positive reactions, it is a military government without much of a social base that has been established in Guinea. For example, they organised a "grandiose funeral" for Conte. Immediately after the coup, they established a curfew after daylight, with the exception of mining areas. The military first promised elections in December 2010, but later changed this to December 2009. Camara says he will not stand in those elections. But in many other cases, promises by military rulers about elections and their own non-involvement have been broken, for example in Pakistan under general Musharraf.

Under special circumstances, a new regime can be pushed by the masses to go much further than it originally wanted. The key in such a process would be pressure from the masses alongside an economy and a society in a blind alley. Without existing international models, a clear programme, or a democratic structure, however, most regimes with seemingly good intentions are corrupted, just aiming to enrich themselves. In Guinea, as in other countries, layers of the elite might attempt to whip up tensions between different ethnic groups in a power struggle at a later stage.

In all circumstances, the working masses must organise independently from the state. Democratic mass organisations with representation from all ethnic groups must be built. There is an urgent need for a workers’ party with clear socialist policies, in order to pull together the struggle and the demands of workers and poor.

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January 2009