* Former military chiefs among those arrested
* Army reform progressing, but process will be long
* Ethnic and political tensions remain a factor
By Saliou Samb
CONAKRY, July 22 (Reuters) - For years, the lucky holder of a post in Guinea’s presidential guard could expect a plush villa and a share in rackets worth up to $50,000 a month — about 500 times the average income in this West African state.
Such is the depth of official graft which new civilian President Alpha Conde has vowed to stamp out — an effort which analysts say nearly cost him his life but which he must win to bring lasting stability to his country.
“This is all about a clash of interests, a conflict of appetites,” local political analyst Kalifa Gassama Diaby said of a gunfire and rocket attack on Conde’s home in the capital Conakry during the small hours of Tuesday.
Conde himself escaped only because he had changed bedrooms as a precaution, but at least three people died in the two separate assaults which left his residence riddled with bullets and its main gate blown out by a rocket-launcher.
Authorities have so far not pointed the figure at specific individuals but arrests targeting dozens of soldiers this week leave no doubt that among the suspects are top military brass sacked by Conde since he came to power in December.
They include former army chief General Nouhou Thiam and an ex-chief of the presidential guard, Sidiki Camara, known widely by the nickname “De Gaulle” after the one-time leader of ex-colonial power France for his similarly tall stature.
Conde, whose election brought to an end two chaotic years of junta rule, said a judicial investigation must establish the culprits, but noted his decision to scrap a slush fund used by senior officers could have created enemies.
“Of course there were officers who had got to used to taking home 200-300 million (Guinean francs, or roughly $30-50,000) a month,” he told French RFI radio.
“Obviously there are some that aren’t happy, but you can’t go on killing the country,” he said of misrule that has condemned most Guineans to poverty despite Guinea’s rank as the world’s top exporter of the aluminium ore bauxite.
Conde has named himself defence minister and is being guided by French advisers in moves to revamp a military which only in September 2009 was involved in mass rapes and killings of some 150 pro-democracy marchers.
Ironically, one of his more visible successes till now has been in reining in the military. Conakry residents say the removal of all heavy arms to outside the town centre and efforts to improve army lodgings have contributed to more disciplined behaviour among soldiers in the streets.
Yet few doubt the process will be long and remains littered with obstacles, such as the irregularities in bidding procedures for contracts to build new barracks that have meant some projects have been held up.
“This (attack) can only reinforce the determination of the government, with the cooperation of the international community, to commit rigorously to reform of the security sector,” Said Djinnit, special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in West Africa, told Reuters.
Others raise concerns that Conde has not done enough to heal deep ethnic and political divisions opened up during an election campaign marred by violence among rival supporters and accusations of fraud by losing parties.
Ethnically-linked disputes in rural Guinea have led in past weeks to the killings of some 2,500 head of cattle belonging to herding communities. Cellou Dalein Diallo, Conde’s main rival in the 2010 poll, said from Senegal this week that he does not feel safe enough to return to Guinea.
“Alpha Conde has not made very visible attempts to form a very inclusive government,” said Africa specialist Mike McGovern at Yale University. “Lots of people are unhappy in Guinea.”
McGovern suggested donors, diplomats and media wrongly “breathed a sigh of relief” after Guinea scraped through its election without descending into deeper violence.
“I think everyone has taken their eye off Guinea and that is a recipe for disaster. It is a post-conflict country and ought to have been treated like Liberia and Sierra Leone,” he said of two neighbours whose civil wars prompted years of international support including peace forces and help with military reform.
Stability in Guinea is vital given neighbouring Ivory Coast’s brush with civil war and Liberia’s tense run-up to its own elections later this year. While challenges remain, Conde’s main ally could well be a Guinean population that is desperate to put the years of unrest behind them.
“The people who did that this week were acting for their own benefit, not that of the Guinean people,” said Conakry market trader Mamadou Barry. “But we don’t any more of that sort of thing in Guinea.” (Additional reporting by Mark John and David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)