DAKAR (Reuters) - Guinea’s attempt to shed military rule has hit the same wall of ethnic distrust that has for decades trapped the West African country in instability and poverty.
Rival presidential candidates from the main ethnic groups are urging supporters to keep calm after Friday’s announcement of yet another vote delay and a weekend of unrest in several towns. But it is no way certain their voices will be heard.
“There is a profound distrust among ethnic groups that comes to the fore in times of tension,” said Corinne Dufka, senior researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
“There is always the perception in Guinean politics that the winner takes all — and, worse, that the losers will then be subject to repression,” she said of a country where only the ruling elite has seen the benefit of rich mineral resources.
That perception has for weeks been undermining moves to restore civilian rule that have enjoyed strong support from the United States, France and fragile West African neighbours fearful of new conflict spilling across their borders.
For the international mining concerns jostling for control of Guinea’s bauxite and iron, it makes a predictable and stable business environment a yet more distant prospect.
In the turbulent few weeks ahead, the spotlight will fall on whether the ethnically mixed army remains disciplined. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights reported at least one dead and 62 injured by security forces last week in what it called excessive use of force in their clashes with demonstrators.
A first-round election in June passed off quietly but showed that voters had cast their ballot along strict ethnic lines.
Ex-premier Cellou Dallein Diallo scored 43.69 percent, a tally which corresponds almost exactly to the population share of his Peul group, while rival Alpha Conde relied heavily on his Malinke base for a second-placed 18.25 percent.
Ethnic tensions have risen as a dispute over alleged bias in the national election commission led to repeated delays in a run-off vote that had been rescheduled for this Sunday but was ultimately jettisoned on Friday.
At the same time, a rumour circulated in Conakry that poisoned fruit juice sold by Peul street vendors at a pro-Conde rally was behind the unexplained hospitalisation on Friday of dozens of Malinke with stomach pains.
While an investigation has still not provided proof of any poisoning, the rumour itself prompted attacks on Peul residents and shops in Conakry through into Saturday, with violence also in the towns of Kankan and Siguiri before a return to calm.
“The unity of the nation will be preserved at all costs,” junta leader Sekouba Konate said in a state television address late on Saturday, insisting that he would not allow anyone to be “hunted down” because of their ethnicity.
Peul and Malinke had a history of conflict even before colonisation by France in the 1890s and their rivalry has long been a defining feature of Guinea’s post-independence politics.
In an infamous 1976 speech, former president Sekou Toure, a Malinke, accused light-skinned Peuls of hoarding the country’s wealth for themselves and urged his supporters to slit the throats of the “saboteurs” of Guinean society.
In the September 28 killings by security forces of pro-democracy marchers in Conakry last year, soldiers loyal to now-exiled ex-junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara specifically targeted Peul women for gang rapes, according to numerous witness reports.
That only added to the Peul conviction that, after decades of what they see as victimisation under national leaders from other ethnic groups, it is now at last their turn to wield power — and that anything but a Diallo victory would be unthinkable.
Authorities have turned to an outsider, Malian army general Siaka Toumany Sangare, to organise an election whose outcome is sure to face challenges if it is seen to be poorly organised or open to fraud.
Said Djinnit, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s envoy to West Africa, has led calls for a quick naming of a new election date, warning a protracted delay could destabilise the country.
Sangare has so far not followed a French call to shift the vote back by one week to October 31, describing the current state of preparations for the election as “deplorable” and insisting that he would only name a date that was viable.
HRW’s Dufka urged authorities to firmly punish any evidence of ethnic violence and welcomed the refusal of Diallo and Conde to play the ethnic card in campaign speeches that have tried to instill sense of Guinea’s national good. But she added:
“However inclusive the two presidential candidates may be, it is proving difficult to transcend such a long legacy of mistrust.”