Lansana who? The death of a ‘dictator’
Diabetes did to the leader of Guinea (that country in Western Africa bordering better-known Liberia and Sierra Leone) what numerous opposition leaders and civil society movements had failed to do – remove him from power. President Lansana Conté of Guinea died on 23 December due to complications from the disease that he had battled for many years. He had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1984, and the iron fist continued until the end – the editor of a local newspaper was arrested just last week for publishing a photo of Conté struggling to stand up.
But to what extent is this president (and his actions) known outside Africa? Interestingly, at around the same time as Western policymakers and media corporations were speaking out in furious indignation against the suppression of an opposition movement by Robert Mugabe’s security forces in Zimbabwe, resulting in one death, the beating of the opposition leader and numerous arrests (in early 2007), they seemed to be by and large pretending not to notice the suppression of an opposition movement in Guinea, in which Conté’s security forces gunned down and arrested civil society representatives and students, resulting in the deaths of more than 130 people (see this report and this video).
One could assume that a large proportion of people in Western countries know who Robert Mugabe is and would not hesitate to label him a ‘dictator’. One wonders how many in the West even know who Lansana Conté was, let alone label him a ‘dictator’ – I would venture to suggest very few. Newspapers and news corporations have devoted copious amounts of attention to the democratic credentials of the Zimbabwean leader – long before the country’s economic woes became so glaringly obvious. They have maintained a virtual silence on the actions and democratic credentials of the Guinean leader. The New York Times, in an article it devoted to the death of Conté and the apparent coup by the military that followed, refrained from using the term ‘dictator’, opting instead for ‘strongman’. The same newspaper frequently associates the term ‘dictator’ with Mugabe in its numerous opinion pieces and editorials on the subject of Zimbabwe.
Being called a dictator is sometimes a little like being called a terrorist. It is a politically charged label that depends not as much on what you do, but rather on who you do it to (just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one man’s dictator is another man’s loyal ally and friend). For observers (outside policymakers or the media, for example), there is very little in the way of an objective evaluation of governance and admittedly, there is an awful lot of grey area – rigging elections happens in many countries at various levels, and the rule of law and checks and balances to power can be shaky in varying degrees.
The word ‘dictator’ is at times thrown around quite liberally – the key is whether or not the nasty label sticks. This often seems to depend largely on whether or not you are a friend or enemy of powerful Western leaders. Interestingly, some leaders who actually follow through with some of the elements of democratic process, holding elections, allowing opposition parties and parliaments (although rules are clearly bent, or the democratic process is, to varying degrees, abused, or at times rendered powerless), for example, can be labelled as ‘dictators’ by Western leaders and the media, with all of the indignation about the lack of democratic freedoms and the colourful descriptive language that goes with it (‘murderous regime’, ‘evil despot’, and/or ‘brutal tyrant’ just to name a few). Just ask Robert Mugabe or the late Slobodan Milosevic.
Being friends with powerful Western governments, on the other hand, is often like a free pass to exist as a full-blown dictatorship, with precious little in the way of scrutiny, criticism or censorship. Indignation (or colourful and emotive phrases like ‘brutal dictatorship’) is rarely heard in response to many ‘governments’ that don’t even bother with the appearance of something that resembles democratic process or the maintenance of basic human rights, in places like Saudi Arabia or Turkmenistan, for example. The former leader of Turkmenistan (Saparmurat Niyazov), apart from arresting and torturing anyone resembling a political opponent, closed down all hospitals outside of the capital and built a powerful personality cult (building grand monuments to himself and renaming the months of the year after his parents). But his friendship with Western countries – largely based on natural gas reserves and his willingness to allow military bases for NATO during their attacks on Afghanistan – seemed to exempt him from any kind of meaningful censure.
In fact, being friends with powerful Western leaders often seems to pretty much guarantee a very convenient silence on the state of governance and democracy in one’s country – not only by the Western leaders themselves, but oddly enough also by the majority of Western media corporations, whose positions on foreign affairs issues seem to so frequently resemble those of the leaders in their countries. So what is it that made Conté and his actions so ignorable? What is the basis for the friendship between Guinea and powerful Western counties?
One clear answer is that Guinea happens to have the world’s largest reserves of bauxite – an ore that is processed into aluminium. It also has significant deposits of high-grade iron ore, gold, diamonds and some uranium. The mining of these resources is conducted under joint ventures by the government of Guinea and foreign multinational companies based in USA, Russia, Canada, UK, Australia and Switzerland, among others. Another answer is that Conté has maintained a relatively low profile on the international scene (apart from military involvement in conflicts in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone), supporting powerful Western leaders and their policies. This puts him in stark contrast to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who makes regular use of vocal railings in English against Western governments to help keep internal dissent at bay.
Conté lived and ruled Guinea behind a veil of silence that largely insulated him from unwanted outside attention and indignation. His death and its aftermath have made the news to a degree, but it remains to be seen if this will become any more than a brief blip on the radar. In the interests of an uninterrupted flow of natural resources from Guinea to the industrialized world (under terms favourable to the latter) and business as usual, expect more silence from Western policymakers and the media on what becomes of the government of this poor West African country and its people.