Archive for the Guinea Category

An assassination attempt

Posted in Africa, conflict death tolls, Guinea with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 25 July, 2011 by Virgil

President Alpha Conde. Photo by World Economic Forum under a CC Licence.

Last week, explosives were used in an attempt on the life of a head of state. No, I am not talking about Norway. I am talking about the west African state of Guinea.

On the night of 19 July, attackers fired rockets into President Conde’s bedroom at the presidential residence. He escaped harm only because he had been sleeping in another room at the time of the attack. A second attack ensued, with the assailants finally being subdued after a two-hour gun battle.It is still unclear as to whether it was an assassination attempt or a coup d’etat attempt, but several hours later, the former army chief was arrested.

Chances are, you don’t know about this assassination attempt and the ensuing gun battle in Guinea. Why? Because few media corporations have deemed the incident newsworthy. The New York Times printed a 91-word briefing from Reuters on page six. The Times of London devoted 39 words to the incident on page 33. There were no follow-up articles in either case – this was the first and last time Guinea was mentioned. The Australian newspaper and Japanese newspapers (the Yomiuri and Asahi) ignored the events altogether. Thankfully, there were some rare examples of substantive articles provided by AFP, Reuters and Christian Science Monitor.

Chances are, you do know about the attempt on the life of the Prime Minister of Norway and the massacre that followed. On the first day of coverage following the incident, the New York Times placed it on page one in a 1,336-word article – a collaborative effort written by seven contributors, based in Oslo, New York, London, Paris and Washington. It was also page-one coverage for the Times of London – on the first day of coverage, it devoted 1,915 words to the incident. Needless to say, there has been major internet and television coverage as well.

The reasons for the heavy coverage of the incidents in Norway are obvious. There was a blast targeting the Prime Minister, and as the article in the Times of London made sure to mention, the massacre was the worst violence seen in Norway since World War II. It was unexpected, violent and sensational. There was a terrible loss of human life.

But why have the events in Guinea been deemed so unworthy of attention, so ignorable? At a national level, the events in Guinea are arguably more politically significant than those in Norway. The violence in Norway appears to have been an isolated event perpetrated by a single individual. The events in Guinea were a coordinated strike that most likely involved part of the armed forces of that country.

This is all the more important considering that this is a critical stage in Guinea’s nascent and fragile democracy. In late 2010, Guinea held its first democratic elections since independence in 1958. This followed decades of dictatorship under Lansana Conte, followed by a military regime that took power in a coup d’etat immediately following Conte’s death. The historic elections were a close contest and were followed by some violence, but the period since has been Guinea’s best chance at a stable democracy so far. This makes last week’s events particularly significant. Let us also not forget that Guinea is the world’s leading producer of bauxite, which is used to make aluminium.

As for the issue of the loss of human life, while it is true that on this particular occasion, there have been more deaths in Norway (93) than in Guinea, in general, the scale of a humanitarian tragedy has little (if anything) to do with the levels of media coverage it attracts. The military junta in Guinea was responsible for a massacre that killed at least 159 unarmed civilians in 2009. It also failed to generate any substantive levels of media coverage. And the media has routinely paid relatively little attention to conflict in the DRC that has cost more than 5.4 millions lives since 1998. Clearly, the level of loss of human life in itself does not explain the high level of coverage of the events in Norway.

In this case, it is the loss of life in a predominantly white and wealthy European country (the victims are of the type that Western audiences can relate to and sympathise with), combined with the unexpected nature of the tragedy (in an otherwise stable and peaceful place) that has provided the impetus for the coverage.

The skin colour and socioeconomic status of the victims in Guinea leave them at an immediate disadvantage with Western media corporations and their audience. Furthermore, because there is a chronic and widespread shortage of coverage of Guinea, and of Africa in general, audiences in the West have little background knowledge or context to which to relate or attach significance. Guinea is not seen as a separate country with unique circumstances. It is simply lumped together with the other 54 countries that make up Africa. And Africa carries with it an image of violence and political instability (although most of Africa is at peace most of the time). The events in Guinea fit this broad, extremely oversimplified and misleading ‘pattern’.

As such, the events in Guinea are not seen as unexpected – and are therefore not newsworthy, regardless of the political implications. Attacks on democracy, and the loss of human life, are, to a large degree,tolerated, because these things seem to happen there (on the continent as a whole) more often, and because, from a Western perspective, people there are not ‘like us’.

The media coverage on this occasion, of course, does nothing to change this – it perpetuates it. A 39-word briefing on page 33 of a newspaper cannot hope to convey to the audience any political significance of the events unfolding, or offer any opportunity to generate interest, concern or sympathy.

The vicious cycle, the spiral of silence that helps keep that distance between Africa and the rest of us, continues.

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Not so fast (Guinea revisited)

Posted in dictators, Guinea, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , on 28 December, 2008 by Virgil

In my previous post, I wrote:

 

“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.”

 

Things might not be so silent after all. Captain Camara, who took power in a bloodless coup hours after the death of President Conté, has claimed to have blocked the mining sector and pledged to review mining contracts and stamp out corruption. He announced that gold extraction had been suspended for a start (see this article). This could shake things up.

  

Alexandre Foulon)

Bauxite extraction in Guinea (Photo: Alexandre Foulon)

 

As things stand today, too much of the mining and exploitation of other valuable resources in much of Africa happens under dubious contracts, by which foreign multinationals pay off local officials to sign deals that give the bulk of the country’s wealth to the multinationals at giveaway prices. Valuable minerals and other resources are hauled off leaving very little, if anything for the people in the country (except perhaps a small boost in employment, a token payment for the government coffers, a wad of cash in the pockets of the government officials negotiating the deal, and a dose of environmental degradation as a souvenir). This kind of scramble for resources is at its worst in situations of conflict – the conflict itself inevitably becomes linked to this scramble. See this article, this article and this report for an idea of how bad things can get – the DRC is a prime example.

 

The silence of powerful policymakers and the media on the situation in Guinea to date is, to an extent, a sign that foreign multinationals and their backers (policymakers in their home countries) have been happy about the way things are – mining contracts are lucrative for them. The question is: how far will the new military administration go in changing this? Of course it is entirely conceivable that Captain Camara is playing to the gallery, making noise as a strategy to ensure that the current ‘arrangements’ for distributing the spoils of mineral wealth are reconfigured in his favour. He may also be making announcements like this in an effort to boost his popularity and shore up local support, but is not serious about following through with reforms. But if he is in any way genuine and determined to bring about reform, then things could get interesting.

 

Having taken power by force, Captain Camara is, of course, subject to obligatory condemnation by other countries for his disregard for the democratic process. But whether this condemnation ends up as a kind of formality for the gallery, or develops into something more serious (with pressure that will hurt), will probably depend on how willing he is to ‘play ball’ with the foreign multinationals and their backers in maintaining the status quo.

 

If it is to be a continuation of the same game with a new player, then the players (with the exception, of course, of the people of Guinea) will be happy, and talk of the situation in Guinea will fade away. The same applies if the new military rulers can be quietly convinced (behind the scenes) to play ball. But if Guinea keeps popping up in the news, complete with indignation about the flagrant abuse of democracy and human rights, then it just may be that some changes in how valuable resources in Guinea are handled are on the way. Let’s not hold our breath just yet…

Pan-African News Wire)

The coup leader (Photo: Pan-African News Wire)

Lansana who? The death of a ‘dictator’

Posted in dictators, Guinea with tags , , , , , , on 26 December, 2008 by Virgil

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.

 

Pan-African News Wire)

After the coup (Photo: Pan-African News Wire)

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.

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