Since December 2002, when he fell off while trying to walk around the Ka’aba in Mecca during pilgrimage at Islam’s holy place, Lansana Conteh can no longer disguise nor hide the deadly diabetes that is eating him up. He is a dying man, slowly wasting away, sometimes remaining unconscious for hours and becoming so forgetful that just a few weeks ago, he could not remember the name of his wife, First lady Henriette Conteh who could not stop her tears.
President Conteh has not been into his office in Conakry for many months. He has not attended any significant meeting in almost a year. He can no longer read and he hardly remembers anything people tell him. At times, he makes visitors repeat what they are telling so many times that it becomes almost comical. His only contacts with official government business are reduced to sporadic meetings with Prime Minister Cellou Dalein Diallo who, accordingly to rumors, only comes to Wawa to ascertain that the President is still alive. The other two visitors from the government are Kerfala Camara, the head of the military and his deputy, Arafan Camara, both charged with the ultimate responsibility of keeping the soldiers in check.
President Conteh is dying slowly. He no longer runs the country. Guinea is now a land where everything is for a grab. An end of the regime mentality has set in. The many fractions around the president are engaged in a war over who gets what when the “chief passes away.” Meanwhile, the country is slowly descending into lawlessness, corruption and human rights abuses going on unchecked.
“The military is prepared for any eventuality,”
said a security advisor to the president. In other
words, just as it occurred some twenty years when
President Sekou Touré passed away in a Cleveland
Hospital, the military might step in to take over.
But the Guinea of Lansana Conteh is different from
the one left behind by Sekou Touré. There is
a political opposition that has grown bolder and hungrier
with the years and would not allow the military an
easy takeover, as did Conteh on April 3, 1984. On
more than one occasions, armed men have attempted
to destabilize Guinea, coming in from Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia.
Each of those attempts were blamed on former Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor, including the recent assassination attempt on President Conteh’s life a few months ago. In the immediate entourage of the sick and dying president, the lines are clearly drawn in the sand between the two most prominent persons in the households, the two First ladies, Henriette Conteh and former Miss Guinea Kadiatou Seth Conteh, with their family members juggling for control. The rivalry between the presidential wifes pales compared to the war of influence amongst the various political clans. The king is dying and nobody is in command and nobody knows what would happen.
Poverty-stricken Guineans hold their breath as day after day, news of the death and “resurrection” of the president travels through rumor mills. The last time the President had an acute diabetic attack he went into coma for some 5 hours and many thought he would not “wake up” again.
What would happen in Guinea when Conteh passes? How would the military react? What would the opposition do? What would the downtrodden and impoverished Guineans accept as a transition?
The international community, particularly France in Cote d’Ivoire, the US and Nigeria in Liberia and Great Britain and Nigeria in Sierra Leone made tremendous investments in securing peace in those countries shaken by political instability in the past 20 years. A political breakdown in Guinea could severely impact the fragile peace process in any of those nations that share long borders with the land of Conteh. Guinea played a pivotal role in weakening and ultimately removing Charles Taylor from power in Liberia and bringing an end to the RUF war in Sierra Leone through its support to ULIMO in the 1990s and later to LURD. If Guinea were to tumble, these same fighters now disarmed in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire could fall prey to any new warlord wishing to take advantage of the general discontent and the power vacuum in Guinea.
The Liberian warring factions, both ULIMO and LURD have developed strong political ties with certain elements in Guinea that have helped them to recruit and train fighters on Guinean soil. These ties with certain “unsavory” members of the military were so evident that both leaders of ULIMO and LURD were later asked by Lansana Conteh to leave Guinea. ULIMO and LURD fighters were mostly recruited amongst the Mandingoes, who have held the short end of the stick throughout the Conteh regime and may sit by idly while another Sosou “king” takes over.
There is a clear and present danger developing in Guinea. The enormous sacrifices of the past many years to secure peace and stability could be required again if Guinea were to implode after Conteh passes away. There is no clear line of succession and there is no institutional readiness to create conditions for a smooth transition.
The situation calls for immediate attention and action on the part of the international community. The UN, the AU and ECOWAS need to start working immediately to ensure that there is no breakdown in this volatile and dangerous situation, with another regional disaster as a consequence.
There is no better time to test the conflict prevention mechanisms that the UN, the AU and ECOWAS have been developing over the years. They should not wait for refugees and child soldiers to surface again before looking for special envoys and peacekeepers and organizing peace talks. There is little time left. The notion of “sovereignty” cannot be prevail when the consequences of things falling apart would affect the entire region.