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Former U.S. Envoy Says Military in Guinea Must Surrender Power
Civil society groups can help lead transition to democracy

By Charles W. Corey
Staff Writer

Washington — The most important step the international community can take to help Guinea is to press the military to vacate power so Guinean civil society groups can help the country transition to democracy, says a former U.S. ambassador to Guinea, Dane F. Smith Jr.

Speaking at an October 28 panel discussion at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington on political reform in Guinea, Smith said, “The narrowly based National Conference for Democracy and Development (CNDD) must step down very soon in favor of a transitional government with a mandate to lead the country promptly to elections.

“The international community, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the U.N., the United States, the European Union and others have been clear on that point and so far seem to be on the same page. That objective is urgent. The danger is that another group of military officers may seize power at any moment. The CNDD is based largely on young officers from Guinea Forestiere (a forested mountain region in southeastern Guinea) — a minority within the military. So its hold on power is precarious.”

Smith also said, “There is an acute sense of insecurity in (Guinea’s capital) Conakry today because of reported assassinations and assassination attempts. So to restore a sense of security, it seems that a West African force of military observers should be brought to Guinea in the near future.”

Such a move, he said, will be a task for diplomacy and what he called “the continuing forward leadership role” of the African Union, ECOWAS and the international community.

Smith served as the U.S. ambassador in Conakry from 1990 to 1993 and is a member of the West Africa Advisory Committee of the BEFORE Project, a nongovernmental, international conflict-prevention organization. In 2008, Smith led a multinational team to Guinea on behalf of BEFORE for a preliminary study of possible conflict-prevention initiatives.

The BEFORE group’s conclusions based on that visit are relevant to the situation in Guinea today, he said.

“We found the political system in an advanced state of decay,” Smith said. “At that point, there had been an extended death watch of more than five years for President Lansana Conté, who in fact died less than three months later” in late December 2008.

With Conté in a “periodic comatose state, the centralized presidential system which he had created was not functioning. Decisions by the prime minister were being countermanded or blocked at the palace, and Conté’s retinue was stealing large sums of money on a daily basis.”
All Guineans were “deeply worried about the future of the country,” Smith said.

Smith said there was a “widespread misunderstanding of Conté’s government” — that Conté presided over an “iron-fisted dictatorship.”

“There was no such thing,” he told his audience. “It was what political scientists refer to as a neo-patrimonial state with the trappings but not the reality of democracy. There were violations of human rights, lots of corruption and a nonfunctional judicial system. There was vocal political opposition” that tended to divide along ethnic lines.

During Conté’s 24-year rule, Smith said, there was much international activity in Guinea, resulting in a “burgeoning of civil society” groups that were outspoken.

“This flowering of civil society — with all of its imperfections, and there are many — is a factor … in international efforts to facilitate a transition to more responsive government.”

The new role of civil society is important, he said, because civil society groups — often organized across ethnic lines — are strong proponents of a democratic order and “must be harnessed into a political transition.” Civil society groups in Guinea are also well integrated into regional civil society groups, such as the West African Network for Peace-Building and the Mano River Union Peace Network, Smith said.

The BEFORE team’s study found that the major areas of conflict revolved around the absence of the rule of law, ethnic distrust, undisciplined violence and rapacity on the part of the security forces, and economic hardship and inequity. Postponed elections and the expected death of the president were also identified as potential flashpoints, he said.

“When we visited, elections had been postponed already twice and the schedule for elections in the future was vague. Conté’s death, under the constitution, should have triggered elections under the leadership of his designated successor, the president of the national assembly. However, in seizing power, Commandante Moussa Dadis Camara and his CNDD junta pushed aside the national assembly president and suspended the constitution.”

Since then, Smith said, the political struggle has focused on the timing of elections and whether Camara would stick to his initial promise not to be a candidate. “It was his explicit failure to rule himself out that was the trigger for the opposition rally and massacre and rapes of September 28,” Smith told his audience. (See “Guinea Violence a ‘Vile Violation’ of Human Rights, Clinton Says ( ).)

Smith said Guineans are still proud of their “pioneering role” in leading the Francophone African independence movement by gaining their independence from France in 1958.

Smith appeared on the panel with two other featured speakers: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs William Fitzgerald and Siba Grovogui, a Guinean, who is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:
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