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Dictator still in power, but...
General strike in Guinea wins concessions

By Lee Sustar | March 9, 2007 | Page 10

A GENERAL strike that shook the African state of Guinea ended February 27 with the appointment of a new prime minister acceptable to the trade unions and the political opposition.

The deal marked a retreat by Guinea's dictatorial President Lansana Conté, who first tried to crush the strike through martial law and repression that killed at least 250 people, according to opposition activists.

The agreement--brokered by former Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida, a U.S. ally--installed Lansana Kouyate, a career diplomat, as prime minister. Nevertheless, the deal falls short of the opposition's demand for the resignation of Conté, who first took power in a 1984 coup and continues to run the country of nearly 10 million people as his family's private fiefdom.

Economic demands also drove the strikes and protests. Rampant inflation pushed the cost of a 50 kilo bag of rice to $17--half the monthly pay of a civil servant and far out of reach of the majority of the population that lives on less than $1 per day.

The average wage in Guinea is $55 per month, and unemployment stands at 45 percent. Electricity is available just one day a week in most neighborhoods in the capital of Conakry, and the infrastructure generally is collapsing.

Guinea, however, sits on incredible wealth. In a country about half the size of Oregon lies half the world's known reserves of bauxite, used in aluminum production; the third-biggest supply of gold and diamonds in Africa; and deposits of uranium--not to mention some of the finest agricultural land on the continent and possible oil deposits offshore.

These riches make Guinea a focus of what's been called the new scramble for Africa--bids by U.S., European and Chinese multinational corporations to grab strategic resources and carve out spheres of influence.

That pressure set the stage for the current crisis. The U.S. company Alcoa, together with the Canadian company Alcan, owns half of Guinea's state aluminum company.

The U.S. government itself moved aggressively into Guinea in recent years, pushing aside the former colonial power France--as it did in nearby Ivory Coast and Senegal. Besides providing Guinea with $15 million in U.S. Agency for International Development funding since 1998, "The U.S. Mission [in Guinea] also manages a military assistance program that provided nearly $627,000 for military education, language training, and humanitarian assistance programs," according to the State Department--a signal that Guinea, with a population that is 85 percent Muslim, is to be a listening post in the "war on terror."

The U.S. aid comes with strings attached. Guinea, kicked out of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2002 for failing to fully implement austerity measures, last year launched a series of economic "reforms" that cut social spending and price subsidies as a precondition for future loans.

The moves triggered big strikes in 2006. At the same time, the Conté regime, erratic in recent years because of the dictator's ill health, became more brazen than ever. On December 2, Conté reportedly personally went to a prison to free two of his closest allies, Mamadou Sylla and Fodé Soumah, who were arrested for corruption.

Outrage over Conté's corruption dovetailed with fury over an economy in freefall. "People in Guinea are hungrier than they are in Darfur," said Amadou M'bone Diallo, the U.S.-based publisher of the opposition Web site and cousin of the Amadou Diallo shot to death by New York police in 1999. "They eat maybe once in 24 hours. The economy is worse than Zimbabwe's."

The crisis came to a head January 22, when the two main labor federations, the USTG and CNTG, went on strike, shutting down bauxite production and the government. The unions led the biggest mass march in the country's history January 22.

Conté's security forces, alongside commandos from neighboring Guinea Bissau, responded by shooting into the unarmed crowd, killing at least 60 people. On February 12, Conté declared martial law, which shut down both the Guinean and Western media.

Soldiers smashed and looted media and opposition offices, arrested political and labor activists, and beat and raped countless others. According to Diallo--whose Web site was one of only two sources of news of Guinea during the crackdown--the military was backed up by a militia led by a Liberian warlord in the pay of the Conté family.

But when the unions refused to back down, Guinea's usually rubber-stamp legislature refused to authorize a continuation of martial law. After first appointing a crony as prime minister, Conté accepted mediation from Nigeria and agreed to choose a prime minister from a list of four drawn up by the opposition.

The new prime minister, Lansana Kouyate, hasn't yet indicated if or when he'll grant the unions' economic demands. His background, however gives an idea of how he'll govern. As former chief of the United Nations mission in Somalia in 1993 and then head of the Economic Community of West Africa, he's been vetted by the U.S.

Even if he cleans up the grotesque excesses of the Conté regime, Kouyate can be expected to continue the free-market, neoliberal agenda. Which means that the labor movement in Guinea, having already shown incredible staying power in its confrontation with Conté, will have to keep mobilizing to achieve its demands.

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