For most Guineans, the last straw came two months ago.
On Dec. 16, Guinea’s president, Lansana Conte, went to a city jail to liberate two of his close associates: Guinea’s wealthiest businessman and a former top official of the central bank.
That the two had been locked up in the first place, on charges of embezzling $2.6 million of public money, had come very much as a surprise to the long-suffering Guinean people, who have labored in abysmal poverty under the yoke of authoritarian rule for their entire post-colonial history.
Typically such high-level theft went unpunished, if not unnoticed by civil servants, farmers, laborers and students, most of whom get by on less than a dollar a day.
But locking them up, then personally letting them go, was going too far.
“He sent us a message,” said Antoine Bangoura, a secretary struggling to live on his $30-a-month government salary. “The government doesn’t care about us. So we sent a message back. We want change. Conte must go.”
Since that December day, Guinea has been racked by rising unrest. Strikes, riots and a brutal military crackdown have killed scores of people in the past month and crippled the country’s already feeble economy. The president declared martial law on Feb. 12, and the situation has reached a smoldering stalemate, with growing calls for Conte to step down.
Across Africa, autocracy and one-party rule have slowly yielded to open, multiparty democracy. Guinea, one of the last bastions of one-man-rule, now seems on the verge of insurrection. No one knows what kind of change will come — a military coup, a people’s uprising, a brutal civil war or some grim combination.
“We all want change,” said Jean-Marie Dore, leader of the Union for the Progress of Guinea, an opposition political party. “The question is how this change will come.”
On Sunday, the government eased a 6 p.m. to noon curfew, to 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and the tension on the streets eased slightly after a week of martial law that had kept most people indoors. But little progress has been made on talks between the government and the labor unions. The government has insisted that the strike must be ended before martial law is lifted, while the unions say martial law must end before negotiations can resume.
At one of Conakry’s two main hospitals, the fetid wards are full of people shot and beaten by security forces during the brutal crackdown. Siaka Konneh lay on a stretcher on the floor, his eyes covered with bandages. He had been trying to deliver oxygen tanks a week before when he got caught in a volley of gunfire.
“I hear the gunshot — pow! — and my two eyes had been closed,” he said, speaking in the English patois he picked up during years spent in neighboring Liberia. “I no see anything again.”
Konneh, who is 37 and supports six children, four of his own and two of his dead brothers’, said he blamed the president for his desperate situation and the country’s malaise.
“What he done is not good for we people,” he said. “That man gone spoil my life. My children, who will feed them? I am just praying God the man move.”