Loyalists mourn Guinea's longtime dictator Conte

Saturday, December 27, 2008

MOUSSAYAH, Guinea -- Tens of thousands of loyalists on Friday mourned the dictator who ruled Guinea for nearly a quarter-century, lining the roads to the lavish palace grounds where he was interred and crowding around his grave.

Lansana Conte, who took power in 1984, was the only leader who many Guineans had ever known. Though he was widely seen as corrupt and authoritarian, many saw stability under him as preferable to the bloody civil wars elsewhere in West Africa.

His death Monday at the age of 74 has left the country, one of the world's poorest, in political turmoil.

The leader of a military coup declared hours after Conte's death did not attend the public memorial, surprising mourners and causing speculation about the reason.

Conte died Monday after ruling Guinea since he seized power in a coup following the death of his predecessor. They had been the only two leaders since the country's 1958 independence from France.

Men in uniform wept and collapsed and women wailed at Conte's funeral in Moussayah, the town where Conte was born and lived.

The service inside Guinea's parliament Friday was attended by members of Conte's former government, including deposed Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare, who surrendered to coup leaders and stepped down along with dozens of other officials Thursday.

Conte's coffin sat on a stage with two of his three wives, who wore dark sunglasses and clutched tissues.

Also attending were the presidents of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau, and African Union commission chairman Jean Ping.

Presidential guards used belts to beat back throngs of mourners trying to push their way in. Tens of thousands later packed a stadium and nearby area where Conte's body was brought after the eulogy in parliament.

The junta's No. 2 leader, Col. Toto Camara, was there -- the only coup representative seen at Friday's events. Camara, who is not related to the coup leader, said the junta "reassures the people of Guinea that we will guarantee your well-being."

Also absent from Friday's events was parliament leader Aboubacar Sompare, who had been next in line to be president under Guinea's constitution and who appears to have gone into hiding.

As mourners marked the end of Conte's rule, others expressed optimism about the new military leader.

"I thank God for the coup because it saved Guinea. ... They put in place a new governing structure that may be able to erase the hate we feel in our hearts" after Conte's rule, said Hassane Keita, a professor who lives in Conakry. "Guinea is a very rich country, but the Guinean people deserve to also benefit from these riches."

While Moussa Camara has said a presidential election will be held in December 2010 and that he does not intend to run, many in the international community believe that is too long to wait. The European Union has urged Guinea to hold "democratic and transparent" elections within the first three months of 2009.

In France, visiting Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said Camara told him the junta could be ready to stage elections after eight months. Wade spoke Friday to Camara by telephone from Paris and said Camara plans to "go back to the barracks" after that.

Guinea is the world's largest producer of bauxite, used to produce aluminum. The nation, located at the confluence of several rivers, could generate enough electricity to power the region, some analysts say.

But Guinea's economy has rapidly deteriorated under corruption, inflation and high unemployment, and its 10 million people are among the world's poorest.

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