CONAKRY, Guinea – The leader of a coup paraded into Guinea's capital followed by several thousand soldiers on Wednesday, hours after saying his group would hold power for two years. A crowd cheered him on, screaming "Long live the president!"
Capt. Moussa Camara stood in the first truck of the military convoy moving through Conakry and waved to the throng that lined the streets. A phalanx of soldiers hoisting Kalashnikovs accompanied him.
It was the first time the capital's residents had ventured outdoors since the military-led coup was declared Tuesday in this broken West African nation.
Cautiously at first and then by the thousands, people poured into the streets to watch the military vehicles make their way toward the courtyard outside the nation's presidential palace.
Timeline: Guinea's History Since Independence
"I came to see if the terrain is favorable to us. I see that it is," Camara told the electrified crowd.
The renegade army captain was unknown to most Guineans until Tuesday, when he and other members of the military announced a coup following the death of the country's longtime dictator, Lansana Conte. The coup leaders initially promised there would be a vote within 60 days, but Camara broadcast another message Wednesday.
"The National Council for Democracy and Development has no ambition of staying in power," he said on state radio. "We are here to promote the organization of credible and transparent presidential elections by the end of December 2010."
Camara's group set a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. throughout the country, where soldiers loyal to the coup plotters circulated in tanks and jeeps armed with rocket launchers.
Earlier Wednesday, Guinea's prime minister, who has been in hiding since the coup was declared, said from an undisclosed location that the government remained in control. "This unknown captain doesn't control the army. The majority of the troops are still loyal — but one little group can cause a lot of disorder," Ahmed Tidiane Souare said by telephone.
Uncertainty remained about whether Camara's group controls all of Guinea. Earlier in the day, Camara accused the government of importing foreign mercenaries to try to help them regain power. The head of parliament — who according to the constitution is next in line to be president — said the claim was a sign of the junta's desperation.
The constitution calls for Aboubacar Sompare, the man hand-picked by Conte to lead the National Assembly, to succeed the president. But those who poured into the streets to show support for the army takeover said the constitution was only going to bring them more of the same.
"Sompare is a continuation of Lansana Conte. That's not change," said 49-year-old Cozy Haba. "I recognize that what we are doing instead is jumping into the unknown. But to me that's better than Sompare — who unfortunately I know too well."
Since independence from France in 1958, Guinea had been ruled by only two people until Conte's death Monday evening. He first took power in a 1984 military coup after the death of his predecessor and went on to win presidential elections in 1993, 1998 and 2003.
But every election his government organized was marred by accusations of fraud. In 2003, he secured 95 percent of the vote — an improbably high tally for a man many say was deeply unpopular.
The United States will be "examining what options we have in the coming days," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said, including a cutoff of non-humanitarian U.S. aid, although no decisions have been made.
"One of the things we want to see happen immediately is the restoration of civilian, democratic rule. We're very disappointed that this transition process in Guinea doesn't have any civilian component," Wood said.
But some experts cautioned that a military takeover could be the best thing for Guinea, a nation ruled by the same man for the past 24 years. Africa expert Peter Pham said it would be a mistake to regard a constitution drawn up by the supporters of a man who never intended to relinquish power as a legitimate instrument.
Pham said Sompare was so unpopular that Conte was forced to delay the opening of parliament so he could assure his chosen successor had the needed number of votes.
"Even with the old man standing there coercing them to vote for him, he almost didn't have a majority," said Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. "The international community would be mistaken to ask Guinea to blindly adhere to the legality of a document Conte created, which was not the result of any democratic process."
For years, rumors would come and go that Conte was in fact dead — forcing him to appear on TV to reassure the public. His declining health paralleled the decay of what was once one of Africa's most promising states, blessed with diamonds, gold and half the world's reserves of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum.
By 2002, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund suspended aid because of bad governance. It was recently ranked the most corrupt state in Africa by corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Statistics paint a picture of a country in an economic tailspin. From a tame 4 percent in the 1990s, inflation is now over 20 percent and growth has been cut in half. Even by African standards, Guineans are poor, earning on average just $91 per month, a sum that led to riots last year when a government salary could no longer allow a family to buy a bag of rice.
As the nation's quality of living deteriorated, Conte became increasingly paranoid, constantly reshuffling his government. A total of 172 different people have served as ministers in his cabinet, according to a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The most serious recent challenge to Conte's rule came two years ago as demonstrators called for him to step down. Conte responded by declaring martial law, sending tanks into the streets and killing dozens of protesters.
Even though the dissident soldiers leading the attempted coup are unknown, many say they prefer that to the continuation of Conte's regime, which is what the rule of law would ensure.
Ba Mamadou, a former World Bank adviser and honorary president of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea, told Radio France International that the coup organizers had the backing of politicians.
"Political leaders were involved in editing" the coup declaration, he said, without naming anyone. "It's clear that for a long time, a lot of people were preparing something for after Conte, knowing well that he was in bad health."