OUGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – Guinea's wounded military leader agreed Friday not to return to his country in order to continue his convalescence abroad following three days of feverish, late night negotiations between members of his military clique.
His decision is seen as a critical step for his embattled country, which diplomats say could have slid into civil war had Capt. Moussa "Dadis" Camara returned.
In a declaration, Camara, his No. 2 and the president of Burkina Faso announced that the 46-year-old coup leader is "willingly taking a period of convalescence" in light of his health after being shot in the head. The declaration also said that Camara would allow his second-in-command to oversee a six-month transition to civilian rule.
Friday's signing ceremony of the new accord marked Camara's first appearance to reporters since an assassination attempt in December. Instead of his trademark military fatigues, the former strongman was wearing a suit, perhaps indicating his departure from military life. He was visibly diminished — his body gaunt and fragile — and the right side of his head was crisscrossed by the scar of the bullet shot by his former aide-de-camp in an assassination attempt six weeks ago.
The future of his nation of 10 million had hung in the balance as he was airlifted to Morocco on Dec. 4 and his No. 2 Gen. Sekouba Konate grabbed control. The two military men had come to power together in a 2008 coup, but they differed radically in their vision.
Although Camara had promised to hold elections within one year of taking power in which neither he nor any member of the ruling junta would be allowed to run, he soon began to hint that he planned to be a candidate. In September, his presidential guard opened fire on thousands of protesters that had gathered in the national soccer stadium to demand that he step down, killing at least 156 people.
At least 109 women were raped by soldiers chanting pro-Dadis slogans, according to a U.N. investigation that concluded that Camara was likely complicit in the massacre and could face crimes against humanity charges.
When Camara was airlifted to Morocco, Konate grabbed back control of the country and within hours sent an emissary to meet with the country's opposition in order to begin hashing out a roadmap for holding elections. It angered the hardcore supporters of Camara within the junta, who chartered a private plane Thursday and sent a delegation to Ouagadougou to pressure Konate to allow their leader to return.
Meanwhile in Conakry, the Guinean capital, supporters congregated at the international airport, threatening to not allow the delegate's plane to land if it did not return with their leader.
Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore who had helped mediate between the military clique's factions said Camara has agreed to allow his No. 2 to steer the country toward a return to civilian rule after realizing that his health would not allow him to lead.
"Today we sensed on his part a great willingness in regards to Guinea's progress (toward democracy)," said Compaore. "But we also think that a period of convalescence would be useful. That is why he has put his trust in his friend Sekouba Konate to lead the transition."
The protocol signed by Compaore, Konate and Camara spells out that the transition period will be no longer than six months, indicating that Guinea will hold multiparty elections in June. It also says that no member of the junta, nor any military member in active service will be allowed to run. The transition will be led by a religious personality, it said, as well as by a prime minister to be appointed by the country's opposition.
Earlier on Friday in Conakry, opposition officials named their candidate, choosing opposition veteran Jean-Marie Dore, who was brutally beaten at the stadium by pro-Dadis soldiers and who keeps at his house a bag full of the bloody clothes he was wearing that day.
The presidential guard that carried out the killings is largely composed of men from the small 'forestier' ethnic group, the ethnicity of Camara. Their victims were overwhelmingly Peul, the largest ethnicity in Guinea, and a major group in neighboring countries including in Burkina Faso.
"Dadis has been heavily implicated in the September violence in which more than 150 people were gunned down," said Guinea expert Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. "Konate has taken meaningful steps to ensure that Guineans will have the chance to choose their leaders without fear. If Dadis returns this process will be in danger and may lead to further bloodshed."
International observers, especially the U.S. and France, had voiced deep concern that if Camara had been allowed to return he would likely have propelled the country toward civil war, pitting soldiers from his ethnicity against the Peul.
While Dore is respected by many, he is from the forestier ethnic group and his appointment is likely to anger those opposition members who had argued that the candidate should be Peul in order to show a clear break with the past.
Camara's health had remained a matter of intense speculation ever since he was evacuated to a military hospital in Morocco, where according to some accounts no one except his doctors had access to his hospital room. On Tuesday, the Moroccans unexpectedly flew him to Burkina Faso as unconfirmed reports indicated that Camara had become increasingly belligerent, demanding to be allowed to return to Guinea.