Guinea's new leader a mix of Robin Hood, dictator

Saturday, March 21, 2009
By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, Associated Press Writer

CONAKRY, Guinea —  It's 9 p.m., and this country's new leader has finally woken up for the day. He throws aside the satin curtain that separates his bedroom from a waiting room adorned with 6-foot tall portraits of himself.

The room is full of dignitaries, some of whom have waited four days to see him. They scramble to their feet. The short, square-jawed man lunges through the curtain, screaming so loudly that his spit speckles the air.

"Our country is screwed up!" Capt. Moussa "Dadis" Camara roars for the benefit of the rapt audience as well as a TV crew.

Camara is another outsized personality in tiny Guinea, a country the size of Oregon on Africa's west coast whose mineral-rich soil has been plundered by two consecutive dictatorships. He came to power in a coup three months ago, promising to root out corruption and hold elections by the end of the year.

The international community responded by cutting off aid and freezing Guinea's membership in the African Union. But the world's snub of the junta is perplexing to most Guineans, who see Camara as a kind of Robin Hood _ punishing those most responsible for the country's perpetual poverty.

He appears nightly on TV, sitting in his waiting room across from members of the former regime, whom he scolds for leading ostentatious lives at the expense of Guinea's poor. While his arrests of corrupt officials have won him admiration, his love for the TV spotlight and his insistence on broadcasting his rambling, multi-hour tirades have some wondering if Guinea is on the brink of another dictatorship. In top ministries, wall-sized portraits of Camara have replaced the long-hanging image of the last ruler, who also came to power in a coup promising reform.

"It is possible that he is sincere," says Richard Moncrieff, author of a recent report on Guinea for the International Crisis Group. "But what if he is sincere and dangerous? Young men in power usually go wrong."


Guinea's long-ruling president Lansana Conte died on Dec. 22, leaving a power vacuum in a country that had known only one other ruler since independence in 1958.

Conte's inner circle, including numerous wives and dozens of children, lived in rococco villas and traversed the capital's potholed roads in eye-catching SUVs. During Conte's quarter century in office, Guinea's people became poorer, sliding to No. 167 out of 179 countries ranked on the U.N.'s development index. The president used the country's Central Bank as his personal savings account, arriving in a motorcade and waiting as bags of cash were loaded into his car.

Hardly anyone had heard of Camara, an army captain in his 40s, until Dec. 23, when his men broke down the glass doors of the state TV station. He announced that the constitution had been dissolved and that the country was now under the rule of a military junta.

Locked inside their homes, Guineans frantically called each other, trying to learn what they could about the unknown officer. When state TV read out the names of the 32 members of the junta, Camara topped the list, ahead of far better-known figures. Sekouba Konate _ a colonel who headed an elite unit of specially trained commandos _ did not even figure on the list.

Soon after his announcement, a brawl broke out at Camp Alpha Yaya Diallo, the capital's main barracks, according to a witness who was present but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Konate's men demanded he be put in charge, the witness says. To settle the matter, Konate, Camara and a third officer agreed to draw lots. The word "president" was written on a piece of folded paper and dropped inside an empty mayonnaise jar along with several pieces of blank paper.

On the first try, Camara drew the winning ticket. Konate's men demanded a redraw. Again, Camara pulled out "president."

Konate is now a vice president, leaving the country at the mercy of a fragile alliance between armed men with big egos. There are whispers that Camara _ whose men stood guard next to the mayonnaise jar _ had come to the draw prepared with his own piece of paper already labeled "president."

Camara brims with anger when asked about the lottery. He says soldiers hoisted him and Konate onto a tank and told them that if they didn't agree to lead, they would be killed on the spot. "Is it true?" Camara yells from his perch on the leather couch. "It's true, boss!" the soldiers, grasping AK-47s, yell back.

The first time Guineans saw him up close was on the bed of a military truck, with Konate at his side. The convoy paraded into the capital and the people waved tree branches and screamed, "Long live the president."

He told his countrymen that he was born in a hut, just like many of them. He vowed that money holds no power over him.

The audits began on TV last month. The former chief of protocol was accused of embezzling $40 million from Kuwait. The former minister of finance was interrogated for allegedly taking money intended for festivities marking the country's independence. More than a dozen high-ranking officials were arrested for drug crimes, including the use of the country's security forces to assure safe passage for convoys of cocaine-loaded trucks.

In one session, Camara lost his temper with Bakary Thermite, the former head of the country's anti-drug unit.

"These drugs that you seized, did you resell them?" Camara asked _ and then exploded when Thermite tried to duck. "It's simple. Answer me! If not, I think we're going to pass the whole night here ... I am allergic to lies!"

These outbursts are lapped up by the people of Guinea, population 10 million. Housewives say they prefer watching Camara to their favorite soap opera. Even top Western diplomats say they can't unglue themselves from the "Dadis Show."

"It's as if you're at the theater. It's astonishing," says a veteran European diplomat. "I've never seen anything like it."

Camara has appointed members of the military to all the top ministry positions. He recently declared that he is considering abolishing the post of prime minister, the top job currently held by a civilian. He also appears to be backing off from his initial promise to hold elections quickly.

"The international community needs to understand us if they want democracy," he says. "Who is going to vote? The people are hungry. They are thirsty. Who is going to organize elections? You?" he asks during a sit-down interview with The Associated Press. "We need to clean our house from top to bottom. Only the military can do it. ... Only once our house has been cleaned we can hold elections."

In the market, you can buy posters of Camara. And the boys that sell sunglasses in traffic have run out of the wraparound Ray-Bans Camara is usually seen wearing. People who have never met him speak of him as if he is an honest elder brother.

"To put Guinea back on the right track, you need a very strong man," says Aissatou Diallo, a former minister under Conte who now runs a private radio station. "The fact that he had the courage to put those people on TV shows that he has the political will to take real measures ... It's made people afraid _ they know that if they embezzle money, they're going to be embarrassed in front of everyone."

But most coup leaders in the region start out as reformers. In next-door Ivory Coast, a 1999 coup led by another young army captain marked the beginning of the country's descent into civil war. Farther north in Mauritania, a military junta first allowed democratic elections, then ousted the democratically elected president last year.

"The problem with embracing a coup d'etat is that Africa has had dozens and dozens and only one or two have turned out well," notes Mike Mcgovern, an anthropologist at Yale University who is an expert on Guinea.


Camara rarely leaves the barracks, which have become his de facto office. People come to see him. His aides refer to the barracks _ and specifically the waiting room _ as "the presidency."

Soldiers with guns guard the stairs outside and each side of the door inside. Rows of leather couches face a white couch where only the president is allowed to sit. Two more soldiers sit outside the entrance to the president's bedroom.

Businessmen and foreign delegations are told to arrive by noon. They wait all day, sometimes falling asleep doubled over on the couches.

There is a TV but if they turn it up, a bodyguard rushes out and turns it back down. They scold anyone who accidentally slams the door. At around 6 p.m., soldiers walk in carrying plates of food and disappear behind the golden curtain.

No one seems to know why the president sleeps all day and emerges at night, but there is speculation that he fears a countercoup, which in this part of the world tends to happen at night. The person always at his side is Konate, the colonel who challenged him the day of the coup _ and insiders say Camara demands to see him every 30 minutes.

When he finally emerges on a recent night, he is flanked by Konate, a long-faced man who towers over the small-boned Camara. They sit on the couch together.

The TV crew blasts white light over the uniformed men. The cameras roll. Camara raises his voice and jabs his finger at the plaster ceiling. The Dadis Show has begun.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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