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Guineans Relieved to Avoid Violence, But Still Want President Out

  • Nico Colombant

Many Guineans in the capital, Conakry, want to avoid violence, but still want to find a way to get rid of long-standing President Lansana Conte. Union leaders who have led recent mass protests against his rule decided to rescind a general strike threat, giving the president nearly two more months to respect previous accords. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from Conakry.

At the Koloma market in the Bambeto neighborhood, market sellers and market goers are unanimous in their disapproval of President Conte.

Medical student Aicha Ba says she wants what Guineans call total change.

She says she gets a state student stipend of about $140 a month, but needs $150 for her transport. She says her mom supports her entire family by selling coffee at the market.

But Ba says she does not want a new strike.

Last year during protests, nearly 200 people were killed, most of them shot dead by soldiers, some of them innocent bystanders in impoverished neighborhoods.

A 50-year-old seller of furnaces Mohammadou Diallo says young people do not know how to strike anymore. He says as soon as a strike action begins, they loot stores and burn tires, creating chaos and crackdowns, rather than bringing about change with placards.

He says the government of resource-rich Guinea should stop exporting so many goods, and focus more on the welfare of its own people, who face daily challenges of inflation, low pay and crumbling infrastructure.

A presidential aide welcomed the agreement to avoid a new strike, as a way forward. Mr. Conte's supporters credit him for keeping Guinea safe in recent years, while neighbors Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast all spiraled into civil war.

Union leaders said they would work with President Conte, hoping he would implement previous strike-ending agreements. These deals called for him to relinquish broad powers to consensus prime minister Lansana Kouyate.

But Mr. Conte recently issued a decree giving many of the prime minister's powers to his presidential secretary, and then unilaterally fired the communications minister.

Another student in Conakry, Kante Salifou, says the president always attacks first, rejecting previous agreements, and that everything ends up with the president in total control.

"These agreements have not been respected by the president, so it is better for us to go on strike," said Salifou. "If we think the strike to be a problem we could not go where we want to go and we want to be free forever. At this time, Guineans are living in very difficult conditions. Our living standards are very low and so to improve them, we have to have a very good president, a very good head of state."

Mr. Conte extended presidential mandates to seven years, bringing his current term to 2010, while also lifting term limits.

He took power in a coup in 1984.

In this the 50th year of Guinea's independence, legislative elections are planned, but many Guineans say they have no faith in the democratic process either.

No date has yet been set for the polling. Unions have given Mr. Conte's side until the end of March to respect the previous agreements, or they say they will strike again.

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