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Guinea Looks Back on 50 Years of Independence

The West African nation of Guinea marks the 50th anniversary of independence which it gained after breaking with other French-African colonies that accepted a power-sharing agreement with France, the colonial power. But the celebrations have been subdued because Guinea, despite considerable mineral wealth, remains one of the poorest countries in the world. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from our West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

The celebrations began at midnight with fireworks and a small parade in the capital, Conakry.

President Lansana Conte told the nation that the time for promises had passed and it was time to take concrete steps toward economic development. But, in a reference to frequent anti-government protests, he said this would occur in an atmosphere of peace and liberty.

Guinea was the first African colony of France to gain independence after Guineans rejected, in a referendum, a proposal to join a French commonwealth.

Guinea's independence leader and first president Ahmed Sekou Toure delivered the famous rejection to then-French President Charles de Gaulle in 1958. He said Guineans prefer poverty with dignity over wealth in slavery.

France's other African colonies accepted the commonwealth offer but they also gained independence a few years later in the continent-wide move against colonialism.

The reaction of the French government at the time, however, was harsh and Guinea was largely cut off from French foreign aid.

Mr. Sekou Toure became increasingly obsessed over plots, real and perceived, to overthrow him. And his security forces detained and tortured thousands of Guinean dissidents.

Human rights groups estimate more than 50,000 people were executed or died in prison during the government of Mr. Sekou Toure who died in 1984.

Boiro Camp, outside Conakry, was the most famous detention center. Families of the Camp's victims Thursday gathered at one of the few known mass graves near Conakry to remember their loved ones, many of whose bodies have never been recovered.

The head of the Association, Marega Fode, says all Guineans supported independence and the anniversary provides an opportunity to atone for the excesses that followed.

He says it is time to locate all the mass graves, return the victims' remains to their families and build a monument to their memory. He says only then can the process of reconciliation begin.

Guineans are proud of the historic defiance of their first president. But many criticize the government for failing to take advantage of the country's considerable mineral wealth.

Most Guineans live on less than one dollar per day and the country is ranked by the United Nations as one of the poorest in the world.

The discontent has led to protests in recent years including several weeks of rioting in which more than 100 people were shot to death by police.