Over the past 15 years, Guinea has been both affected by and involved in the wars in West Africa. Now, with a faltering economy and the health of the long-ruling Lansana Conte declining, analysts warn the country is on the brink of a crisis, which could once again destabilize the entire region.

An editor of a local newspaper, Mamadi Condi paints a bleak picture of life in the West African country of eight million people. Rising food prices and unpaid salaries have led people to protest month after month.

Mr. Condi says people have no drinking water and electricity. Transport also doesn't function.

Faced with protests and foreign aid drying up, the Guinean president backed a reformist prime minister, Cellou Diallo, to undertake a series of political reforms, including revision of electoral lists. However, Mr. Condi says, these reforms remain largely on paper, and many Guineans are skeptical that they will ever be implemented.

Recent reports say the 70-year-old president, who has ruled the country for 21 years, is slipping in and out of a diabetic coma. Presidential elections are not due until 2008.

Guineans, like Mr. Condi, are increasingly preoccupied with who will succeed the president, if he dies or is forced by his failing health to leave office before his term is up.

Mr. Condi says many believe the military will take over, because the president has not prepared an obvious successor.

Although a military takeover may mean a reasonable amount of political stability in Guinea, analyst Mike McGovern of the International Crisis Group warns that would be a short-term solution that could lead to violence.

"The transition in Guinea, whenever it happens, we're suggesting it ought to be seen as an opening for a new approach to politics, a less personalized politics, and a politics that essentially gets military out of the political scene, and gives everybody a chance to participate," he said.

Mr. Conte came to power as head of a military government after the military took power on the death of the first president in 1984. He was elected to head a civilian government in 1993, and has been re-elected twice.

An International Crisis Group report urged the Conte government to fully implement democratic reforms, so the country can make a transition when Mr. Conte leaves office.

Mr. McGovern says civil war in Guinea could easily disrupt the fragile peace in neighbor states. He says Guinea's involvement in wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone have created ill-will. During the war in Liberia, Mr. Conte supported an armed group against former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is now in exile in Nigeria.

"A history of involvement in the wars of neighboring countries has created a certain kind of vengeful, or angry feeling among some people. Charles Taylor would have been one of them. There's been a lot of rumors, and even more concrete evidence than just rumors, to point to the fact that there's been recruitment of ex-combatants in Monrovia and other parts of Liberia to go and fight in Guinea, both to topple the Conte government and also defend it," he said.

The International Crisis Group report also said that refugees from the Liberian conflict, who took shelter in Guinea's Forest Region near the Liberian border, pose a danger to Guinea's political stability. The report said these refugees could easily be recruited to fight in civil wars, not only in Guinea, but in another crisis point in the region, neighboring Ivory Coast.

But, Richard Reeve, an analyst with the British-based security publication, Jane's Sentinel, says fears about refugee recruitment into militia groups are over-emphasized.

"I think that reports have probably been overstated, based on circumstantial factors and what has tended to happen in the region in the past. Certainly, there's thousands, if not tens-of-thousands of young men in the area around Guinea Forestiere, who have known little but fighting over the past decade, or so. They don't have much opportunity to get a regular job outside of the conflict industry," he said.

But some analysts believe democratic reforms will avert a crisis. Analyst Chris Melville, from the London-based World Markets Research Center, believes the international community, and in particular, regional groups such as the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, will not allow the military to take power after Mr. Conte leaves office.

"We've seen that regional organizations, such as ECOWAS in Africa, have become much more effective advocates of the peaceful transition of power, and much more rigorous implementers of the African Union new regulations on coups," he said.

The next real test for Guinea's fledgling democratic process will be municipal elections, which are scheduled to be held in a few months time.