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Page last updated at 16:26 GMT, Monday, 22 January 2007

Guinea's strongman feels the heat

By Alhassan Sillah
BBC News, Conakry

Guinea's President Lansana Conte
President Conte is in effect president-for-life
Guinea's ailing head of state, Lansana Conte, is under pressure as never before as demonstrators paralyse the country with a general strike, demanding he resign.

But he was once an archetypical strong man.

Following the coup that brought him to power in 1984, the then army colonel quickly established himself as the sole leader of the then military junta.

He survived his first coup a year later, in 1985, a putsch that was allegedly masterminded by his second-in-command Diarra Traore.

By the time the democratic wind of change hit Africa and military regimes were forced to allow political parties in the early 1990s, Mr Conte had already consolidated his grip on power.

Votes

He formed the Party for Unity and Progress (PUP) and went on to win the first multi-party presidential election in 1993.

His party has since won every other election in the country to date including legislative and communal elections.

Wrecked car in Conakry
The violence has claimed at least 20 lives
However in 1996, a pay-rise protest by sections of the armed forces soon became a mutiny.

President Conte was held hostage for several hours.

He was subsequently released by the soldiers who maintained at the time that they only wanted a pay increase, which the president had agreed to.

Political opposition to President Conte is almost non-existent due to a combination of the repressive-style of rule from this soldier-turned-democrat on the one hand, and disunity among opposition political parties on the other.

A constitutional change he made through a controversial referendum held in 2003 allowing limitless presidential terms, appears to have made him "president for life".

In the 1990s, with wars breaking out in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia, Guinea became the hub of tens of thousands of refugees from those countries.

Lansana Conte became the charitable host and donor money flowed.

Complaints

But it soon became evident that these monies were not meeting their intended targets, namely the refugees.

Guineans must remain united, above all us soldiers, because we must be proud of wearing the uniform
President Lansana Conte

Donors complained.

And there were yet more complaints from donors, when it was discovered that corruption was eating into the fabric of Mr Conte's society.

There was no independent electoral commission, and the government held a monopoly over the national media.

The donors held their monies back when the regime rejected calls for reforms.

Problems

The economy started sliding and to compound the situation, President Conte who had been troubled by diabetes over the years, became more seriously ill.

The 73-year-old has obviously enjoyed a good life - and is wealthy with several wives and children.

Map of Guinea
But people around him now took liberties with the running of the state and the economy was soon in tatters.

Inflation reached a record high of 250% in 2005, and workers' salaries became all but worthless in the face of rising costs of basic goods.

The unions called strikes to protect workers, they said.

The latest strike has now resulted in people calling for the president's departure.

The loyalty of the army probably holds the key, which is why he has appealed for their loyalty in a televised speech.

"Guineans must remain united, above all us soldiers, because we must be proud of wearing the uniform, a sign of allegiance to defending the country," he said in his own Susu language.

But speaking in Susu will not have helped his appeal for national unity, especially among the Peul community, who feel it is their turn to field a president, after Mr Conte and before him, the Mandinka Sekou Toure.

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