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Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Thursday, 2 October 2008 11:54 UK

Guineans mark '50 years of poverty'

Fode Bangoura

By Will Ross
BBC News, Conakry

As Guineans mark their 50th year of independence from France, a popular cry to be heard in the capital, Conakry, is: "Fifty years of poverty!"

"We would rather have poverty in freedom than riches in slavery," the country's independence leader, Sekou Toure, told the then French President General Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

With those words ringing in his ears, Gen de Gaulle reportedly left in a rage, forgetting his cap on the table.

Days later Guineans voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to go it alone.

It was a bold step and one for which Guinea was punished.

The French withdrew their expertise and assistance, ensuring that Guinea's road ahead was steep.

Fanta Kande
If the French came back and worked with us and ran things in order to help us then why not?
Fanta Kande

Nowhere illustrates Guinea's recent demise better than the train station in Conakry.

Completed in 1914, the construction of the 700km (435 miles) track to Kankan was a French project partly to aid with the export of fruit.

But the trains ground to a final halt in May 1995.

They may have stopped 13 years ago but several of the workers still sit around the station, which now hosts a variety of businesses from tailoring to welding.

"When we left school the railway was in good condition and it was a great way to get around the country," recalls Fode Bangoura, who still runs the defunct depot.

"My father worked on the railway and it was a good job and that's why I also joined, but as it fell into disrepair it became more and more difficult to keep it going."

Pride

Despite this setback, Mr Bangoura is still proud of the country's history.

"We are very proud of the 50th anniversary. I was seven years old at independence. Our parents danced all night and so we joined in."

However, 89-year-old Mohamed Bashir Toure was not dancing or singing at the time.

"I was very happy with the French," he said with some frustration.

Oscar Loua Tokpagnan
When the students complete it's almost impossible for them to get a job
Oscar Loua Tokpagnan
Medical student

"Life was good then. We had all we needed and I voted to stay with the French.

"Now we lack electricity - everything is ruined."

Mr Toure would even welcome the return of the French - a comment that brings giggles and cries of "colonialist" from his relatives.

It seems he is not alone.

"I would welcome them back with open arms," says Fanta Kande who runs a food canteen in Conakry.

"I think independence was a huge mistake. If the French came back and worked with us and ran things in order to help us then why not?"

Guineans are by and large extremely proud of their independence history but people are sick and tired of bad governance and the problems that brings.

"We have no electricity or safe water," says medical student Oscar Loua Tokpagnan.

"We are in a difficult situation because when the students complete it's almost impossible for them to get a job."

Heckled

At the people's palace where the late Sekou Toure used to deliver four-hour speeches to rally the population, a praise singer rehearses for the Cinquantenaire, or 50th anniversary of independence.

Inside the hall a conference is turning rowdy as one speaker is heckled so much he has to leave the room.

Doctor Marega Fode has angered some in the auditorium by questioning whether Sekou Toure, who stayed in power for 26 years, should be showered with praise.

Marega Fode
Dr Marega Fode says abuses under Sekou Toure should be discussed

He has good reason to pose the question.

Along with thousands of others who were deemed a threat, his father was locked up by the military in the notorious Camp Boiro during the 1970s.

He was never seen again.

"What we learnt from a prisoner who was freed was that they took him from the camp at night, tied him up, put him on a truck and drove him to the mountains," he says.

"There they made him dig his own grave before shooting him."

Dr Fode says adding that the independence anniversary should not be marked without talking about all the people who were killed during this time.

Violent protests

After 26 years of Mr Toure, Guineans have spent the next 24 years under the leadership of President Lansana Conte.

His health has deteriorated during recent years and as the running of government has became more and more chaotic, President Conte has relied on the military.

More than 100 protesters were shot dead during protests early last year, and now few Guineans are willing to risk their lives after seeing that last year's demonstrations had little lasting impact.

Baguette seller
Baguettes are still sold on the streets of Conakry

President Conte's independence anniversary message on state radio was only marginally more audible than his predecessors address 50 years ago, and it gave little reason for renewed optimism.

Reading his script tentatively, Mr Conte promised to use dialogue in order to find what he called the appropriate solutions to the country's difficulties.

It was neither passionate nor convincing.

In Conakry's port I realised there are trains that still work in Guinea - bringing the country's minerals for export.

Guinea has enormous mineral wealth and the country's fortune over the next 50 years depends to a large extent on well these resources are managed.

But the track record on that score is appalling, with alarming levels of corruption.

The lack of enthusiasm for this 50th independence anniversary is hardly surprising.

Guineans continue to hope for a change of leadership and fortune.



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