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Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Guineans face uncertain future

By Will Ross
BBC West Africa Correspondent

President Lansana Conte's death spells the end of years of misrule in Guinea.

A market stall in Conakry, Guinea (file image)
Many Guineans are poor despite the country's abundant natural resources

When he was alive, few Guineans had any hope of their lives improving in what is a mineral rich country.

But as the military tries to take over, Guinea faces an uncertain future.

The president had relied increasingly on the military for support as the population grew angrier with the fact that his government was barely functioning and the economy was in tatters.

The clearest indication of this was the military response to the nationwide strike and demonstrations in early 2007.

More than 150 demonstrators were shot dead and martial law was declared.

Many analysts had predicted that the military would take over come the end of Mr Conte's rule - the army was increasingly showing signs that it was in charge.

The army's decision to dissolve parliament and the constitution would be welcomed by Guineans if the country remains peaceful

Whenever there were military uprisings, often over pay, the president simply promoted those who were disgruntled and dished out more money that the country could ill afford.

A corrupt and chaotic system of governance suited some individuals within the presidential circle who stood to derive political and financial benefits.

But for ordinary Guineans life grew ever harder and it was became impossible to know who was in charge.

It was not uncommon for state television to announce a cabinet reshuffle which was then annulled the following evening.

While Guineans are desperate for a break from the chaotic rule there are concerns over possible in-fighting to fill the power vacuum.

Rudderless

When Guinea celebrated the 50th anniversary of independence last October, several heads of state flew in from around the region.

Late Guinean president Lansana Conte (file image)

They were treated to brass bands and military displays but one man was missing - Mr Conte.

The previous evening, I had seen his modest motorcade speeding through the streets of the capital, Conakry - the president's trembling hand was holding a cigarette to his mouth.

There were rumours that the man who came to power through a coup in 1984 would be present at the anniversary celebrations - there were even claims that his arm chair had been seen.

But Mr Conte's absence was a clear indication of a rudderless nation which for five years had become ever more chaotic as he refused to leave power while his health declined.

He was diabetic and although it was never officially revealed, he was believed to be suffering from leukaemia.

The army's decision to dissolve parliament and the constitution would be welcomed by Guineans if the country were to remain peaceful and if elections were held soon.

The key now is whether the army and the politicians can agree on a way forward.

Ethnic mix

Any power struggle would be extremely dangerous given the ethnic divisions that exist.

Guinean army in Conakry (file image)
Mr Conte relied increasingly on the army to support him

Mr Conte was from the Soussou ethnic group which makes up 10% of the population.

While the Soussou have benefited during the past 25 years of his rule, some fear a possible struggle for supremacy between the two largest ethnic groups, the Peul and the Malinke.

Rival cliques within the presidential circle have been fighting to preserve their political and financial interests for some years by maintaining the corrupt system of governance.

Those competing for power include businessmen, senior army figures and the president's wives.

The future of Guinea is also of great concern in the region.

After conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, West Africa badly needs a dose of peace.

Any conflict can all too easily become regional

Guinea provided an oasis of tranquillity for thousands of refugees who fled the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 1990s and the early years of this century.

But in recent years, the now peaceful neighbours have been watching events in Guinea with growing apprehension, and not surprisingly Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma called an emergency cabinet meeting following the news of events across the border.

The fact that ethnic groups live across the national borders of these countries means any conflict can all too easily become regional.

Many Guineans had been longing for an end to the oppressive and chaotic rule of Mr Conte.

Now they hope the change at the top is peaceful.

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