Guinea was dominated by the Mali Empire in the 13th and 15th centuries. Descendants of these Malinke rulers still live in Guinea. The coast was occupied by Portuguese and European traders in the 15th while the east came under the influence of the succeeding Songhai Empire until the latter fell before Moroccan forces at the end of the 16th.
Fulani pastoralists who had been moving in region from the north since the 15th, were consolidating their presence in the Futa Djalon region where their Torobde clan established a theocratic Muslim state around 1725.
In the 1880s, the Malinke warlord Samori Touré established his personal empire which extended as far as Ghana in the east. He resisted the French penetration but was finally defeated and Guinea became a French colony in 1891.
His great grandson Sekou Touré, a popular Marxist union leader championed the cause of independence and became the country’s first president when it was granted in 1958. Then, Guinea broke all ties with France, withdrew from the franc zone and adopted the Chinese model of communism which was catastrophic for the economy. More than a million Guineans mostly Fulani, fled the reign of terror set up by Touré and his Malinke appointees.
Touré's demise in 1984 was the occasion for a military coup under General Lansana Conté of the Susu tribe. He freed political prisoners, promised a more open society and cautiously moved towards a market economy but still held a tight hold on the reins of power until he reluctantly held the first multiparty presidential elections and defeated his main opponent Alpha Conde in January 1994. He survived an attempted coup in 1996 and prepared for the 1999 elections which were held a few days before I arrived in Conakry. Rioting and clashes with the police had burned out the central market a few days before the elections and the situation was still tense when I got there. The election results had not yet been announced and Alpha Conde had been arrested trying to leave the country.
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On the flight from Gambia I met a Dutch aid worker who had been evacuated from Freetown with all other ONG expat personnel after it had been encircled by the rebels. She informed me that the airport had been closed and that the town was expected to fall at any time. Having just missed visiting Guinea Bissau because the civil war there, I was naturally upset to be kept out of Sierra Leone by similar events.
I was picked up at the airport by Talal Abou Khalil's chauffeur, Lanfia who drove me into town. He was visibly dismayed when I asked him to stop to take this photo of Conakry's "Grande Mosque". Only later did I realise that there was a phobia about picture taking in Guinea.
The pension Doherty was fairly expensive at 20$US for a modest room with ceiling fan and shower but the manager Princess and her daughter Dona were friendly and interesting.
Neither the Guinea Bissau civil war nor the one in Sierra Leone are motivated by ideological conflicts. They both arise from greed for the benefits of the corruption associated with power. In Guinea Bissau, a general accused of selling arms on the black market rebelled against the government. In Sierra Leone the struggle for power appears to be related to tribal competition between the Temnes from the north and the Mendes from the south but the real issue is the control of the diamond and gold mines that are a source of great wealth for the few that hold power while they have it.
Drinks at the "Papillon" with Talal (on the right), his Swiss friend Oswald Loosli and wife Joyce (Canadian Consul in Conakry) and their Guinean friend whose name I have forgotten.
I passed immigration at the airport with a letter of invitation signed by the chief of police which my friend Talal had sent me by e-mail but I had to relinquish my passport which I was supposed to pick up duly stamped the following day. It turned out to be not that simple as I got my passport back three days later and only after paying a 50$US visa fees and two 5$ bribes. It would have been simpler if I had paid the bribes at once...
Joyce and Oswald Loosli at the new year's party Talal organised for us at the "Papillon". Oswald generously invited me to stay in his hotel "Le Stop" while visiting Abidjan.
Corruption is a way of life in many countries where salaries paid to civil servants are insufficient to feed a family. I had been aware of corruption in South America and in Central Asia but nowhere had I see it so widespread and openly practiced as in West Africa.
Talal being serenaded by one of the entertainers.
I came close to being arrested for trying to take a picture of a market in Conakry. I got away without taking the picture but the police woman who had threatened to arrest me said that I could get permission by paying the local "commissaire".
Now it's my turn to get serenaded.
Corruption is current not only here in Guinea but, at various degrees, everywhere else in West Africa. The most frequent manifestation of this quaint cultural tradition is the ubiquitous roadblock attended by policemen who levy small sums from everyone passing by. The levy is small but three or four of these road pirates on a short stretch of road can make the difference between profit and loss for the poor driver trying to make a living with his bush taxi.
The Guinean fire dancers put on a lively show.
At the border between the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, the minibus driver refused to pay the 1000 CFA demanded by a border cop. It was around 11 AM. The corrupt cop would not let us pass and said we would have to wait until he went off duty at three in the afternoon to deal with his replacement. Then he came to see me and said that he would arrange transport for me, for a price, if I was in a hurry. I started taking notes and said that I was enjoying the pause because I was writing a book on African customs and traditions and was very interested in this custom of paying to get through a border post. After heavy irony on my part he let us go when I asked him his name for my book!
I thought of new year's eve in ice bound Montreal as I watched.
I was not joking when I said corruption was part of the cultural tradition of some people. It's that way in many places. It has been so in China, but it seems that the Chinese government has realized how dangerous corruption can be. Every now and then they catch a dozen corrupt officials and publicise their execution as an example for the others.
The really top notch show held our attention until the end scene which included these audacious performers on stilts.
The experience of wasting three days to run the gauntlet through three or four offices and paying two bribes to get my passport back could explain my criticism of corruption but I have much more important reasons for opposing it since my 1997 trip made me discover the contribution of corruption to the destruction of the Soviet Empire.
Having changed my ticket for Freetown to fly directly to Monrovia, I said goodbye to my friends and took off for Liberia.