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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Disorder in Guinea Sparks Talk of Coup

CONAKRY, Guinea -- For most Guineans, the last straw came two months ago.

On Dec. 16, President Lansana Conte went to a city jail to liberate two of his close associates: Guinea's wealthiest businessman and a former top official of the central bank.

That the two had been locked up in the first place, on charges of embezzling $2.6 million of public money, had come very much as a surprise to the long-suffering Guinean people, who have labored in abysmal poverty under the yoke of authoritarian rule for their entire post-colonial history.

Typically such high-level theft went unpunished by civil servants, farmers, laborers and students, most of whom get by on less than a dollar a day.

But locking them up, then personally letting them go, was going too far.

"He sent us a message," said Antoine Bangoura, a secretary struggling to live on his $30 a month government salary. "The government doesn't care about us. So we sent a message back. We want change. Conte must go."

Since that December day, Guinea has been racked by rising unrest. Strikes, riots and a brutal military crackdown have killed scores of people in the past month and crippled the country's already feeble economy. The president declared martial law Feb. 12, and the situation has reached a smoldering stalemate, with growing calls for Conte to step down.

On Sunday, the government eased a 6 p.m. to noon curfew, allowing movement from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the tension on the streets eased slightly after a week of martial law that had kept most people indoors. But little progress has been made on talks between the government and the labor unions. The government has insisted that the strike must end before martial law is lifted, while the unions say martial law must end before negotiations can resume.

At one of Conakry's two main hospitals, the fetid wards are full of people shot and beaten by security forces during the brutal crackdown. Siaka Konneh lay on a stretcher on the floor, his eyes covered with bandages. He had been trying to deliver oxygen tanks a week before when he got caught in a volley of gunfire.

"I hear the gunshot -- pow! -- and my two eyes had been closed," he said, speaking in the English patois he picked up during years spent in neighboring Liberia. "I no see anything again."

Konneh, who is 37 and supports six children, four of his own and two of his dead brother's, said he blamed the president for his desperate situation and the country's malaise.

An investigation by Human Rights Watch found that security forces were raiding and looting private homes in the Conakry suburbs, and had killed at least 22 people since martial law was declared.

The turmoil has been a long time coming. Guinea was one of the first countries in Africa to achieve independence, and its story gives it a place of particular pride in Africa's post-colonial history. The country's first president, Sekou Toure, became a hero of anti-imperialism when he, alone among Francophone African leaders, rejected Charles de Gaulle's offer of permanent union with France in 1958, declaring that Guinea preferred "poverty in freedom to riches in slavery."

Every Guinean schoolchild learns de Gaulle's parting sneer -- "Adieu, la Guinee" -- and the methodical destruction of files and equipment, even the light bulbs, by departing French colonial bureaucrats and businessmen. They left the country's civil administration and economy in tatters.

Violent repression has been a favored tool of the Guinean state for decades. But Professor Djibril Tamsir Niane, an acclaimed historian of West Africa, who has chronicled the winds of change across the region, said those winds might finally be gusting across Guinea's shores.

"There is the will for change," Niane said. "The entire population of Conakry was on the streets in January. It is the beginning of a new era."