Guinea's opposition parties have worked hard to develop a unified political memory about what happened on the 28th September. Probably one of the reasons they remain within a unified coalition is because they and their supporters share the experience and solidarity of the repression on that day; and it'll be significant to see what happens to the Forces Vives once it comes to election-time.

But interestingly, that shared memory has been formed not just by the opposition parties' statements, or even by people sharing stories and experiences personally, but by a rapidly-circulated body of photographs and video clips of the events at the stadium. The government junta's claims about what happened that day - a 'violent' demonstration, police threatened, crowd members carrying their own firearms who fired on the police, soldiers staying in their barracks and only a small number of people killed after a stampede - were immediately falsified by film clips and photos: of soldiers firing on demonstrators, public rapes and piled-up bodies. Almost all were taken on people's mobile phones, and almost everyone in Conakry has seen them - in a country where relatively few ordinary people have regular access to the internet, or their own email addresses.

People haven't seen the footage on Youtube or Facebook or viral emails - it seems to have been circulated almost entirely on people's mobile phones themselves. The first thing that the first young person I interviewed said was 'Tu as le Bluetooth?'

28 Septembre CD-ROMs and DVDs are also selling in Conakry's markets, and showing in the tiny shack-cinemas throughout the city where people usually go to watch a big European football match, or play on a Playstation for an hour.

I know the impact of social technology is continually over-hyped. And it's obvious that international pressure - particularly from ECOWAS and France - has to a large extent shaped the CNDD's more moderate posture in recent weeks. But I don't think the impact of this corpus of visual imagery can be underplayed in what's subsequently happened in Guinea; the opposition parties growing in strength, and the CNDD having finally to appear, at least, to cede some power. Effectively, cameraphones have ensured that there's simply no way anyone in Guinea can believe that the regime's story about the repression is true, even if those images themselves select another particular version of events. Despite relative popularity immediately after coming to power, the CNDD are now literally unsupported.

The first widely marketed cameraphones appeared in the global North around 2003; and we've just reached the stage where enough people in rich countries have got rid of their first cameraphones for them to be fairly widely available throughout east and west Africa. Visual sousveillance has finally reached even the poorest parts of the global South; and, to some extent, seems to be working to shape remembering and forgetting. And I'm glad that no amount of fresh paint is going to stop that.


More circuses than bread

I'm afraid I haven't really found the time or the impetus to write about my brief stay in Conakry in November. That's partly because there's quite a lot about the work I can't really describe here. What struck me most, though, was the forced banality of life in the CNDD's Guinea.

This is the Jardin du 2 Octobre in downtown Conakry. Named after Guinea's independence anniversary, it's presumably supposed to commemorate the achievements of the independent Guinean people. But at the moment in has freshly-painted pictures of Donald Duck and Goofy around its walls. In fact, it's one of two freshly painted buildings in the city. The rest of Guinea's capital - its decrepit hospitals, its parliament building, its stained villas and empty hotels - is crumbling gently into the sea. Even some of the mining companies have sent their foreign staff home, and when we were there a single cargo ship was sitting in the city's port. But in late November, on the eve of the fete of Tabaski - the celebration of the return from the Haj - Conakry's public gardens were grandly opened after extensive refurbishment. On Tabaski itself there were hundreds of people queuing with their children, waiting to play on the park's newly installed children's rides: all laid on by the government, the queues watched over by bored soldiers and the rusty T-55 tank that the regime have stationed at the adjacent crossroads since the December 2008 coup brought the CNDD junta to power.

This was just six weeks after Conakry's security forces killed over 150 people and gang-raped dozens of women during an opposition rally calling for the CNDD to cede power. As Guineans queued with their children to ride on the Mickey Mouse merry-go-rounds, soldiers were still stealing diplomatic cars and driving them into Conakry's suburbs to arrest 'troublemakers'.

(Ironically, the renovation of the Jardin has reportedly been paid for by a Lebanese businessman, close to the CNDD and the predecessor regime, who the opposition 'Forces Vives' claim has recently helped procure military equipment for the junta's newly formed militias. They've produced no concrete evidence for this - but the UN certainly thinks he has form: in 2003 the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia named his company as an intermediary in a series of arms shipments from Iran to Guinea, passed on, they claimed, to the Guinean-backed LURD rebels then engaged in their final brutal assault on Monrovia.)

Just down the road, Guinea's parliament building, the Palais des Peuples, is still empty of parliamentarians since the constitution was suspended in December 2008. Instead, last month it was turned over to the 'Miss Guinee' 2009 contest, another Tabaski treat laid on by the CNDD. The pageant was shown live on state TV (they must have needed something to fill the schedules after the president stopped his daily three-hour chat show). The day before, we saw 'les Miss' in our hotel's restaurant, decked out in ludicrously low-cut ball dresses, having the nervous privilege of being lunched by a dozen red-beret soldiers, including some of the CNDD's inner circle.

Conakry's other freshly-painted building is also named with a date. The Stade du 28 Septembre, the city's main football stadium, commemorates the 1958 referendum in which the Guinean people voted for complete independence from France; and now, of course, is synonymous with the most recent 28th September, when gendarmes and soldiers strafed the stands with Kalashnikovs and carried out gang rapes on the pitch. Just a couple of days after, still littered with empty cartridge cases, the stadium was cleaned from top to bottom, the blood washed away, and the entire stadium complex given a new coat of paint. Nothing to do with getting rid of forensic evidence, of course; an upcoming match with Burkina Faso simply meant that the stadium had to be spruced up...

At both the gardens and the stadium, the fresh paint is obviously part of a larger pretence that nothing's wrong. That attempt has manifestly failed. But I think maybe the partying wasn't a facade, despite almost everyone in Conakry having a friend, relative or acquaintance who had been recently injured or killed by the security forces. Several people we met said that they were glad there was a big Tabaski celebration: Guineans always party before they go back into the streets, they said. A diplomat told us that on the night of 27th September, despite the roadblocks, he'd never seen the clubs in Conakry so full or so frenetic. You always know that the opposition is planning a big demonstration, he said, because the clubs are overflowing the night before.

In a country where every major political demonstration for a decade has been met with indiscriminate, excessive and lethal force from the army's elite commando forces, that seems like gladiator spirit. It also shows the extraordinary political organisation of Guinea's political parties and trade unions. Peaceful demonstrators keep getting massacred because they keep going back into the streets; and that's testimony to the amazing ability of the parties and unions to motivate and mobilise people - through dense networks of friends and families - to go back into the streets.


This might be fun...

...although "as soon as the information is ready" sounds a bit like "we've assigned half an intern in the Department for Whogivesatoss to do this, so we'll never have to publish it before the Tories get in. And they'll want to abolish it."

Home Department
Written answers and statements, 15 December 2009

Phil Woolas: In their response to a Report by the Public Administration Select Committee, 'Lobbying: Access and influence in Whitehall', the Government agreed to publish online, on a quarterly basis, information about ministerial meetings with outside interest groups. Information for the period 1 October to 31 December 2009 will be published by Departments as soon as the information is ready.

(Nicked from here)