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.