Religion. Politics. Tribal Vengeance. Old Mutiny.
Any of these things can be blamed for the latest spat between the Guerze and Konianke peoples. More poetic writers might be more apt to exaggerating the events to make it sound more dramatic than it really was. Yet what happened Monday in Nzerekore, Guinea was far from poetic. It was barbarism, at best.
A simple spat over supposed theft was all it took to drag a city of nearly 300,000 people into the chaos of ethnic violence. The brutal beating and murder of a Konianke youth by Guerze gas station guards was a spark. It lit a fire in the city that took two days to exhaust as police presence on the streets began to resemble military might. Law enforcement, dressed in battle gear, rode out the violence since they could not quell it through brute force.
By Wednesday morning the streets in Nzerekore resembled a war zone. Around 80 people had been wounded, including a Guerze tribal chief, and at least 54 had been killed. According to a doctor that refused to identify himself there were many more who had been either burnt beyond recognition or hacked to pieces. Leaving the official death toll limited to those that could be readily identified through ID papers or by relatives and friends.
In addition to the sudden influx of wounded and dead in Nzerekore there had been cars and homes destroyed by arson attacks and vandalism. For many these very places had been the only safe refuge they had as the rival mobs had carried out rolling battles across the city.
So what lay at the root of this latest outbreak of ethnic violence in Guinea?
Politics and Old Mutiny
In recent years the West, and Americans in particular, have come to realize that diamonds and precious metals originating in West Africa are often products of war and genocide. The term "blood diamonds" was coined and led to countless books and even an award winning movie produced in Hollywood. But the reality of what these conflict minerals actually leave behind has eluded many in Western culture. We tend not to think of the crimes these materials help fund or how many lives they cost. We really only tend to think of how we can obtain said materials without the guilt of purchasing "blood diamonds" while still affording such luxuries.
For the citizens of Sierra Leone these diamonds helped directly fund the horrific crimes of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the RUF/Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). These barbarians mutilated civilians, massacred their victims, and forcibly conscripted children into their ranks to serve as child soldiers. One of their most prominent purchasers was the then acting president of Liberia, Charles Taylor.
It was this bankrolling of crimes against humanity that ended up having Charles Taylor becoming the first head of state to be formally charged with such crimes in an international court since Nuremberg. This was the first case in which a tyrannical savage (former state leader) was brought to justice in decades. And yet the legacy his time in power had left upon the region would not be so easily forgotten.
During Charles Taylor's run for presidency in Liberia a savage civil war broke out. What was supposed to be a civil election process had turned into a barbaric battle for total power over the country and it's resources. Charles Taylor only "won" the election by threatening to restart the war if he was not elected. Thus the savage took power under threat of more blood shed.
So what does this have to do with the ethnic violence in Guinea?
Every since Charles Taylor's insurgency against the setting president of Liberia in December of 1989 the war criminal has drawn upon support from the Guerze tribes, known as Kpelle in Liberia. Taylor exploited the animosity that the Guerze tribal leaders had instilled in their people against the "newcomers", the Konianke people. Using this tribal divide, Taylor was able to build upon the hatred that already existed and work the tribal groups into ready-to-fight militias. This was a tactic that Taylor would again utilize during the rebellion against him in 1999 (later called The Second Liberian Civil War).
In successive struggles to maintain power the war criminal would continue to feed the hatred and distrust that fomented between the Guerze and Konianke people. In 1999's rebellious days Taylor would tell his loyalist that the Mandingo (considered to be Liberia's Konianke community) were the cause for the countries problems. Scapegoating the Konianke, Taylor then added to the accusations that Guinea was behind the rebellion in his country.
This legacy of mistrust and political hatred for one another has been left behind by corrupt politicians like Charles Taylor. It is one of the reasons that such ethnic tensions become strained to the point of violence in Guinea (and the region for that matter) during times of political elections. Any spark during these times leaves the communities of these two tribes susceptible to ethnic violence.
It is a reality in Guinea that the government has become far to aware of. In May there were more than 50 people were killed in violence resulting from ethnic and political protest ahead of the expected electoral process in Guinea. These deaths, not related to the incident above, were results of clashes between the Peuhl tribe and Malinke tribe. Yet both cases of ethic violence are heralds of the upcoming elections across the country.
Religion and Tribal Vengeance
When you talk about the "holy war" between Christians and Muslims in Africa you most often end up in Nigeria. The bitter struggle for control over the religious aspect of African society has nearly drawn a line between the Northern half of sub-Saharan Africa and the Southern half. With Arabic influences in the north and black African Muslims spreading their faith southward the battle for souls has turned into a bloody stalemate. Animist and people of local religions have been the bait for the two hungry armies as they bite at the bit in deadly head-on charges against their opposing faith. Nigeria is just the apex of this struggle.
For Guinea the clash between Islam and Christendom has left the country in a constant state of potential war. Christians in Guinea to this day hold deep prejudices against Muslims they view as "new comers" or interlopers. While Muslims in Guinea continue to find themselves as pawns in political struggles in Guinea and the surrounding area. The religious fervor on both sides however leaves the two communities far to willing and ready to fight one another at the drop of a hat.
When looking at Guinea it may not seem fair to compare it to the hellish state of affairs that is Nigeria at the moment. But it is completely understandable that the rolling battles of Guinea are just a short distance away from the entrenched wars of Nigeria. If the religious aspect of the feuds between Guerze and Konianke peoples is not formally addressed by both government and religious leaders the situation the two communities face is quite possibly more similar to Rwanda than Nigeria.
This religious divide that for the moment seems to act as an impasse is only further exacerbated by the ethnic divide. With the Guerze people compiling around 40 percent of the population in Guinea they act as the ethnic majority. And nearly since the initial independence of Guinea from France the Guerze people have been the political backbone of the country. This changed however with the succession of coups and deaths of one corrupt politician after the other. In 1984 when Lansana Conte (a member of the Susu people) took power the Christian population of Guinea found themselves under a Muslim ruler. For the Guerze community leaders the divide on religion took the forefront of the disputes between their community and the Konianke every since.
In the coming election this divide between religion and politics has narrowed even more. With the Konianke people backing Alpha Conde and the Guerze people backing the opposition the religious views of Conde are at the forefront of the political struggle. The Konianke only comprise somewhere around 30 percent of the population, so it is clear as to why they would back Conde. After all, Alpha Conde is a Mulsim from their own ethnic group. So it is seen that he would assure their community some stability in this long standing war between the two religious parties involved.
For the Guerze community leaders the presidency of Alpha Conde would be yet another Islamic leader who could reinstate a junta style government. The fears of living under Islam are palpable in the way these community leaders address the issue. Hate and vitriol spill from both sides, yet it is more prevalent in a community that seems to believe they have more to lose than their opponent.
It is impossible for somebody in my position to adequately address the issues these two ethnic groups face in this upcoming election. It would be arrogant to say that I fully understand the nature to the conflict that exist between them. Yet at the same time I can honestly say that if neither side makes drastic changes in the way they view the other then the misery that has been Guinea's past will continue to be its future. Without compromise and some form of strong leadership, whether that be political or religious, an accusation of theft will always risk countless days of senseless violence and bloodshed.
As for the government of Guinea, there are serious steps ahead in the path to social and political reforms that are desperately needed. There is a clear hunger for democratic reforms amongst the people of this country. Yet whenever they show up to make their voices heard they have been met with religious and racial violence. It is a problem that everyone is watching yet no one seems willing to address.
If social and political reforms are not carried out immediately under the next president the country of Guinea should face more stringent criticism and economic reprisals from the UN and Western world. A government that would tolerate the senseless violence that has become the hallmarks of its electoral process cannot be treated with kid gloves. If we would not tolerate it within our own borders we must not make excuses for it when such atrocities are imposed upon other people.
In Guinea the endless misery of religious, ethnic, and political violence has been rewarded by a world that remains silent.
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(note not all sources are listed)
Human Rights Watch
Christian Science Monitor