Guinean President Lansana Conte, who had ruled the West African country with an iron hand since seizing power in a coup nearly a quarter century ago, has died following a lengthy illness, the National Assembly president said yesterday.
Aboubacar Sompare, flanked by the country’s prime minister and the head of the army, said on state-run TV that Conte had died on Monday evening.
He was believed to be in his 70s, but the government has never disclosed his birth date.
“I have the heavy duty of informing the people of Guinea of the death of General Lansana Conte following a long illness,” Sompare said. He did not provide a specific cause of death or elaborate on the type of illness.
Sompare said that for many years Conte “hid his physical suffering in order to give happiness to Guinea.”
Conte was one of the last members of a dwindling group of so-called “African Big Men” who came to power by the gun and resisted the democratic tide sweeping the continent.
He seized power in a military coup a week after the 1984 death of Ahmed Sekou Toure, Guinea’s first president after gaining independence from France in 1958. Conte’s official biography described the action as “an operation to safeguard and maintain peace in the country.”
Conte quickly established himself as the sole leader of the military junta. He abandoned Toure’s revolutionary socialist agenda, but like his predecessor, suppressed dissent.
As a post-Cold War democracy wave swept Africa, Conte formed a political party and in 1993 won the country’s first multi-party presidential election. He was re-elected in 1998 and 2003, though the opposition rejected the elections, protesting that they were flawed.
Guinea’s 10 million people are among the poorest in the world, even though the country holds half the world’s reserves of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum. Guinea exported food at independence, but later had to begin importing food as the country became more impoverished, crippled by corruption, inflation and high unemployment.
Conte’s unpopularity was reflected in revolts by disgruntled soldiers and at least two attempts to oust him.
According to the Constitution, the head of the national assembly becomes president in the case of the death of the head of state. But transfers of power have rarely been smooth in Guinea, which has been crippled by corruption and rocked by multiple coups.
Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare called on the army to secure the country’s borders, while Sompare directed the country’s courts to apply the law.
The two announcements, coupled by the presence of the head of the army, appeared to be an effort to signal that the government intended a peaceful transition.
Later yesterday, an army captain announced on state radio that the Constitution was suspended and the government and state institutions dissolved.
“The institutions of the republic have shown themselves to be incapable of resolving the crises which have been confronting the country,” Captain Moussa Dadis Camara said in an address on Radio Conakry.
“As of today, the Constitution is suspended as well as political and union activity,” he said. “The government and the institutions of the republic have been dissolved.”
A “consultative council” comprised of civilian and military representatives would be set up in their place.