Tens of thousands of loyalists mourned the dictator who ruled Guinea for nearly a quarter-century, lining the roads to the lavish palace grounds where he was interred and crowding around his grave.
Lansana Conte, who took power in 1984, was the only leader who many Guineans had ever known. Though he was widely seen as corrupt and authoritarian, many saw stability under him as preferable to the bloody civil wars elsewhere in West Africa. His death on Monday at the age of 74 has left the country, one of the world’s poorest, in political turmoil.
The leader of a military coup that was declared hours after Conte’s death did not attend the public memorial on Friday, surprising mourners and causing speculation about the reason. Captain Moussa Camara had promised a “grandiose funeral” for Conte.
Later on Friday, residents in the capital reported hearing volleys of gunfire near the military barracks that are home to the coup leaders and at another military camp nearby. In a state radio broadcast, spokesman Nouhou Thiam said the coup leaders were “vigorously” enforcing an 8pm to 6am curfew.
A mechanic who lives near one of the barracks said the gunshots rang out unexpectedly on Friday evening.
“We were at the mosque for the evening prayer when it started, and everybody headed toward the doors so that they could quickly return home,” Saliou Bah said.
Conte died on Monday after ruling Guinea since he seized power in a coup following the death of his predecessor. They had been the only two leaders since the country’s 1958 independence from France.
Men in uniform wept and collapsed and women wailed at Conte’s funeral in Moussayah, the town where Conte was born and maintained a hotel-sized residence surrounded by manicured lawns, landscaped shrubs and statues of animals.
Shouting security forces joined hands and formed a massive human cordon around Conte’s grave as thousands of people tried to push forward.
The military took Conte’s body out of its coffin and placed it directly into the earth. A scrum broke out as people tried to join in throwing fistfuls of dirt into the gaping hole, and a cloud of dust rose. One of the president’s guards was led away weeping, his face buried in his hands.
The body had been transferred to Moussayah by helicopter after an earlier public memorial in the capital, Conakry, about 70km to the southeast.
The service inside Guinea’s parliament on Friday was attended by members of Conte’s former government, including deposed Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare, who surrendered to coup leaders and stepped down along with dozens of other officials on Thursday.
Sitting in the front row was Facinet Toure, Conte’s comrade-in-arms during the 1984 coup that brought the dictator to power. He told mourners: “I ask the people of Guinea to forgive the general for all that he did that was not good.”
Conte’s coffin sat on a stage with two of his three wives, who wore dark sunglasses and clutched tissues. Also attending were the presidents of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau, and African Union commission chairman Jean Ping.
Presidential guards used belts to beat back throngs of mourners trying to push their way in. Tens of thousands later packed a stadium and nearby area where Conte’s body was brought after the eulogy in parliament.
The junta’s No. 2 leader, Colonel Toto Camara, was there — the only coup representative seen at Friday’s events. Camara, who is not related to the coup leader, said the junta “reassures the people of Guinea that we will guarantee your well-being.”