Guinea yesterday held its first free election since independence more than half a century ago, a vote many hope will finally end decades of harsh military rule and launch a new democratic era.
On the eve of the ballot, the country’s powerful junta leader vowed to ensure fairness and transparency, warning a roomful of presidential hopefuls they must help avert violence or risk casting the West African nation back to its volatile past.
“We can no longer continue to live like we are in a jungle, as if we are in a state without authority,” General Sekouba Konate told 24 candidates gathered on couches in the presidential palace late on Saturday. “Too many Guineans have perished and suffered.”
“Starting from now, it’s up to you to make it happen,” he said.
The choice, he added, is between “peace, freedom and democracy, or chaos and instability.”
Konate, along with all members of his junta and a transitional governing council comprised of civilians are barred from running in the vote, which many hope will go down in history as the nation’s first truly democratic poll since independence from France in 1958.
The ballot marks a spectacular turnaround for a country that just months ago was full of despair, terrorized by an army that rampaged through the capital with impunity — courtesy of Moussa “Dadis” Camara, an erratic army captain who seized power in a December 2008 coup hours after the nation’s previous despot, Lansana Conte, died.
When opposition leaders rallied at a Conakry stadium in September last year to insist Camara step down, the military opened fire into the crowd, massacring more than 150 people, wounding more than 1,000 and raping countless women.
A UN investigation into the tragedy fueled tensions within the junta over who would take the blame, and Camara was shot in the head by his presidential guard chief and ultimately removed from the political stage.
Although Camara survived, he remains in Burkina Faso as part of a January peace deal meant to allow the country to hold the crucial ballot without him.
Among the top contenders in yesterday’s vote: two former prime ministers, Cellou Dalein Diallo and Sidya Toure, and a longtime government opponent, Alpha Conde.
Preliminary results are due 72 hours after polls close. If no candidate wins a simple majority, a runoff between the top two finishers is scheduled for July 18.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Guinea authorities to ensure “peaceful and credible polls” and form “a government that fully reflects the will of Guineans.”
Analysts say the greatest risk is that violence could break out if any of the losers fail to accept the results or contest them peacefully.
Campaigning has largely been calm, though, except for an isolated spate of clashes on Thursday north of Conakry between supporters of two rival candidates that left four people dead and dozens injured.
Konate condemned the violence vowed to bring the culprits to justice.
“It’s true that only one candidate will be elected, but the goal we all share is to fight for an open democracy,” Konate said. “This time, it’s not just about delivering a single candidate or one group to power. No, no. It’s about creating a better future for all Guineans to realize their dream of freedom and progress ... victory and glory awaits us all.”
Some 16,000 security forces are deployed at about 8,000 polling stations to boost security for an expected 4 million registered voters.