Since 10 January, Guinea has been going through an explosive social situation, marked by a strike movement unprecedented even in a country which has seen many strikes over recent years. The workers in Conakry, followed by those in several other towns like Kankan, and actively supported by the population as a whole, have given active expression to their mounting discontent and thrown themselves into a movement of protest. In a country ruled with an iron fist by the president General Lansana Conté, successor to the pro-Stalinist Sekou Touré, the population has been subjected to greater and greater poverty. Consumer prices have increased by 30% since 1995. The policy of deliberate inflation followed by the government has had a devastating effect on living standards. Between 2001 and 2007, the Guinean franc has lost one third of its value: from 2000FG to the dollar in 2001, it’s gone to 6000FG to the dollar this year. One out of two Guineans live on less than a dollar a day; the annual wage for a worker is less than 20 dollars (120,000FG), while a sack of rice, the staple food of the population, went from 150,000 FG at the beginning of January to 250,000 after the strike of 10 January. Crushed by brutal exploitation on the one hand and the all-powerful police and military repression of Conte’s goons on the other, the workers of Guinea threw themselves with all their might into a struggle to demand wage increases and a reduction in the cost of rice. Last year, in June, Conakry had already been the scene of violent confrontations between striking students and the forces of order, leaving thirty dead. However, this didn’t deter the strikers from entering into struggle this time; on the contrary it reinforced their determination. As one demonstrator said: “we are already dead, so we have nothing to lose”. As for going back to work, people said “what work. There is none. And even those who have a wage can’t afford a sack of rice” (reported in Jeune Afrique).
Given this willingness to fight to the bitter end, the unions have had to put themselves at the head of the movement in order to derail it. Thus, the inter-union committee, led mainly by the Union General des Travailleurs de Guinea (USTG) added to the demands on wages and prices a call for the re-imprisonment of the ‘boss of Guinea’s bosses’, Mamadou Sylla, accused of dirty-dealings of all kinds but supported by the president-general. This fixation on corruption in the government, even if it is perfectly real, enabled the unions to put the nomination of a new prime minister as a precondition for a return to work and not the workers’ initial demands. Faced with an increasingly powerful movement that was paralysing the flow of all commodities through the port of Conakry, except for rice and sugar, the inter-union committee was able to bring the strike to an end on 28 January, even though the repression and its resulting 60 deaths had only served to strengthen the strikers’ resolve.
On 9 February, after 12 days of uneasy truce, Lansana Conté, who had not honoured any commitment on the wage demands or the payment of strike days, nominated as prime minister Eugene Kamara, one of his immediate circle, sparking off a new surge of anger in the population, the revival of the strike and a new wave of repression by the state which introduced martial law on 12 February. In this situation, the unions were again well placed to focus even more on the question of the government and the president, now calling for the resignation of Conté, whose forces of order, supported by troops from Liberia and Guinea-Bissau, killed another 50 people in Conakry, and others in various towns where the strike movement had gained ground and where symbols of the regime were systematically attacked: Coyah, Maferinya, Boké, Dalaba, Labé, Pita, Siuiri, N’zérékoré, etc.
Guinea is in a situation of political crisis which has been growing more intense every day. It is a sign of the times that on 24 February, the parliament, usually so obedient to the president, refused to approve the continuation of martial law. The local and international press has talked more and more about preparations for a military coup. The end of the regime has virtually been announced, and France has been sufficiently concerned to have dispatched the military cargo ship Sirocco to the gulf of Guinea to evacuate French nationals, while Chirac has talked about the intervention of French troops stationed in the region. Along with Darfur, Guinea was at the centre of the discussions at the last Franco-African summit in Cannes. The Organisation of African Unity, the UN and other bodies have made various announcements calling for calm and the peaceful regulation of a conflict which threatens to destabilise the whole region.
Although this anxiety on the part of the local and global bourgeoisie is real, their main desire is to put an end to the strike that has been paralysing the transport of bauxite, of which Guinea is the world’s main exporter.
The workers of Guinea need to know that if the good fairies of capital are focusing on them with such attention, it’s not at all because they want to accede to their demands. If Conté is kicked out, as seems likely, the situation of poverty they face will not improve. But the unions are doing all they can to make them think that a new government is the solution to all their ills and to get them back to work with little more than promises for tomorrow.
But beyond the necessity for the working class in Guinea and anywhere else to recognise the unions as false friends and struggle outside and against them, there’s no doubt that the situation of the workers in this country and the ideological barrage directed at them are making it more difficult for them to develop the struggle for their own class interests. This is why it’s up to the proletariat in the more advanced countries, where it is concentrated and powerful, to act as a catalyst for the development of autonomous workers’ struggles all over the planet. Mulan 24/2/07
Post-scirpt: The day after this article was written, the unions called off the general strike when Conté announced that he would replace Kamara with a prime minister more acceptable to them, Lansana Kouyate. But none of these shifts at the top will put food in workers’ stomachs.