Monday, November 14, 2005

Guinea: Future in the balance.

Date: Monday 14 November 2005
Subj: Guinea: Future in the balance.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.


Nzerekore is located in the Forest Region of southeastern Guinea, West Africa, close to where the borders of Liberia, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire meet. In the words of Major Algassimou Barry, the Prefect (government administrator) of Nzerekore and the surrounding district, "We're at the heart of a region in turmoil." (July 2004, Link 1)


On Wednesday 19 October, a Christian baptism ceremony in the Gonia neighbourhood of Nzerekore was attacked by Muslims who were complaining that music from the church was disturbing their prayers in a nearby mosque. Ten people were injured, two seriously, and several houses were sacked. The Muslims rioted again on the Friday evening and razed a local video store. Elite soldiers, known as Rangers, had to be deployed to restore calm. Several guns were confiscated and a curfew was imposed. Over the weekend (22-23 October) some 100 people were arrested, with 56 still detained. (Link 2)

The Christians belong to the Guerze ethnic group which has a long history in the Forest Region of southeastern Guinea. Most Guerze practise Christianity or African Traditional Religion (ATR). The Muslims are Konianke, a sub-group of the Mandingo (also known as Malinki or Mandinki) people who have been Muslim since the 13th Century. The Konianke, who are traditionally nomadic traders, migrated south from northern Guinea during the late nineteenth century when Guinea was under French rule and the French had established a colonial administration in the Forest Region.

Ethnic-religious violence had previously erupted in Nzerekore on 16 June 2004 when, according to the US Department of State Human Rights Report 2004, "a Guerze youth on a motorcycle collided with a crowd leaving a mosque". Of the 238 people arrested, 234 were Konianke and 90 percent were Liberian. Two people died in that clash, but the toll would have been much higher had the Guinean security forces not moved so quickly to quell the fighting. (Link 1)

The incidents in Nzerekore arise out of several much larger issues: the ethnic tensions created by Mandingo southward migration; the religious tensions created by Muslim migration into regions historically populated by settled Christian and Animist tribes; the ethnic and religious superiority complex of many of the Mandingo Muslims, and the proliferation of weapons, bored ex-combatants and entrepreneurial criminals and soldiers for whom "war is more lucrative than peace".

Clearly, the Forest Region of southeastern Guinea must be viewed as a potential flash-point for future, major ethnic-religious conflict. Attention must be given to this region now, before disaster strikes and spreads like shock-waves.


The ethnic and religious tensions in the Forest Region of Guinea are similar in many ways to the ethnic and religious tensions that have manifest themselves around the wider region and all along Africa's ethnic-religious fault-line. Migration by Muslim tribes, into regions long inhabited and farmed by non-Muslim tribes, has created competition for land and resources. Increasingly over the past decade, religious tension has been exacerbated by the revival of Islamic zeal and orthodoxy. This has caused Muslim intolerance and anger to escalate in proportion to Muslim feelings of both superiority and victimhood. Once violence erupts it is virtually impossible to prevent it taking on a religious dimension. The main threats to peace come from Islamists stirring up feelings of Muslim supremacy and inciting conflict; and provocation by those who profit (financially or politically) from conflict. The primary needs are good governance, justice and disarmament.

Twelve months ago WEA RLC released a News & Analysis posting on ethnic-religious violence in Monrovia, in neighbouring Liberia, which touched on many of the same issues. Likewise, many of the WEA RLC posting concerning neigbouring Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) over the past 3 years, and on the religious violence in Plateau state, central Nigeria, have dealt with the same issues.

The main difference in Guinea, when compared to the above mentioned nations, is that in Guinea, Christians are a very small minority (less than 5 percent) in a country that is more than 85 percent Muslim, making the Christians even more vulnerable.


Thrown recently into this pot of simmering ethnic-religious tension is the most dangerous ingredient of all: a large quantity of armed, bored, exiled Muslim Liberian ex-rebel fighters. Guinea's support for Liberian rebel groups has come back to bite it.

In an excellent report entitled "Stopping Guinea's Slide" (June 2005), International Crisis Group (ICG) looks at the Forest Region as a potential flash-point where conflict could have dire consequences. ICG warns: "For some time, both Guineans and Guinea-watchers have been worried that a conflagration in the Forest Region could spark a generalised meltdown throughout the country." (ICG report: Link 4)

There is considerable documentary evidence that the government of President Conte in Guinea trained, armed, funded and gave refuge to Liberian rebels fighting against the government of Liberian President Charles Taylor during the Liberian War. ICG maintains "LURD fighters trained at the Kankan and Macenta military bases and were armed by the government from 1999 if not 1998." (ICG report, p 21)

ICG notes that 80 percent of Liberian refugees are Mandingos who are unwilling to return to Liberia where they feel they are not accepted and are regarded as 'foreigners'. But as ICG also notes, "A similar dynamic exists in Guinea, primarily in Macenta and N'Zerekore prefectures, where tensions between Forestier peoples, who consider themselves the original settlers, and Mandingoes, who are considered strangers, as in Liberia, are very high." (p 21)

The tension has been stretched to crisis levels in recent years because, since peace was brokered in Liberia in August 2003, many hundreds of LURD rebels have moved across the border into the Forest Region of Guinea where they can blend in amongst the thousands of Liberian refugees and find protection amidst their fellow Konianke Muslim brothers and sisters. Tension is further exacerbated by the fact that Taylor was from the same ethnic group as the non-Muslim peoples of Guinea's Forest Region.

The UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported in July 2004, "Residents in Nzerekore said the town was packed with hundreds of Liberian gunmen made idle by a peace agreement which ended 14 years of civil war in their own country in August last year. 'The town is full of them, everybody knows that,' a local human rights activist in Nzerekore told IRIN. '...we know that they're still carrying their weapons and that they help their brothers the Konianke when the disputes explode between the two [Konianke and Guerze] communities,' he said." (Link 1)

The ICG adds a further layer to this situation. Under the sub-heading "LURD and the lost Mande Empire" (p 21), ICG explains that between 1905 and 1915, African warriors menaced the Manenta and Nzerekore prefectures and the wider region, preventing the French, English and American-Liberians from claiming control of the region.

LURD emerged in the Forest Region and is made up primarily of Mandingoes. The Mandingo fighters have a strong sense of history. They not only remember the warriors' dominance of the region in the early 20th Century, but they also remember and long for the days of the great Mali (or Mande) Empire (14th to 17th Centuries), when the Mandingoes, the founding fathers of Mali, controlled trans-Saharic trade from the Middle East to West Africa. According to ICG, "These [LURD] fighters sometimes talk about their longer-term mission being the restitution of a glorious Mandingo empire."(p 21)

ICG also notes that for many, "war is more lucrative than peace" (p 15). According to ICG, the military "has entrenched interests in pillage". ICG claims the military is involved in cross-border trade and in regional arms flows, including to the rebel "Forces Nouvelles" in Cote d'Ivoire (p 19). But as ICG notes, what usually starts out as a simple economic interest, can develop into serious security problems.


Only months after the Liberian war ended, ICG released a report on the possible consequences for Guinea. It was entitled, "Guinea: Uncertainties at the End of an Era". (Africa Report No 74. 19 December 2003). ICG commented, "The large number of weapons and irregular combatants circulating in this region is one of the principal elements of concern. These armed groups with their unpredictable allegiances could serve the interests of politico-military elites who seek to create disorder and or to take power by force."

The June 2005 ICG report claims that today many LURD former combatants in Guinea are angry, believing that Conte has abandoned them. Also, in Liberia there are both pro- and anti-Guinean forces actively recruiting ex-combatants. ICG even comments that it is difficult to understand why no attacks have yet materialised. (p 21,22)

In the midst of this, Guinea is approaching a period of political uncertainty. President Conte is critically ill, there is no obvious successor, and the nation is soon to hold its first local elections for 10 years. On Sunday 18 December, Guineans will be able to vote for majors and rural councils in an election that will be seen as a test of the country's democratic reform process.

IRIN reports, "Guinea, where more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day, has been ruled by Lansana Conte since he came to power in a 1984 coup. But his ill health and the lack of a clear successor in either the government or the opposition have led to worries that a dangerous power vacuum is looming.

"In its [June 2005] report, [International] Crisis Group said that disaster could only be averted if both the opposition and the international community engaged fully in the reform process, starting with these critical municipal elections. They will largely determine the quality of Guinean democracy. If they fail, the presidential succession will likely be disastrous." (Link 5)

After decades of Marxist, pro-Islamic persecution of the Church, there is now religious freedom in Guinea, which is 85.4 percent Muslim, 9.7 percent African Traditional Religion (ATR), and 4.7 percent Christian. Operation World reports that the Guinean Church has embraced mission and in the past decade indigenous workers have begun witnessing cross-culturally to previously unreached people groups. The Guinean Church is growing. But many analysts fear that Guinea is "primed for instability" (IRIN), and heading for a crisis. IRIN reports that diplomats and aid workers have long worried that the Forest Region is "a powder keg waiting to explode". For Guinea, and especially for the Church in Guinea, the future is truly in the balance.

Elizabeth Kendal


1) GUINEA: Ethnic tensions threaten to explode in southeast.
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) 7 July 2004

2) GUINEA: Dozens arrested after ethnic clashes in south-east.
IRIN 24 October 2005
WEA Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin - No. 351 - Wed 02 Nov 2005


4) ICG Stopping Guinea's Slide.
Crisis Group Africa Report No 94, 14 June 2005

5) GUINEA: Opposition throws hat into ring for local elections
CONAKRY, 31 Oct 2005 (IRIN)