Last week, a pro-Gaddafi protest in predominantly-Muslim Guinea was banned. This week, a similar event in Niger has been outlawed, with the head of the apparently moderate Islamic Association of Niger describing the attacks as a ‘crusade against the Islamic world.’
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – the terrorist organisation’s West African branch – is already gaining strength thanks to ransom payments it has received in return for releasing Western hostages. There must be a risk that what is happening in Libya will push new recruits into its arms.
The UN is pessimistic about the situation in Guinea. In Tambacounda last night, in the south-eastern wastes of Senegal, I met a World Food Programme employee from Dakar. Like everyone else in this one-horse town, he was on his way somewhere else, in this case to Kedougou, near the border with Guinea. He is going to investigate whether there are sufficient telecoms and internet facilities there, in case war breaks out in Guinea and a flood of refugees pours into Senegal. Similar preparations are taking place in Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The UN’s caution may be well-founded. Guinea’s increasingly-unhinged leader, Dadis Camara, has recruited South African mercenaries to train his supporters in the art of war, in case the majority Peul population decides it has had enough of him and moves to unseat him from power. I asked the WFP man what the Senegalese government’s position is. He said that the president, Abdoulaye Wade, supported Camara when he took over last December, and has maintained a discreet silence since. “Guinea is rich in resources,” he explained. “It doesn’t pay to antagonise those who control them.”
Cross-border wars in Sub-Saharan Africa have been few and far between since the end of the colonial period. Instead, the continent’s disaffected have fought numerous battles with their own countrymen. Last weekend, however, Guinea’s new leader, Dadis Camara, who took power in a coup last Christmas, claimed that neighbouring Guinea-Bissau was amassing troops at the border in preparation for an invasion of his country.
This would be a remarkable move by Guinea-Bissau, which doesn’t currently have a leader (the second round of presidential elections is due on 26 July) and whose army is a disaffected ragbag of poorly paid, badly trained young men who have enough trouble keeping the peace at home (their chief of staff was assassinated in March) without contemplating an invasion of a much bigger neighbour.
Camara reckons the planned invasion is a plot by the region’s drug lords, from Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Latin America, to remove him. Camara has been surprisingly thorough in his purging of those Guineans involved in the cocaine trade which has plagued the countries of the Mano River basin in recent years, and he believes those high up in the industry want him out so that they can maintain their freedom to operate.
A war between the two countries would be disastrous for both and for their region. Both are extremely fragile politically, dirt poor and surrounded by other historically unstable states (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal’s Casamance region). Guinea’s opposition parties are less worried, however. They see Camara’s warning as a ploy to entrench his power ahead of promised elections in October. Given that he has also banned all political and union activities in his country, it seems that a false alarm of an invasion would indeed be in keeping with a strategy to stay in power, despite his promise to step down once elections are held.