PRESIDENT LANSANA CONTEH GOES TO THE GREAT BEYOND
Guinea's President Lansana Conte is no more, having succumbed to the number of serious afflictions that had hit him in the recent past including the much-publicised diabetic condition. Even before the official announcement on Monday night by the President of the National Assembly Aboubacar Sompare, rumours were doing the rounds in Guinea that the man was close to death. Journalists were warned not to speculate on the health of the President lest they face the wrath of the authorities backed by the military who would want to have had things in place before any such announcement was made - at least formally as happened last night on state television.
Keeping the imminent death of a President in this troubled neighbour a deep secret is to be understood from the canvas on which Lansana Conte came to be the country's ruler since 1984 when he staged a coup as the late Sekou Toure's party members made a poor show of who steps in his shoes.
And once in power, Lansana Conte used his constituency, the army and increasingly the police to suppress any form of dissent. The recent clashes between protesters and the armed forces in which more than three hundred civilians are thought to have died even as Lansana Conte tried his best to ward off the effect of his afflictions left no doubt that he was the nominal head and that the real men in power would rather he take the blame as President than them.
Guineans would now watch to see who emerges as the new Head of State bearing in mind that any attempt by the military again to have one of their kind in khaki in the top seat would not go down well with the regional grouping ECOWAS, the African Union and the wider international community that would like to see the country's resources being used for the benefit of long-suffering Guineans.
Sierra Leoneans have every reason to watch what happens next in Guinea. This country, under Lansana Conte provided refuge for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Sierra Leoneans forced to flee the mother country as rebel forces ravaged large sections of the country - a situation made worse with the military intervention in the May 25, 1997 coup.
The issue of Yenga, a strip of Sierra Leone territory "occupied" by Guinean troops would have to be addressed by anyone who takes over now. It is to be recalled that Guinean troops were asked to hold that part of the land as rebel attacks intensified in Sierra Leone and Guinea which was then a part of the ECOMOG forces saw Yenga as strategically placed to prevent rebels destabilising Guinea itself which had, it must be emphasised succeeded in warding off the war in the sub-region that had engulfed Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire.
Sierra Leoneans have every reason to watch over the fence as the mother country shares many ties ranging from the cultural, through economic to the political.
Guinea provided a base for Siaka Stevens, denied the top seat in Sierra Leone after he'd won the 1967 elections and also provided the cream of the bodyguards that ensured Siaka Stevens' safety and that of his government when he came back to take power in 1968.
Indeed the pact with Guinea, never made public, saw Guinean troops having a somewhat field day from their repressive bosses at home and in the process creating problems that saw a number of them withdrawn. Some were later punished for their "offences" in Sierra Leone.
Guinean MIG fighters were a common sight over the skies of Freetown to warn potential coup makers that Guinea would not just permit any khaki boys to take power following attempted coups against the Stevens regime post-1968.
The late President Joseph Saidu Momoh took initial refuge in Guinea when he was overthrown by the Strasser-led NPRC in 1992 as did former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah when he too was overthrown by the AFRC in 1997.
The importance of Guinea in the affairs of Sierra Leone again came to the fore when after the May 1997 coup that was strongly condemned by the majority of Sierra Leoneans who fled in droves to Guinea as well as being condemned by the international community, a hastily-cobbled delegation led by one Kemoh Fadika (Waju-Waju) took upon itself the duty of convincing President Conte that the junta should be given recognition.
Lansana Conte is reported to have watched the begging antics of the delegation and allowed them to leave without saying a word that could have been music to the ears of the AFRC/RUF junta. Indeed things came to a head in relations between the Johnny Paul junta and Guinea when President Lansana Conte sent a helicopter to pick up Johnny Paul and his delegation for direct talks with President Conte himself.
Johnny Paul allowed an empty Guinean helicopter to leave Freetown - a move one Guinean diplomat at the time described as "insubordination and disrespect" for a mere cashiered Major of a Johnny Paul Koroma to flunk the invitation of a sitting Head of State and not only that - a serving General!!!
Some insiders say Johnny Paul was prevented from going by the RUF who believed that the man would betray them and denounce their joint enterprise.
Guinean troops in Sierra Leonean under Lansana would also be remembered that when it came to looting "liberated" areas, Sierra Leonean forces were no match for them as those long articulated lorries bound for Guinea would leave nothing to chance and would pack "mata-odoh and fanna" for good measure!!!
Editor - Please note that all photos are from the internet with some sources difficult to identify.