Guinea Vote Delays May Stoke Ethnic Division
Sep 16, 2010 12:02 pm US/Central
Guinea Vote Delays May Stoke Ethnic Divisions
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, Associated Press Writer
CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) ― A critical presidential runoff in Guinea has been postponed by at least two weeks, an official said Thursday, the same day that a warehouse full of voting materials caught fire in the capital, developments that may stoke ethnic divisions at the heart of the vote.
“There will be no election this Sunday,” said Thierno Ceydou Bayo, head of communication for the National Independent Electoral Commission, who said the Sept. 19 election might be delayed as long as three weeks. He did not specify a date for the new poll.
Later Thursday, election commission spokesman Pathe Dieng said a fire erupted at a warehouse full of voting supplies such as ballot boxes and flashlights for use in rural polling stations. He said he didn’t know if ballots were affected by the fire, or what caused the blaze.
“We’re told it’s a short circuit but the military is on site and we’re investigating to see if there’s any foul play,” he said.
Mamadou Diallo, a political supporter who was at the warehouse to inventory voting materials, said members of both political parties had been working at the warehouse without electricity since the beginning of the week. He said an electrician arrived Thursday to check the circuitry, and the fire started shortly after.
Any delay is likely to heighten tension in the capital, where campaigning was temporarily suspended after violent clashes last week between supporters of rival political parties.
Many hoped the vote would mark a turning point for the troubled, mineral-rich nation that has known only authoritarian rule since winning independence from France in 1958. Guinea has had an especially tumultuous two years, after the 2008 death of the longtime dictator was followed by a military coup. Last September, a pro-democracy march against the military junta turned into a massacre in which security forces killed more than 150, wounded more than 1,000 and raped more than 100 women. A December assassination attempt against the coup leader then sent him into exile as part of a tenuous peace deal.
Hopes rose when the interim leader, Gen. Sekouba Konate, appointed a civilian prime minister, established a civilian-led transitional governing council, and helped push through a new constitution that reduces the presidency’s power substantially.
The first round of presidential polls in June was met with excitement, but multiple delays since then have cast a pall over the runoff.
In order for the election to be suspended, Konate must issue a decree, which he has not yet done. In televised comments late Wednesday, he said he noted the commission’s suggestion that the vote be delayed. But he did not set a new date for the poll.
Also in that speech, Konate said he fears the “republic is in danger” due to ethnic divisions and called on Guineans to refrain from ethnic violence.
“It’s our responsibility … to not put ethnicity (and) regionalism ahead of the nation,” he said.
The parties of the two presidential candidates are divided along ethnic lines, pitting the Peul, the country’s largest ethnic group who have never had one of their own in power, against the Malinke, the group to which Konate belongs and whose members are overwhelmingly represented in the army.
Leading candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo has accused the government of intentionally delaying the election to give the underdog a chance to catch up in the polls. Diallo, a Peul, received 44 percent of the vote during the first round, while Alpha Conde, a Malinke, got only 18 percent.
Over the weekend, supporters of the two candidates hurled rocks at each other, killing one person and injuring 54.
Witnesses said that instead of political slogans, the clashing sides yelled racial epithets. It has raised the specter that the upcoming vote could degenerate into ethnic fighting, a dangerous proposition in a country bordered by nations that are only recently emerging from decades of civil war.
Diallo’s supporters said they see an ethnic motive behind the delay.
“They can’t stand the thought of a Peul in power,” said Ibrahima Balde, a 39-year-old Diallo supporter who is a Peul. Conde’s supporters also accused their rivals of ethnocentrism. They pointed to Diallo’s stump speeches in which he talked about it being “their turn” to finally hold power.
It’s a reference to the fact that of the country’s four major ethnic groups, including the Peul, the Malinke, the Soussou and the Forestier, only the Peul have never occupied the presidential palace.
“When they talk about ‘their turn,’ it gave an ethnic color to the debate,” said Moustapha Doumbouya, a Conde supporter. “The other ethnicities found this very degrading.”
Country experts warn that the election could easily turn violent. If Diallo wins, some say the Malinke, who are allied with the Soussou and the Forestier, will not accept the results which could lead to further clashes.
The wild card in the equation is the army, where key posts are held by Malinke officers, and where the troops are made-up of Malinke, Soussou and Forestier recruits. The Peul is the only ethnic group that is not well-represented in the country’s security forces.
The United Nations’ top official on Thursday appealed for calm and for the election to proceed as soon as possible.
In his statement, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “warns those who may attempt to disrupt an orderly and peaceful transition that they would be held accountable by Guineans and by the international community as a whole.”
Associated Press Writer Boubacar Diallo contributed to this report.