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Guinea holds 1st free election

Military rule dissolves with democratic vote

Voters waited outside a polling station in Conakry yesterday to cast their ballots. General Sekouba Konate, a junta leader, ordered elections after his predecessor was shot in December. Voters waited outside a polling station in Conakry yesterday to cast their ballots. General Sekouba Konate, a junta leader, ordered elections after his predecessor was shot in December. (Seyllou/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Todd Pitman
Associated Press / June 28, 2010

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CONAKRY, Guinea — They’ve voted before — but never freely, and never fairly.

Yesterday, junta-ruled Guinea cast ballots for a new president in the first democratic election this West African nation has ever known. The poll caps an odyssey of repression and dictatorship spanning a half century that climaxed with a year of military rule so terrifying, people carved hiding places in their attics to avoid their own rampaging army.

It also breathes life into the hope for substantive change in a corruption-riddled country whose 10 million inhabitants rank among Africa’s poorest despite sitting atop billions of dollars of mineral wealth.

“We have voted and we are free!’’ one man with tears in his eyes screamed at a red-bereted presidential guard outside the villa housing General Sekouba Konate — the junta chief who steered Guinea toward elections after his predecessor was shot in the head and nearly killed in December.

“The military is now in their place and we are in ours. . . . Do you understand?’’ the man said, waving a voter registration card.

The soldier replied quietly and nodded.

Just a few months ago — during the yearlong reign of exiled coup leader Captain Moussa “Dadis’’ Camara — such a scene would have been hard to imagine.

Ruled as a one-party state for decades after independence from France in 1958, Guinea suffered its first coup in 1984 and spent 32 years under late strongman Lansana Conte. When he passed away in December 2008, Camara stepped in to take his place — and turned out to be little better.

Last September, Guinea hit rock bottom when the military sealed off a Conakry stadium where thousands of protesters had rallied to insist that Camara step down. In broad daylight, security forces burst through the gates and machine-gunned unarmed crowds, slaughtering more than 150 people, leaving bodies strewn across the field and draped over walls. They also wounded more than 1,000 and raped women.

The tragedy marked a new low in Guinea’s history, but it also set the stage for unprecedented change. A United Nations investigation into the killings fueled tensions within the junta over who would take the blame, and on Dec. 3 Camara was shot by his presidential guard chief, who has since disappeared.

After a peace deal neutralized Camara in Burkina Faso in January, Konate appointed a civilian prime minister and a transitional governing council comprised of junta opponents. He marginalized Camara loyalists and imposed discipline on the army.

Twenty-four candidates are competing for the presidency. Leading contenders are Alpha Conde of the Rally of the Guinean People, Cellou Dalein Diallo of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea, and Sidya Toure of the Union of Republican Forces, according to Kissy Agyeman-Togobo, West Africa analyst with IHS Global Insight.

Results are expected by Wednesday, officials said.

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