CONAKRY—When Guinea's interim prime minister, Jean-Marie Doré, briefed the local press last month on preparations for June's election, he was cautious about discussing the military, which has dominated politics in his country for decades. "If you want to talk about the military, you'll have to ask me a question. But if you don't ask me a question, I won't say anything," he quipped. A camouflaged officer in a red beret and dark shades stood menacingly behind him, a dagger strapped to his chest.
It was a surreal statement from Doré -- one of several Guinean opposition leaders who were badly beaten during last September's army crackdown on civilian protesters in a stadium in the capital city of Conakry. At least 150 unarmed civilians were killed and many women publicly gang-raped that day, having come to protest then junta leader Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara's suggestion that he might contest in the presidential election that his junta had promised.
But approaching one year later, Guinea seems to have taken a miraculous turn for the better. Camara is now out of office, a date has been set for elections, and an interim government is doing a perfunctory job. The military, however, remain a pivotal force in Guinea's politics, its interests entrenched behind the scenes in this small but mineral-rich West African country. That's unlikely to change, even if the government does.
What happened to transform Doré from dissident to prime minister (and Guinea from basket case to a mitigated disaster) was something of a fluke. Just weeks after the massacre, in December, Camara was shot in the head by an aide-de-camp in an argument over who should take responsibility for the stadium killings. Somehow he survived and was evacuated from the country for emergency medical treatment. His regime was replaced with an interim government forged by political negotiations between the junta, opposition groups, and union leaders. The junta's deputy leader, Gen. Sékouba Konaté, would take over as president, with Doré stepping in as prime minister. Both men have publicly insisted that a fresh election will take place on June 27 and that a new civilian government will take over.
But no one doubts that the military, through its affiliated networks of businessmen and political allies, will continue to overshadow the running of any elected regime. Guinea is the world's largest bauxite exporter and home to vast iron ore deposits, and possibly even oil reserves -- all of which the military is keenly aware. "The army is the biggest economic force in the country. They have developed a taste for riches and power" says Aliou Barry, a Guinean military expert. "It is not just a question of reforming the military; it is a question of dealing with habits and interests that have been entrenched."
That taste for wealth is all too apparent in a recent report by Gen. Lamine Cissé, a Senegalese military officer tasked by the United Nations, African Union, and Economic Community of West African States to put forward recommendations for restructuring the Guinean security forces. It's sobering reading: Expenditure by security forces has escaped "all forms of external control" in recent months, and the armed forces have suffered from "grade inflation" to the extent that a mere 17 percent of the country's 45,000 troops are privates. Basic salaries for the gendarmerie are now higher than for the country's judges. And in this nascent narcostate, the army has swallowed up the function of drug control from the police, who were put down by the army in 2008 when they protested violently over pay conditions.