The dry season’s dust has again settled on Conakry’s streets, aside from a few marks of ashes and rubble on the sides of the main avenues, everything seems to be back to the bustling normal. Just about ten days ago, things looked quite different in the Guinean capital. On February 20th, a nation-wide general strike in the education sector culminated in violent demonstrations, which took the government by surprise. Seven people were shot dead by state forces, thirty were injured and a dozen arrested, numerous vehicles were burnt, and a gas station and a police commissariat were pillaged. Though Conakry has experienced plenty of similar events during the past decade, there are a number of reasons not to write this off as simply another instance of urban violence.
One of these reasons is the protests’ remarkable symbolism concerning contemporary Guinea. Indeed, if the protests highlighted one important controversy in Guinean politics, it is the questionable idea of the trickle-down effect—the idea that achievements at the top will eventually translate into general improvements at the bottom, an idea that Guinea’s President Alpha Condé has arguably built his politics on. In a macro-political fashion, Alpha Condé has since his election victory in 2010 sought to attract foreign investment, rehabilitate Guinea’s image amongst the international community, and harness support amongst global elites to usher in major reforms. Not in vain, one might argue: in 2013, a glamorous conference in Abu Dhabi yielded investment promises of over 6 billion USD, in 2012, Guinea qualified for debt relief of 2.1 billion USD through the IMF’s and World Bank’s HIPC initiative, and with the help of expert consultancy teams from the sphere of George Soros and Tony Blair, the national mining code was entirely revised to allow Guineans to benefit more from their mineral resources.
In the more concrete urban context of Conakry, the trickle-down idea manifested itself in certain neighborhoods and their architecture. New luxury hotels, the country’s first shopping mall, a mansion district built from scratch by the Chinese and marketed with the slogan “Buy a villa, get a luxury car for free” indeed attracted excitement amongst Conakry’s middle and upper classes. But even before the Ebola crisis struck in late 2013, causing most of the potential investors and companies to immediately leave the country, Guineans as a whole were poorer than they had been in 2007, with more than half of the population living in poverty. Today, Guinea has a per capita income of only 470 USD, the country’s real food prices are amongst the highest worldwide, and in 2012, 71 percent stated that they had had to economize on nourishment. This situation was exacerbated by both the Ebola epidemic and low global commodity prices, which resulted in various mining companies’ declining interest in exploiting Guinea’s mineral wealth.
It is revealing, in that context, that the recent protests and riots shook Guinea right when President Alpha Condé was celebrating some of his most important international successes. In mid-January, he had led the Gambian mediation efforts out of deadlock; in February, Condé was elected the new Chairperson of the African Union, presiding over the historic return of Morocco to the organization, and a few days later, he welcomed Morocco’s king Mohammed VI in Conakry. While Condé was overwhelmed with international applause, however, frustration was brewing at home over an entirely dilapidated education system that had not seen any of the political zeal that Condé had invested in international relations.
The agitation started with a strike by informal and contractual teachers in January 2017. Over decades, such teachers had kept much of the education system running by substituting the official teachers that the schools could not afford to pay. The contractual teachers had stepped in, working for meager and frequently withheld salaries below poverty level, hoping to become one day integrated into public service. They were enraged when they found out that many of them had not even been admitted to the public service recruitment process. When they went on strike, a political deadlock emerged between the teachers unions demanding the government to change the new salary grid, and President Alpha Condé who categorically ruled out any changes in salaries. The national strike was followed across the country, and frequently merged with protests by secondary school students, some of whom burned tires and threw stones at police. Ironically, the main violence broke out after an agreement had been reached between the unions and government. The consensus simply postponed the decision on the salary grid, and was opposed by the unions’ grassroots. Thus, schools remained closed, which triggered city-wide clashes between demonstrators and police in Conakry.
The fact that violence against state forces was widespread across Conakry is significant. Since the legendary general strike in January and February 2007, protests had almost always concentrated in specific neighborhoods, particularly along the so-called axis, a strip of neighborhoods along Conakry’s central Route Le Prince. The axis is populated mainly by Peulh (Fulani) migrants who settled here after the death of Guinea’s first President Sékou Touré, under whom the Peulh had suffered tremendously. Conflicts between axis residents and the state over land rights shook the axis area in 1998, and from then on increasingly turned it into a socio-political enclave, stigmatized from outside and radicalizing from the inside. Due to its ethnically homogeneous population, protests along the axis have long been regarded as an ethnic affair.
On February 20th, however, upheavals were not associated with ethnicity or neighborhood-specific grievances. For the first time since 2007, they had no geographical center, and for once, the Autoroute Fidel Castro drew higher numbers of rebellious youth than the parallel “twin sister [Route] Le Prince”. Even on the two corniches, the roads along the two coastlines of the peninsular city, youth burned tires, blocked the streets and threw stones at vehicles trying to pass, including in comparably posh neighborhoods such as Kipé and Nongo. Residents of those neighborhoods said they had never witnessed anything like this before—even in 2007, demonstrations had been more confined and, for the most part, more organized and more peaceful. Indeed, the outbursts of violence last Monday, as widespread as they were, also seemed particularly aggressive and uncoordinated. Some union leaders distanced themselves from the violent youth in the streets whom they argued had nothing to do with the official strike. The national director of police, Colonel Bafoé, spoke of “armed thugs and thieves” and “organized crime” that the armed forces should have the right to attack with adequate force.
Instead of trickle-down dynamics, one thus witnesses a multi-faceted distance between top and bottom in Guinea, between the unions’ leadership and their grassroots, between the unions and an increasingly impatient urban youth, and a more general distance between President Alpha Condé’s international successes and his incapacities vis-à-vis the majority of the Guinean population. Whether the former will trickle down eventually, or whether the latter will rise up before, remains to be seen.
Joschka Philipps holds a PhD from the University of Basel. He has researched urban violence and social protest in Guinea and Uganda, topics discussed in his thesis ‘Crystallizing Contention’. Based in Conakry, he is currently doing post-doctoral research.