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CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) — It is expected to be the country's first-ever democratic election. But as Guineans head to the polls to freely choose a leader after half a century of dictatorship, no one is celebrating.
There are no campaign speeches planned. No rallies, either. People have been warned not to wear their party colors. And throughout this ragged capital on Africa's western coast, billboards of the dueling candidates have been defaced.
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Instead of marking a milestone, many are awaiting Sunday's vote with dread. The exuberance just months ago when the military agreed to stand down and let civilians hold elections has been replaced by fear — of each other.
"Before we had a common enemy," says civil servant Frederic Soule Tinguiano, who has a Bible open on his desk and is observing a fast ahead of the tense vote. "Now that that enemy is gone, the enemy has become each other."
Ethnic divisions have always hovered just beneath the surface of Guinea's political life, kept under a lid by the country's successive strongmen. They have resurfaced with force now that Guinea's 10 million people can choose their next leader from rival candidates belonging to the country's two largest ethnic groups.
Both politicians are accused of using racial rhetoric to appeal to their voter base, setting the stage for a confrontation along ethnic lines if the results are not accepted by one of the parties.
"Ethnicity is the easiest thing for a politician to use to try to get votes. And by doing that they have brought us to the edge of a precipice," said Soule, an assistant director in the ministry charged with organizing the national census. "The vote should have been a cause for celebration, because the army has finally stepped down ... Instead I feel like my country is going backwards."
Banker Cellou Dalein Diallo, a Peul, is facing Alpha Conde, a 72-year-old Malinke professor and former opposition leader who has taught political science at the Sorbonne university in France for decades.
Their parties have become synonymous with their ethnicities, so anyone seen wearing the yellow T-shirts of the Rally for the Guinean People — Conde's party — is instantly assumed to be Malinke. Those wearing pins bearing the portrait of Diallo, or the UFDG initials of his Union for the Democratic Forces of Guinea party, are assumed to be Peul.
Guineans acknowledge they are voting along ethnic lines, but say the tension between the two groups has become so acute that they fear what will happen to their community if their candidate does not win.
Last week, several dozen people began vomiting after attending a Conde rally. Soon, pro-Conde websites were reporting that they had been poisoned by Peul vendors selling sachets of mineral water. The same night, bands of Malinke youth began smashing Peul shops.
"They were screaming, 'We're going to chase you out of the country. We're going to kill all of you,'" said Peul sandwich seller Oury Diallo, 40, whose baguettes were throw in the mud. "It's because of things like this that the Peul have decided to hold hands and vote for one of us."
In the 52 years since winning independence from France, Guineans have suffered at the hands of their rulers, who left behind a country rich in bauxite and iron, but with so little electricity that children sit on freeway medians trying to study by the light of passing cars. Government buildings are coated in black mold and weeds shoot out through cracks, yet the families of the former dictators live in rococo villas overlooking designer swimming pools.
Guinea's fate changed abruptly last year after an army-led massacre of civilians led to a dispute between the leader of the military junta and one of his bodyguards. The bodyguard opened fire on Capt. Moussa 'Dadis' Camara, injuring him and forcing him to leave the country for emergency surgery.
In his absence, the junta's No. 2 signed a deal mediated by the United States and France agreeing to hand over power to civilians in elections in June. It cleared the path for the country's first free and fair election.
Problems emerged when none of the 24 candidates won a majority, forcing a run-off between a Malinke and a Peul. It set up a competition between the country's two largest ethnicities, each of which account for at least 30 percent of the population, according to estimates by officials.
The run-off has been rescheduled multiple times following clashes between Peul and Malinke supporters, including anti-Peul riots that spread as far as Siguiri, over 300 miles north of Conakry, following the rumor of the poisoned water.
At the entrance to the National Independent Election Commission, a banner advises voters: "Be suspicious of rumors." Another shows a picture of a diverse group of voters and says, "I will choose a president for all Guineans."
In the four months since the first round of voting, ethnicity has seeped like a dye into the entire political process.
Voters are reading ethnic signals into every utterance by the two candidates, and even see ethnic messages in the clothes they wear.
Many noticed that in the weeks leading up to the first vote, the 58-year-old Diallo was campaigning in a circular hat known as a 'puutoru' and a flowing robe. The outfit is typically worn in the Fouta, the region of cascading hills in Guinea's highlands that is a Peul stronghold.
Diallo finished first with nearly 44 percent of the vote to Conde's 18 percent. In front of journalists, Diallo's campaign director advised him to shed the hat during the lead-up to the second round, advising him that he now needed to present himself as the candidate of all Guineans. Even his campaign posters have since been changed to show him posing in a business suit, an ethnically neutral attire.
Ethnicity has also become crucial in the makeup of the country's election commission, which is charged with overseeing the logistics of the vote. The two parties could not agree on who should head the electoral body, and Diallo at one point threatened to boycott the vote over the proposed choice of an official believed to have Malinke ties.
The impasse was finally broken when a non-Guinean was given the job. Siaka Toumani Sangare, who has helped observe elections as far away as Haiti, is a Malian national. But in choosing him there is also a more subtle ethnic message being broadcast to Guineans.
Many soon found out that he is from Wassolon, a region spanning the border of Mali and Guinea. It is known for the heavy intermarriage of Peul and Malinke, says Yale anthropologist Mike McGovern. The figurehead of the election body is, therefore, a man who symbolizes a bridge between the two.
Associated Press Writer Boubacar Diallo contributed to this report from Conakry, Guinea.