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By John Helmer, Moscow
In the finale of the film Casablanca, the Humphrey Bogart character has shot the German officer to enable his ex-lover Ilsa and her husband, a Resistance man on the run, to make good their escape. Captain Renault sees an opportunity to do the right thing for a change, protecting Bogey and his friends. He orders the subaltern off to “round up the usual suspects.” Ilsa flies away, and Renault and Bogey walk into the fog, heading south for Brazzaville, in the Congo. (To listen to this article, click on the player below)
Nor-norwest at Conakry on Monday morning, there was heavy gunfire in the suburbs of Conakry, Republic of Guinea, as a group of local soldiers attempted to kill President Alpha Conde in his bed. Some of the attackers were shot, and at least one of Conde’s defenders. Conde himself survived to announce: “If your hand is in the hand of God, nothing can happen to you.”
The local and French press report arrests as Conde’s security forces round up the usual suspects. It turns out that President Conde is exaggerating the Casablanca script, and arresting too many of the usual suspects. Thirty-seven by today’s count.
One version of what happened is that the putsch attempt was an entirely domestic affair, initiated by disgruntled military men whose corrupt livelihoods have been threatened by Conde’s reforms. Another version is that the President of France authorized his secret services to see what they could do replace Conde before French influence in the country, once a colony, had dwindled beyond recovery. According to this theory, French security men were in Guinea a few days ago; met and encouraged the plotters; and now are running to blame someone else for the failure of their misdeed. “According to my contacts,” said this source, “Rio [Tinto] and Rusal weren’t consulted on this. The French want to be in charge of any renegotiations with them after they get rid of Alpha so didn’t want to be beholden to them before they ousted him.”
In Guinea, Russia has more valuable commercial interests than in any other country on the African continent (if not to count the hitherto unproven oil and gas deposits being chased by LUKoil and Gazprom). The Russian beneficiary is United Company Rusal, one fifth of whose bauxite reserves are in Guinea. This not a new tale; and neither is Conde’s display of antagonism towards Rusal and to its chief executive, Oleg Deripaska. Removing the president might save Rusal more than two billion dollars in pending claims for back-taxes and penalties, plus bauxite concession revocations. Rusal is “very unhappy with Alpha [Conde]” confides a source close to the president.
For the British too, Guinea is a large source of iron-ore and bauxite to be mined by Rio Tinto. It too has been having trouble with Conde’s reform programme. Still, according to one source, “it would be very unwise of Rio Tinto or the British to get involved. They have an agreement with Conde. Unless they want to abrogate that….”
But do money and motive implicate either or both in the attempt at removing Conde? The answer from Guinean sources to date is no.
Rusal has the special service connexions through Victor Boyarkin, a vice president at Rusal HQ in Moscow, to undertake like plots. Also, local businessmen aligned with Rusal in Conakry have been heard to threaten unpleasant endings for Guinean government officials who stand in their way. But I repeat – Rusal is not currently suspected of involvement in the attempted assassination of President Conde.
So what happened, and what happens next? The loyal presidential guard has most of the attacking solders in irons, so they already know what motivated their attack on Monday. Those familiar with the details claim there was no organized attempt at seizing political power from Conde or arranging new leadership for the country. Instead, a group of disgruntled, low-ranking soldiers from the former guard of General Sekouba Konate, the army chief and transition president until Conde’s inauguration in January, decided to kill the president – that’s all. The guardsmen were so low in rank, one source claims, “there is little chance [General Konate] was involved.”
Had a serious coup attempt been in planning, the attackers would have gone for the mass communication outlets and the military command to reinforce their action and broadcast their message. Instead, they did the only thing they had in mind to do – attack the presidential residence, fight their way over three hours into the presidential bedroom, and try to kill him. But Conde was elsewhere in the compound. The attackers wasted too much time. Reinforcements arrived to save Conde.
What happens next depends in part on how much Conde makes a scapegoat of General Konate. “There is a danger,” says a source in Conakry today, “that the counter-attack may trigger attempts which will be more organized and may not fail. There are very few people, who, for their own particular reasons, are happy with [Conde].”
Another source says: “I have heard there is a group of French who are planning something. But then there are three or four military groups who have been plotting something. They weren’t involved in Monday’s action. That was a relatively spontaneous event.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry is making no comment at all on the week’s events.