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Army Mutiny Has Unexpected Results in Guinea

February 12, 1996

CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) _ When the president of this downtrodden nation addressed mutinous troops Feb. 4, the results weren’t what one might have expected from a mob that had just been firing cannons at his palace.

Rather than finish the job, they roared support for President Lansana Conte, and as suddenly as the two-day mutiny began, it ended.

``It’s almost abnormal how normal everything suddenly became,″ said Deborah Grieser, the acting public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy, which remained open through the nights of Feb. 2-3 for employees too frightened to venture home through the riotous streets.

To an outsider, little seems normal in Guinea. Not the new color TVs in every shabby government office. Not the tanks in the streets. Not the vendors selling popcorn, peanuts, ice cream and even women’s underwear on the grounds of Conte’s ruined palace.

Perhaps most surprising is that Conte is still in power after the two-day army uprising, which killed dozens of people and left his palace a charred wreck. The president now works out of a military barracks nearby.

If anything, the mutiny appears to have strengthened Conte’s image and harmed that of the army, which is seen as having sat back and allowed a few rebellious soldiers to run wild over a pay dispute.

There’s little argument the soldiers are underpaid _ base pay for the 8,500-man army is about $70 a month, compared to more than twice that for the best-paid civil servants in the country of 6.5 million.

``But how can you have sympathy for people who would do that?″ said Ibrahim Diallo, who works at a car dealership, gesturing toward the remains of the Palace of Nations. ``This was the palace of the people, not something to be trashed by our own soldiers.″

The Chinese-built seaside complex, lavish by all accounts, came under fire about 9 a.m. on Feb. 2, when a few soldiers rolled tanks up to its green, wrought-iron gates and opened fire.

The uprising spread to include about 2,000 men, who repeatedly shelled the palace _ with Conte inside _ then rampaged through the city looting businesses and hijacking cars, and shooting anyone who got in their way.

Conte, switching from his usual Muslim robes into his general’s uniform for the occasion, emerged from the palace ruins early Feb. 4, promised the soldiers a pay raise, fired the defense minister they had accused of neglecting their needs and announced an amnesty for the rebels.

It was an oddly quiet ending to an odd uprising, but oddities aren’t unusual here. From the start, Guinea, the first French colony to gain independence, has had a unique way of doing things.

While France’s other West African colonies accepted Charles de Gaulle’s offer in 1958 to remain in the colonial fold, Guinea’s fiercely independent leader, Sekou Toure, declared his people preferred ``freedom in poverty to prosperity in chains.″

Poverty they got. France withdrew everything it had put into the rebellious colony, including telephone lines, military equipment, aid and capital.

Toure pursued radical policies modeled after the Soviet and Chinese communist systems he admired: Farms were nationalized, the government controlled every facet of life and mass arrests and torture were common.

About 2 million people fled into exile, most from the Fulani ethnic group that Toure accused of trying to overthrow his Malinki-dominated government.

When Toure died in 1984, Conte quickly staged a military coup, installing a government that is still trying to recover from Toure’s disastrous experiment. Conte was elected with just over half the vote in the country’s first multiparty election in December 1993.

Despite mineral wealth, Guinea remains one of the world’s poorest and least-developed countries, with an average income of less than $500 a year, literacy of about 25 percent and life expectancy of 44 years.

Nevertheless, Conte’s reforms, including slashing the civil service from about 90,000 to 55,000 employees and encouraging private investment, have won him support from donor countries and the World Bank and IMF.

Even Conte’s main opponents in the National Assembly, joined in a coalition called the Democratic Opposition, saluted his ability to keep a lid on the uprising. But they refused to condemn the rebellious officers, saying Conte’s failure to deal with grievances made the uprising inevitable.

``Nobody is saying it’s good to kill. Nobody is saying it’s good that lives were lost and property destroyed,″ said Mamadou Ba, whose Union for the New Republic party is part of the coalition.

``But what happened Feb. 2 is the same thing that happened many times before,″ he said, referring to past civilian and military rebellions. ``What we’re saying now is (Conte) must honor his promises, or the results will be far worse.″

Conte, who doesn’t face another election until December 1998, still hasn’t explained where he will find the money to boost soldiers’ salaries.

In the meantime, his former palace has become Conakry’s biggest attraction, drawing vendors and tens of thousands of civilians who roam freely through the trashed offices, looting what little is left or just gawking at the destruction.

``These people who did this, they’re not normal,″ said taxi driver Mamadou Saliau Balde, shaking his head in disbelief.

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