- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist and former assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy.
For those who have followed the saga in Guinea over the last two years — a country that has gone from coup d’etat to democratic elections in just 24 months — the end result looks somewhat incredible. It’s just the sort of rare success story that you imagine had to have been choreographed with great effort from behind the scenes. The newest WikiLeaks cables confirm that suspicion, offering an insight into how the governments in Washington, Paris, Rabat, and Ougadougou worked for months to stage manage the transition back to democracy.
Among the revelations are that France and the United States were interested in removing the unpredictable junta strongman Moussa Dadis Camara even before he was near-fatally shot, that both countries were willing to provide military aid or technical assistance to appease the Guinean military, that the junta was stashing wealth abroad in Morocco during its time in power, that Camara had recruited as many as 3,000 militamen from Liberia and elsewhere, and that the man installed in Camara’s place was a known alcohol abuser.
Despite all this, by the way, things seem to have turned out all right. Perhaps it’s an argument for why secret back-channel dealings aren’t always such a bad thing.
Long story short: In December 2008, a junta of middle-level military officers took power in Conakry after the death of the country’s then president, Lansana Conté. An eccentric colonel named Moussa Dadis Camara took the helm and seemed — at first — not to be too terrible. He promised elections and promised not to run. But then came the events of Sept. 28, 2009, when the junta’s soldiers massacred democratic protestors at a stadium in the capital. International outrage reached fever pitch, and the junta started to look paranoid. On Dec. 3, the man who Camara had blamed the massacre on shot the junta leader, and Camara was shipped off to Morocco for media treatment.
But the cables reveal that far earlier — as early as October — France and the United States were discussing ways to remove Camara from power, and preferably from Guinea as well. In meetings in Paris, U.S. Ambassador Patricia Moeller and the French government agreed "that junta leader Dadis Camara had to be removed from power." Doing so, they believed, would take a combination of carrots and sticks as well as means to "accomodate Guinea’s military" if a "melt down" was to be avoided. Shortly after the meetings, the Africa advisor to the French presidency, Remi Marechaux, was to travel to Burkina Faso to ask that country’s president, Blaise Campaore, to mediate (even though Campaore "had personal economic interests in Guinea … that would be a factor in his decision making").
The process accelerated after the assasination attempt on Dadis Camara. With the junta leader in Rabat — emerging from a coma after a bullet had been lodged into his skull — French, American, and Moroccan diplomats began to seek out an alternative location for Camara to reside. Washington and Paris pushed Morocco to keep Camara as long as possible. Meanwhile, the government of Morocco made calls to Gabon in hopes of finding a permanent exile for Camara; Paris called the Republic of Congo. Libya was apparently open to hosting the junta leader.
According to the cables, it meanwhile became clear to U.S. diplomats just what a tinder box Dadis Camara had created during his short time in office. Camara, who hails from a long repressed minority group in Guinea, had "recruited mercenaries from South Africa and Israel and assembled them, along with his own men," a source told the U.S. embassy in Conakry in December 2009, and armed them "with weapons from Ukraine." All told, his militia numbered 2,000 to 3,000. Another cable put the number at 2,500, many of whom were former fighters from Liberia’s decades-long civil war. Without deft handling, the ethnic strife that was brewing could be catastrophic, cables warned.
As Camara was sidelined and tensions loomed in Guinea, the moderators found a remarkable solution: to empower Camara’s right-hand man. On January 5, 2010, "Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson signaled explicit USG support to Guinean Defense Minister Sekouba Konate in his bid to lead the country’s transition to civilian rule," a cable notes. Remarkably, this plan moved forward despite serious concerns about Konate’s ability to govern. When the defense minister visited Camara in Rabat, he also sought medical help for liver damage due to a long-term alcohol problem.
The deal was sealed on January 12, 2010, when the Moroccan king abruptly put Camara on a plane to Burkina Faso, in effect exiling him from Guinea. The junta leader wasn’t told where he was going: "Dadis reportedly thought he was going to Conakry and was calm although the previous day, although the previous day he had reportedly told [Moroccan Foreign Affairs Minister] Fassi Fihrithat he wanted to return to Conakry to cut off hands and heads," a January 15 cable reports. Rabat exiled Camara without U.S. or French consent, reportedly in hopes of getting the junta leader out of Morocco before the United Nations Security Council deliberated on the Sept. 28 massacre that started this downward spiral.
The rest, as they say, is history. Konate proved remarkably sound as a leader, installing an opposition member to head the civilian transition and holding democratic presidential elections this fall. While they haven’t been without incident, the elections are truly remarkable when you remember just how near Guinea was to a fall just one year ago. And while I’m glad to know what happened to get this point, I’m also glad it was a secret until the deal was done — or it may not have been done at all.