Freedom House (Author)
In advance of presidential elections to be held in December 2003, leading opposition parties were considering boycotting the vote, and it did not appear as though the polls would be held in a free and fair atmosphere. Guinea is surrounded by countries in conflict, and fighting has already spilled over its borders from Liberia and Sierra Leone. There are persistent tensions between impoverished Guineans and the more than 100,000 refugees that Guinea hosts and who receive humanitarian aid.
Under Ahmed Sekou Toure, Guinea declared independence from France in 1958. Alone among France's many African colonies, it rejected the domination of continued close ties with France. Paris retaliated quickly, removing or destroying all "colonial property" and enforcing an unofficial but devastating economic boycott. Sekou Toure's one-party rule became highly repressive, and Guinea was increasingly impoverished under his Soviet-style economic policies. Lansana Conte seized power in a 1984 coup and was nearly toppled by a 1996 army mutiny. Amid general looting in Conakry, he rallied loyal troops and reestablished his rule.
Conte was returned to office in a 1998 presidential election that lacked credible opposition as state patronage and media strongly backed the incumbent. His reelection to another five-year term, with 54 percent of the vote, was unconvincing, although broad manipulation of the electoral process and opposition disunity probably made more blatant forms of vote rigging unnecessary. Although the polls were an improvement over past elections, hundreds of people were arrested after the vote, including the official third-place finisher, Alpha Conde.
The June 2002 National Assembly elections were not considered fair because of an opposition boycott and the government's control of the electoral process. The ruling Progress and Unity Party easily won the two-thirds majority required to enact constitutional changes. The European Union refused to send observers and financial aid for the vote.
Opposition candidates threatened to boycott the December 2003 vote unless an independent electoral commission was formed and access to state media and political rallies were allowed. Government participation in discussions aimed at improving the fairness of Guinea's polls appeared to be insincere because by October no visible effort had been made to level the playing field. President Conte said he would stand for reelection, although he would not be campaigning. Poor health casts doubt on whether Conte would be able to carry out a full seven-year term, and concern is mounting as to whether Guinea could have a peaceful transition of leadership. In addition to the 100,000 refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone that Guinea hosts, more than 100,000 Guinean migrants returned from Ivory Coast after the outbreak of hostilities there at the end of 2002. Most of the returnees have been hosted by communities along the border, increasing competition for scant resources.
Guinea's economy has suffered from a world drop in the price of bauxite. The country is the world's second-largest producer of the mineral and is also rich in gold, diamonds, and iron ore.
The Guinean people's constitutional right to freely elect their government is not yet respected in practice. Guinean politics and parties are largely defined along ethnic lines. Guinea held a referendum in 2001 on extending presidential terms from five to seven years, allowing for unlimited terms in office, and eliminating presidential age limits. The provisions in the referendum were approved in a flawed vote that was boycotted by members of the opposition and marked by low turnout. The referendum also granted President Lansana Conte the power to appoint local officials and Supreme Court judges. The cabinet and armed forces leadership include members of all major ethnic groups in Guinea, but there are a disproportionate number of senior military officers from Conte's Soussou ethnic group.
The government has wide powers to bar any communications that insult the president or disturb the peace. All broadcasting outlets, as well as the country's largest and only daily newspaper, are state controlled and offer little coverage of the opposition and scant criticism of government policy. The print media have little impact in rural areas, where incomes are low and illiteracy is high. Several newspapers in Conakry offer sharp criticism of the government despite frequent harassment. A restrictive press law allows the government to censor or shutter publications on broad and ill-defined bases. Defamation and slander are considered criminal offenses. Internet access is unrestricted.
Constitutionally protected religious rights are respected in practice, although the main body representing the country's Muslims, who constitute 85 percent of the population, is government controlled. Academic freedom is generally respected, but the government influences hiring and the content of the curriculum.
Several statutes restrict freedom of association and assembly in apparent contravention of constitutional guarantees. The government may ban any gathering that "threatens national unity." Nevertheless, several human rights groups and many other nongovernmental groups operate openly. The International Committee of the Red Cross has helped teach security forces about respect for human rights. The constitution provides for the right to form and join unions. However, only a very small formal (business) sector exists. Several labor confederations compete in this small market and have the right to bargain collectively. Unions in rural areas sometimes face harassment and government interference.
While nominally independent, the judicial system remains infected by corruption, nepotism, ethnic bias, and political interference, and lacks resources and training. Minor civil cases are often handled by traditional ethnic-based courts. Arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and there are reports of persistent maltreatment and torture of detainees. Prison conditions are harsh and sometimes life-threatening. Security forces commit abuses, including torture and extrajudicial execution, with impunity. Vigilantism is a problem.
Ethnic identification is strong in Guinea. There is widespread societal discrimination by members of all major ethnic groups. The ruling party is more ethnically integrated than opposition parties, which have clear regional and ethnic bases.
Women have far fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, and many societal customs discriminate against women. Constitutionally protected women's rights are often unrealized. Women have access to land, credit, and business, but inheritance laws favor men. Violence against women is said to be prevalent. Spousal abuse is a criminal offense, but security forces rarely intervene in domestic matters. Women's groups are working to eradicate the illegal, but widespread, practice of female genital mutilation.