Freedom in the World
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Guinea received a downward trend arrow due to the poor conduct of the December 2003 presidential elections.
President Lansana Conte won a third term in the December 2003 election that was boycotted by the country's major opposition parties and that international observers criticized as neither free nor fair. Concern mounted over Conte's health and the potential for unrest if he were to die while in office without a clear successor.
Under Ahmed Sekou Toure, Guinea declared independence from France in 1958. Alone among France's many African colonies, Guinea rejected 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. Conte seized power in a 1984 coup and was nearly toppled by a 1996 army mutiny. In the midst of general looting in Conakry, he rallied loyal troops and reestablished his rule.
Conte was returned to office in a 1998 presidential election that was marked by state patronage, media that strongly backed the incumbent, broad manipulation of the electoral process, and opposition disunity. 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, in which the ruling Progress and Unity Party easily won a two-thirds majority, were not considered fair because of an opposition boycott and the government's control of the electoral process.
In the December 2003 presidential election, Conte, who reportedly captured more than 90 percent of the vote, faced only one relatively unknown opponent in the poll; a Supreme Court panel had disqualified six other presidential hopefuls for reasons ranging from a failure to pay the application fee to questionable dates of birth. Main opposition parties boycotted the election, and members of the opposition accused Conte of taking control of the electoral commission and of using state funds to finance his campaign. Although the government said turnout was more than 80 percent, human rights groups estimated that it was less than 15 percent and cited several instances of blatant vote rigging. The European Union declined to help finance the election or send observers because of doubts over the fair conduct of the poll.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that the political process in Guinea remained blocked by manipulation of the electoral system and by divisions and weaknesses within the political opposition. It warned that squabbling for power among Guinea's three main tribes - the Soussou, the Peuhl, and the Malinke - and among the country's different political and military factions could plunge Guinea into the kind of chaos seen in neighboring Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Cote d'Ivoire. The ICG said that Guinea's stability depends on the capacity of the army to reach an internal understanding and present a candidate who would be able to impose legitimacy after the departure of Conte.
In April 2004, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights harshly criticized Guinea as a "caricature of democracy" where basic freedoms are enshrined in law but not respected by the government. The group warned that Conte's death in office would lead to "a high risk period of transition," which could easily take the form of "a military coup followed by possible violence." Poor health cast doubts during the year on whether Conte would be able to carry out a full seven-year term, and concern is mounting as to whether Guinea can have a peaceful transition of leadership.
In April, authorities charged opposition leader and former prime minister Sidya Toure of plotting a coup; he was cleared of the charges in July. Prime Minister Francois Fall resigned in April and went into exile. Fall, a respected former foreign minister, said that the government was blocking his attempts at political and economic reform.
The country is the world's second-largest producer of bauxite and is also rich in gold, diamonds, and iron ore. However, corruption, mismanagement, and conflict have negatively affected the economy. In 2004, the government struggled to stem mounting public discontent over high prices for rice, which have been blamed on corruption. The World Bank in 2004 halted the disbursement of further loans to Guinea and suspended field projects following the government's failure to pay off debt-servicing arrears. The IMF has also withdrawn from Guinea. Both lenders have cited Guinea for bad governance, lack of transparency, corruption, and improper economic practices.
Citizens of Guinea cannot change their government democratically. A referendum held in 2001 proposed to extend presidential terms from five to seven years, allow for unlimited terms in office, and eliminate 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. Politics and parties are largely defined along ethnic lines. The government controls the national election commission, as well as registration and election procedures, including the casting and counting of votes.
Corruption, which has had a detrimental effect on Guinea's economy, has been cited as a serious problem in the country by both the IMF and World Bank. Guinea was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government has wide powers to bar any communications that insult the president or disturb the peace, and defamation and slander are considered criminal offenses. A restrictive press law allows the government to censor or shutter publications on broad and ill-defined bases. 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. Although the law permits private electronic media, the government has never approved license requests for private radio and television stations, on the grounds of national security. Several newspapers in Conakry offer sharp criticism of the government despite frequent harassment. Internet access is unrestricted. The print media have little impact in rural areas, where incomes are low and illiteracy is high.
Constitutionally protected religious rights are respected in practice, although the main body representing the country's Muslims, who constitute a majority of the population, is government-controlled. Academic freedom is generally respected, but the government influences hiring and the content of curriculums.
Several statutes restrict freedom of association and assembly in apparent contravention of constitutional guarantees. The government may ban any gathering that "threatens national unity." Authorities arrested more than a dozen student leaders at Gamal Abdel Nasser University after its 14,000 students went on strike in February. Nevertheless, several human rights groups and many other nongovernmental groups operate openly in Guinea. The constitution provides for the right to form and join unions. Several labor confederations compete and have the right to bargain collectively. Unions in rural areas sometimes face harassment and government interference.
While nominally independent, the judicial system remains affected 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, although conditions in at least one prison improved in 2003. Security forces commit abuses, including torture and extrajudicial execution, with impunity. Prior to the December 2003 presidential election, about a dozen people were arrested in connection with an alleged coup plot.
Ethnic identification is strong in Guinea, and 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. In addition to the tens of thousands of refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone that Guinea hosts, more than 100,000 Guinean migrants returned from Cote d'Ivoire 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. Human rights groups say an influx of arms and idle gunmen from Liberia threatens the stability of southeastern Guinea. In addition, many local youths were armed by the government as militiamen when insurgents backed by former Liberian president Charles Taylor unsuccessfully tried to invade Guinea in 2000 and 2001.
Women enjoy 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.