On 22 July 2013 two women lay next to each other on narrow beds in a tiny room in the regional hospital of N’Zérékoré, the main town in Guinea’s Forest Region. The Konianké woman explained how she had been caught by a group of Guerzé youths, thrown down a well, stoned and left for dead, before being rescued. Her Guerzé hospital roommate had an equally harrowing story. Attacked first in her home by a group of marauding Konianké youths who took all her money in exchange for sparing her life, she fled, only to encounter more Konianké youths who doused her with petrol and set her alight. A group of security personnel saved her from certain death.
These women represent the mutual victimisation marking the violent clashes between Guerzé and Konianké communities that enveloped N’Zérékoré and neighbouring communities for three days, starting 15 July 2013. At least 100 people were killed and a considerable amount of property, including churches and mosques, was destroyed.
The unrest started in Koulé, 45km from N’Zérékoré, when a Guerzé security guard killed a Konianké youth whom he took for a thief. According to the boy’s friend, he was simply looking for food to break the Ramadan fast. Clashes broke out between the Konianké and Guerzé in Koulé and then spread to N’Zérékoré and other settlements.
Unfortunately, since the early 1990s clashes between the Konianké and other groups in the Forest Region like the Guerzé and Toma have occurred repeatedly. In May 2011 similar fights between the Guerzé and Konianké in Galakpaye, Yomou Prefecture led to at least 25 deaths.
All of these conflicts are caused by land and citizenship issues. While the region of Haute Guinée is seen as the home of the Malinké, of which the Konianké and Maniang form part, the Forest Region is widely regarded as the home of Forestière groups like the Kissi, Toma, Guerzé, Mano and Kono. For generations these groups have co-existed with the Konianké communities that had settled in the Forest Region, sometimes even before the French colonial conquest of the area in the early 1900s.
However, because of the value attached to being ‘indigenous’, many people view the Konianké as outsiders who do not belong to the Forest Region, while the Forestière communities are seen as indigenes who by right should be able to monopolise land and political power to the exclusion of the Konianké. The fact that most Konianké are Muslims and many Forestière are Christians or traditional religious followers has further increased tensions between the groups.
These issues have to be understood within the context of Guinean national politics. During the era of President Sékou Touré, his mise en valeur rules, which emphasised the ‘rational’ use of land as the ultimate guarantor of rights, allowed the Konianké to occupy and farm swathes of the Forest Region. His crackdown on what he saw as ‘backward’ Forestière practices such as secret societies only further marginalised these communities and increased their resentment against the Konianké, who belonged to the same ethnic group as Touré (a Malinké) and benefited from his policies, even though these were not meant to privilege any particular ethnic group.
The advent of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s, pitting then President Lansana Conté against opposition leader (and now president) Alpha Condé, aggravated conflicts in the Forest Region. Conté fanned Forestière resentment against the Konianké, who were seen as supportive of Condé on account of shared ethnicity. In one speech in N’Zérékoré in the early 1990s, Conté said: ‘You Malinkés, do you come from here? Were your ancestors born here? This is the ancestral land of the Forestières, so if you have a problem, go back to your own homes.’
This situation was worsened by the wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, all of which border the Forest Region. These conflicts have led to the influx of arms and experienced fighters into the region, turning clashes into gun battles. The United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel groups as well as the Sierra Leonean Kamajor militia all had a presence in the Forest Region. The Guinean government also trained and armed civil defence units during this period. Many fighters were not properly disarmed, demobilised or reintegrated. Weapons abound in the region and young fighters who have seen action in several countries hang out in neighbourhoods with no work to do. When inter-communal clashes break out, they often form the vanguard of marauding gangs.
Given the importance of the support of people in the Forest Region to Condé’s narrow second round victory in the 2010 presidential elections, these clashes may well impact Guinean national electoral politics. If the Forestière communities decide to punish Condé for the ‘sins’ of the Konianké, they may vote for Cellou Diallo’s Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG) in the upcoming parliamentary elections in September 2013, or simply refrain from supporting Condé’s Rally of the People of Guinea (RPG). This could well determine the parliamentary majority and set the tone for the presidential elections in 2015. Some view Condé’s decision to visit Nigeria during the recent violence as a demonstration of his lack of concern.
Unfortunately, these inter-communal conflicts over land and local citizenship also occur in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. To better manage this problem the government of Guinea should eliminate impunity through independent and fair judicial processes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) could help by exploring the possibility of bringing charges of crimes against humanity against leading participants in the clashes. In the long run, the state must bolster local peacebuilding initiatives. For instance, some neighbourhoods in N’Zérékoré escaped the most recent clashes on account of local non-aggression pacts. The state and international actors could seek to help other communities undertake similar processes.
Koya Toupou, Researcher and consultant, N’Zérékoré, Guinea