Anne Penketh: The exception to the rule that francophone west Africa is on the road to democracy

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The Independent Online

Guinea has long been a blot on the landscape of west Africa under its authoritarian ruler, General Lansana Conté. The dictator carried on the traditions of his predecessor, Ahmed Sékou Touré, who remained in power for 26 years by ruthlessly removing his enemies. "We prefer dignity in poverty to affluence in slavery" was Mr Sékou Touré's slogan as he led the independence struggle against French colonial rule. That is exactly what his people got.

Every west African country has faced twists and turns along the road to democracy following independence, including Nigeria, and its fellow English-speaking countries of Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia and Gambia. But now, Guinea's neighbours are beacons of democratic rule, except for Gambia which is still ruled by an autocrat, retired colonel Yahya Jammeh. The democratic gains in the region remain fragile, however – a coup attempt was put down only last month in Guinea-Bissau, and a military junta has been in power in Mauritania since August.

France historically considered its colonies an integral part of metropolitan France. Even after independence, successive presidents maintained close links with the leaders of francophone Africa, most of whom remained as head of state for decades. (Guinea broke off relations with France for 10 years after Mr Sékou Touré accused Paris of plotting his overthrow). A wind of change came in 1990 when François Mitterrand, in a landmark speech, warned the assembled leaders at a Franco-African summit in La Baule that in future French aid would be tied to their return to democracy.

Surveying the political health of the region last Friday, the leaders of the 16-nation economic grouping the Economic Community of West African States expressed the conviction that democracy had come to stay in west Africa. Maybe it always takes an exception to prove the rule: in this case, Guinea.