03/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Coup of Their Dreams: Why Many Guineans Are Delighted With the Country's Military Takeover

MAN, Côte d'Ivoire. On December 23, an event that would have seemed frightening and dangerous in most parts of the world transpired in Guinea. Just hours after the president of this nation of 10 million people passed away, a military faction took power in a coup d'état. The National Council for Democracy and Development suspended the constitution, placed the population under curfew, dissolved the government, and charted a new, potentially reckless direction for the country.

By Christmas day, however, the nation was ready to greet its new self-appointed leader with open arms. Many thronged to the streets in the capital Conakry to show support for the coup led by Moussa Dadis Camara, a 44-year-old army captain. Far from being a cause for fear or anxiety, the coup seemed to be a rallying point for hope and joy.

"I am extremely pleased with this coup," says Kafomba Soumahoro, a 44-year-old trader and first-generation Guinean immigrant to Côte d'Ivoire who has been following his native country's politics with a passion via television and radio for the past month. "If the coup d'état hadn't happened, the same régime would have stayed in place indefinitely, and nothing would have changed."

The simple explanation for this Guinean euphoria is that they are elated to see an end to the 24-year-long stranglehold on power by late president Lansana Conté. "People are not necessarily endorsing the coup," explains Richard Moncrieff, who leads the West African division of the conflict analysis organization International Crisis Group, in a telephone interview from the capital Conakry. "They are expressing enormous relief at the end of Lansana Conté's reign."

Any change might feel like positive change in Guinea, where Conté took power in a coup in 1984 and drove the country ever further into poverty, corruption, and mismanagement. Despite vast natural resources including one of the world's largest bauxite reserves, Guinea has been plagued by the bone-deep corruption of its ruling class. Over half of Guinea's population lives below the global poverty level, and the country is rated one of the ten most corrupt in the world. Conté violently suppressed any opposition and proposed his own megalomaniacal solutions to the country's myriad problems. Conté's security forces became increasingly willing to resort to violence to maintain their grip on power, particularly beginning in 2005 when a series of union-organized strikes gained massive popular support.

But as much as Guineans are measuring Captain Camara against the backdrop of his deplorable predecessor, many citizens are trying to gauge this unknown soldier on his own merits, and they are finding reasons to approve. "I think he's a good man who will manage the country well," says shopkeeper Ousmane Diallo by telephone from Labé, a town in the country's north. Many people seem enamored of Captain Camara, citing as strengths his oratory skills and the deft orchestration of his bloodless coup. "He showed restraint in taking power. The coup was not violent or haphazard," explains Diallo, a sentiment echoed by many people interviewed for this article. Morissara Traoré, a 47-year old driver from the country's southeastern forest region who now lives in Côte d'Ivoire, says, "I was a bit sad that they undertook the coup before Conté had even been buried, but it went relatively well. Camara has given good speeches, and they say they're going to get the country back in order."

Camara's populist speeches have been a major part of his effort to market his new government to the people, and the crux of the new president's popularity may rest in the anti-corruption message that he regularly broadcasts. "Money is of no interest to us," Camara said in an early press conference. "There are already people who are starting to show up with bags of money to try to corrupt us. They've tried to give money to our wives and cars to our children. I will personally go after anyone who tries to corrupt us."

Corruption is a salient topic for most Guineans, given that the country's abundant natural resources have never benefited the general population. "Camara has understood that if he wants to connect with people, he needs to talk about corruption," explains Moncrieff. Camara has managed to cast himself as the strong moral compass who will lead one of the most corrupt countries on earth out of its economic and political woes. He has spoken of being on a "sacred mission." Moreover, his strong stance has been coupled with immediate relief to an impoverished population. He recently reduced the state-regulated price of rice and has promised that the price of fuel will be the next to drop.

This popularity has given Camara remarkable leeway. After an initial promise to hold elections in six months, Camara reneged and proposed elections after two years, a decision some Guineans defend. "Camara will hold elections when the population is ready," says Traoré, "and that could be six months, or it could be two years." Camara has gained additional points by appointing a civilian prime minister, Kabiné Komara, who has substantial international experience in banking, finance, and trade. Although Camara initially promised to install an entirely civilian government, nine ministry posts -- including the key posts of defense, justice, health, finance, telecommunications and commerce -- went to members of his junta. But the 21 other posts that went to civilians seem to be enough for many Guineans. "The country has to have a government," says Soumahoro. "This is just a stopgap, and at least there are a lot of civilians in it."

The international community has not been so tolerant of the coup. Within days, the African Union had suspended Guinea's membership, a move followed two weeks later by the Economic Community of West African States. The United States and the European Union have suspended aid flows to Guinea. And naturally there are Guinean detractors as well. Kadidiatou Diallo, a 29-year-old non-profit worker from the Futa Jallon area who shares her time between Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire says, "Coup d'états in Africa never turn out to be what people expect. People like Camara's speeches, but turning speeches into action is the difficult part."

The difficult part is just beginning, and only time will tell if Camara's popularity and his promises will hold. As the country and the international community get to know the captain and his government, questions are emerging. Rumors are bubbling up that Camara enjoys close ties to Conté's family, especially a drug-smuggling son, and Human Rights Watch has indicated that some of the junta's military officers may have been involved in torture as recently as 2007.

The biggest question, and one that many Guineans have not yet begun to ponder, is when Camara will make the transition to a civilian government. "There is no agreed timetable for reaching a civilian government," says Moncrieff, "and there are lots of different scenarios for which direction things could turn." Few Guineans can have forgotten that Conté himself had come to power in a coup and never relinquished power, but for the time being, most do not have the same concerns about the untested Camara. "I'm not worried for now," says Soumahoro, "and I pray that elections will take place within a year." With a knowing sigh, Traoré concurs: "We must be optimistic. We are here. We are listening."