Ibrahima Diallo spends his days in Bed No. 7 of the municipal hospital here, waiting for the bones in his face to glue themselves back together. His teeth are tied shut, so it is hard for him to talk–but even if he could, he’d have little to say to the patient in Bed No. 8.
That man also has a broken cheekbone. And like Diallo, he too was injured in the spasm of pre-election violence that swept Conakry last month. Yet the gulf between the two hospital beds is a mirror of the ethnic divide at the heart of Guinea’s political life, which is threatening to derail what was supposed to be the country’s first democratic election since independence in 1958.
Mory Keita, 25, was rushed into surgery after being slammed in the face by a rock. The rocks started raining down on the party headquarters of presidential candidate Alpha Conde, a Malinke politician, whose supporters, like Keita, are overwhelmingly from his ethnic group. Keita says the last thing he heard before he was knocked unconscious was the screams of people speaking the Peul language.
On the same day, the last thing Diallo, 46–a Peul–heard before passing out was the Malinke dialect. He was on his way to a soccer tournament in support of Peul candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo, whose Union for the Democratic Forces of Guinea, or UFDG, has the nearly unanimous support of Guinea’s Peul population. The men who surrounded him insulted him in Malinke, telling him they would never accept a Peul president. They punched him until he spit up his own teeth.
Only four months ago, journalists flocked for a rare ‘good news’ story to this African capital ranked as one of the world’s poorest, where black mold coats buildings and the smell of the sea mixes with that of the sewer. For the first time in Guinea’s history, there was no incumbent to rig the election, and the army that had installed two of the country’s three dictators had vowed not to meddle. A successful election was also expected to open the door to billions of dollars in planned mining investments.
But the mood of celebration fizzled when none of the 24 candidates won a majority, forcing a run-off between the No. 1 and No. 2 finishers, who are from the two largest ethnic groups, with a history of animosity. A shadow has since fallen over Guinea and the surrounding region, as the country’s exercise in democracy degenerated into a contest along racial lines.
“People are no longer voting for a political platform. They are voting for an ethnicity,” says Lama Bangoura, a youth leader in the violence-prone Enco-5 neighborhood. “You go into the neighborhoods and ask who people are voting for. And you’ll immediately see that all the Peul are voting for the UFDG, and all the Malinke are voting for the RPG.”
Of the country’s four major groups, the Peul are the largest, representing around 40 percent of the population of 10 million, and yet they are the only ones not to have had one of their own in power. Last year, they were singled out in an army-led massacre of protesters calling for an end to army rule. Peul women–identifiable by their lighter skin and Semitic features–were gang raped by soldiers chanting anti-Peul slurs.