Security Council vote puts Guinea in spotlight

At home, political debate is suppressed by fear


CONAKRY, Guinea - Whether blessing or curse, this West African country holds the pivotal presidency of the United Nations Security Council. But you would hardly know it walking the streets of its clogged, dilapidated, tin-roofed capital.

The daily diplomatic dance going on in the corridors of the United Nations over war on Iraq hardly merits a mention on the tabloid covers here. It's hard to judge the tenor of the television news coverage, as electricity is available only every fourth day, and then only between midnight and 6 a.m. There are no street demonstrations; no political graffiti screams from the walls.

The only political iconography is the omnipresent image of its military-general-turned-president, Lansana Conte. Thanks to the legacy of a Soviet-sponsored dictatorship, a deep-seated culture of fear in this country of 7.7 million people seems to have squashed anything resembling dissent, or even the sort of vigorous political debate common in West African capitals.

Notwithstanding the eerie void on the streets here, the Security Council vote coming up across the Atlantic Ocean represents a rare opportunity for Guinea, but one with evident dangers. At stake are the country's two most important relationships - an old but tense alliance with France, its former colonial ruler and a hefty donor; and an emerging, vital relationship with the United States, its biggest trade partner and an ally against its neighbor and nemesis, the Liberian strongman, Charles Taylor.

Guinea's situation is a snapshot of the choices facing the six countries with swing votes on the 15-member Security Council, three of them in Africa.

Vying for Guinea's hand, diplomats from both sides of the Iraq question, including the U.S. assistant secretary for African affairs, Walter H. Kansteiner III, have descended in recent weeks. This country's vast reserves of bauxite, gold and diamonds - not to mention its strategic position on the potentially oil-rich Gulf of Guinea - make it difficult for Washington to ignore.

Officially, Guinea has not said which side it will take. Earlier this week, though, the government called on Iraq to "conform scrupulously" to U.N. resolutions for disarmament, which seemed to suggest that it might lean in Washington's direction.

Public opinion polls are nonexistent here. But conversations with ordinary people this week unearthed a strong antipathy to Guinea's casting its lot with the United States in the Security Council. "I'm not in the Cabinet, but I can tell you the majority of Guineans stand for peace," argued Saran Daraba Kaba, a former government minister who now chairs a network of West African women's organizations. "In this sensitive moment in Guinea, for the government it would be in its own interest to respect the sentiments of the people of Guinea."

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