[Originally published here as part of WITNESS’s collaboration with Global Voices Online – this post was written by Gavin Simpson]

The technological revolution that enables ordinary citizens to capture and upload video footage on the web has been slow to take root in West Africa. Up to now we haven’t featured any video content from this part of the world on the Human Rights Video Hub Pilot. So this week we’re bringing you a rare clip that has made it online from Guinea, the francophone nation whose capital Conakry has been in a state of siege in recent weeks, and where it appears that the struggle continues towards self-rule and sustainable peace:

The clip shows the Guinean Army firing indiscriminately on a crowd of civilians who were demonstrating their growing discontent with the increasingly autocratic ways of President Lansana Conté. Such eye-witness video footage is especially valuable because voices from the Guinean grassroots are difficult to find in the blogosphere. Most of the online commentary about Guinea in crisis has come from international news agencies and bloggers from elsewhere in Africa.

GV author Jen Brea last month put together an excellent overview of the unrest in Guinea. The crisis reached its climax when President Conté declared martial law and deployed government troops with instructions to use armed force to restore order. The ensuing stand-off led to the deaths of more than 110 people, many of them youths and children killed by gunfire on the streets of Conakry.

Organisations like the International Crisis Group warned that unless real change took place in Guinea, chaos would spread quickly with disastrous consequences. On the ground, civil society refused to back down. Further bold resistance to martial law from the labour unions and the wider populace – backed by the Guinean Parliament – brought about a renewed end to the general strike on 25 February 2007 and the appointment of new Prime Minister Lansana Kouyate, who appears to be a product of consensus.

As GV Francophone editor Alice Backer picked up last week, the Senegalese blogger Alex Seck (Fr) is now talking about Guinea exiting out of its crisis. But the prevailing general tone is still cautious: national union leaders (Fr) and their international counterparts are stressing that it is vital to remain vigilant about this so-called return of peace to Guinea

There are many warning signs to be drawn from the recent history of conflict in the West African sub-region. For several years attention has been drawn to the risk that Guinea could be the next country to slide into violent unrest.

Wars in the neighbouring countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire had originally positioned Guinea as a haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees. However, the enormous numbers of people migrating across Guinea’s volatile borders also included former fighters from neighbouring wars who are vulnerable to being recruited into new hostilities. Some international analysts have spent years contemplating responses to possible conflict in Guinea and the wider humanitarian crisis, while significant concerns have developed around the precarious position of Guinea’s Forest Region as a source of instability in its own right. Yet in essence the central causes of conflict in the sub-region have always been traceable to bad governance and failures of leadership.

So who holds a leader like President Conté to account when his tyrannical tendencies spiral out of control?

Here on the Human Rights Video Hub we’ve been trying to make the point that accountability can stem from ordinary citizens equipped with the technology to capture abuses on film – as the video clip in this piece demonstrates. The problem is that local media in countries like Guinea are still weak, with little access to the tools required to document or disseminate evidence of such abuses of state power. Nor is there much of a Guinean blogosphere to speak of, leaving most people reliant on news websites like AllAfrica.com and Guineenews (Fr), or blogs like Friends of Guinea, to receive reports or analysis about the latest developments.

These sources were supplemented in recent weeks by bloggers from elsewhere who were moved to drive the online debate. For example, Senegal’s Alex Seck (Fr) declared that Guinea was on the brink of imploding (Fr) and that the failure of the international community to condemn or put pressure on President Conte was “shameful”. East African blog Charcoal Ink said the turmoil was a reflection of familiar political trends in Africa: “there is a power struggle going on and power is that delicious elixir that my African leaders can’t get enough of”.

Finally, one of the most interesting responses to the unrest in Guinea was the defiant posturing of the national youth music scene, represented most prominently by the Fonike collective (Fr), which produced a hip-hop video (Fr) in solidarity with the citizens who protested against Conté’s “dictatorial regime”, as well as the following reggae clip:

Unfortunately these voices of the musical youth seem to have little genuine impact, partly due to the fact that much of West African politics is oblivious to grassroots opinion and only really responsive to its “big men”.

So now the most immediate challenge is for one such big man, Prime Minister Kouyate, to seize the momentum (Fr) that the emergence from this violent period has afforded him. To make tangible progress and to prevent Guinea slipping into conflict, Kouyate will need robust assistance from his national and international allies. And most importantly he’ll have to stand strong against the whims and excesses of power-hungry President Conté, in order that the clashes witnessed last month do not become the forebears of yet another devastating West African conflict.

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