If military vehicles rolled through the capital of your country during the chaotic days following the president's death, and soldiers brandished weapons and declared themselves the new government, you might assume there would be widespread panic. But if you live in the mineral-rich West African nation of Guinea, that assumption would be wrong.
When young Guinean military officers seized power after Guinea's president Lansana Conté died on Monday aged 74, people lined the streets of Conakry, the capital, to cheer them on. A little-known army captain, Moussa Camara, declared himself the country's new leader, as well as the head of a group of 26 officers and six civilians who go by the name the National Council for Democracy and Development. Conté, who was buried on Friday, was a heavy smoker and a diabetic, and had groomed no successor. The Parliament's speaker Aboubacar Sompare who by law should have stepped in as leader-urged soldiers not directly involved in the putsch to disown Camara. But Guinea's 10 million people and its rank and file soldiers appeared to have little stomach for a fight they would very likely lose. (Read TIME's Top 10 News Stories of the Year.)
Instead Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare met Camara on Thursday, addressing him as "Mr. President" and offering to help him govern. For his part, Camara has vowed he will hold elections in December 2010, and that he will not stand as a candidate in the vote. "I have been given a chance to guide the destiny of the nation," he told reporters in Conakry on Thursday, dressed in military uniform. "I have a sacred mission not to betray the nation."
Leaving aside whether Camara's promises can be trusted Conté himself seized power days after Guinea's first president Sekou Toure died and then ruled with an iron fist for 24 years Guineans' enthusiastic welcome of the new junta is a measure of how desperate they are for change. Guinea has half the world's reserves of bauxite vital in the production of aluminium as well as gold, diamonds and hardwoods. Yet the average Guinean earns just $91 a month. Civil servants last year joined in food riots because their salaries were no longer enough to buy a bag of rice. In early November police and soldiers shot dead at least four demonstrators in Conakry when hundreds of youths burned barricades in protest at high fuel prices. A Human Rights Watch report quoted a witness in Conakry describing police and soldiers "targeting youths and chasing them into private residences, firing indiscriminately."
Then there is the problem of rampant corruption, which has allowed top officials to earn fortunes. Transparency International's latest corruption index places Guinea 173 out of 180 countries. Guineans have to bribe officials in order to receive water, electricity, and basic health care, the group said. With policing and the court system in a shambles, Guinea has also become a major hub for Latin American cocaine traffickers, who increasingly use West Africa as the conduit to the lucrative cocaine market in nearby Europe. When TIME visited neighboring Guinea Bissau in 2007, several Colombian cocaine traffickers were operating there, but those traffickers have since moved to Conakry, and several Colombians have recently been found traveling on Guinean passports, says the UNODC's regional representative Antonio Mazzitelli. He recently told TIME that he fears drug-fueled gang warfare in Guinea. "What we fear is a replica of the Mexico situation," he said. (See pictures of life on the streets with the anti-narcotics police of Guinea Bissau and Liberia.)
Given this explosive mix of poverty, drugs and violence, Western leaders are understandably jittery about this week's coup, and are pushing for elections within six months about 18 months earlier than the date the junta has set. Former colonial power France condemned the military takeover and U.S. State Dept. spokesman Robert Wood said U.S. non-humanitarian aid to Guinea might be suspended unless there were elections and a "restoration" of "civilian, democratic rule."
But as the Guineans who poured into the streets to cheer the soldiers know too well, they never had democratic rule challenges to Conté's civilian government were squashed by ruthless force. Guinea expert Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, told the Associated Press this week that Western leaders should not blindly trust in a constitution which the now-dead president Conté drafted largely to keep himself in power for decades. It was "not the result of any democratic process," he noted. After such a sorry history, even a coup can look good.