CONAKRY, Guinea – Guinea President Lansana Conte, who has ruled the African nation with an iron hand since seizing power in a coup nearly a quarter century ago, has died following a lengthy illness, the National Assembly president said today.
Aboubacar Sompare, flanked by the country’s prime minister and the head of the army, said on state-run television that Conte died Monday evening. He was believed to be in his 70s, but the government has never disclosed his birth date.
“I have the heavy duty of informing the people of Guinea of the death of Gen. Lansana Conte following a long illness,” said Sompare. He did not provide a specific cause of death or elaborate on the type of illness.
Sompare said that for many years Conte “hid his physical suffering in order to give happiness to Guinea.”
Conte was one of the last members of a dwindling group of so-called “African Big Men” who came to power by the gun and resisted the democratic tide sweeping the continent.
He seized power in a military coup a week after the 1984 death of Ahmed Sekou Toure, Guinea’s first president, after gaining independence from France in 1958. Conte’s official biography described the action as “an operation to safeguard and maintain peace in the country.”
Conte quickly established himself as the sole leader of the military junta. He abandoned Toure’s revolutionary socialist agenda, but like his predecessor, suppressed dissent.
As a post-Cold War democracy wave swept Africa, Conte formed a political party and in 1993 won the country’s first multiparty presidential election. He was re-elected in 1998 and 2003, though the opposition protested the elections as flawed.
Guinea’s 10 million people are among the poorest in the world, even though the nation holds half the world’s reserves of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum.
Last week, the editor of a local paper was arrested after publishing a picture of the frail leader struggling to stand up.
The newspaper was ordered to print a photograph of Conte showing him in good health.