Guinea holds first local elections since military rule

CONAKRY, Guinea – Guinea began voting on Sunday, February 4 in the first local elections since the end of the era of military dictatorship following eight years of delays.

The municipal council elections, originally scheduled for 2010, have been repeatedly delayed due to a lack of funds, political infighting and the 2013-2016 Ebola crisis.

Failing schools, unemployment, electricity shortages and corruption allegations are all election issues in the West African country.

"This is the first time I have voted for a mayor. I hope my candidate wins and puts in place his programme to clean up our district, create employment and make our city safe," said taxi driver Simbaya Aboulaye Soumah in the capital Conakry.

But some voters have vowed to stay at home.

"It's just a load of noise," Salimatou Sow, a market vendor, told Agence France Presse.

"Once they are elected, they will forget all their promises, make themselves rich off the back of the people and forget rubbish collection, street cleaning, and job creation," she added.

Guinea gained independence from France under "father of independence" turned paranoid dictator Ahmed Sekou Toure, who ruled until his death in 1984.

The authoritarian General Lansane Conte then seized power in a coup.

Following his death in 2008, the military took control until a transition to civilian rule when President Alpha Conde was elected in 2010.

More than 5.9 million Guineans are registered to vote in the polls from 7 am (07:00 GMT).

Opposition hopes for 'springboard'

In 2005, under General Conte's rule, the ruling party took 80% of the vote and consequently the vast majority of voting districts.

Due to the lack of elections, council executives have been controversially replaced with appointees named by Conde, who will now face scrutiny in Guinea's democracy for the first time.

An agreement reached in October 2016 between the government, opposition, civil society and international partners paved the way for elections in February 2017.

But despite huge opposition demonstrations demanding President Alpha Conde respect the agreement, the vote timetable had repeatedly slipped.

60% of Guinea's population is 25 and under, with their memories of Conte and military rule hazy or non-existent.

Their priorities include improvements to Guinea's cash-strapped education system and jobs to address sky-high youth unemployment.

Voters will choose councillors for 342 "communes" from 1,300 party lists representing almost 30,000 candidates, including around 7,000 women.

Ibrahima Camara, local campaign manager for the Union of Republican Forces (UFR) of former prime minister Sidya Toure, said the vote could be a "springboard" for Toure as he mounts a third attempt at the presidency in 2020.

The key battleground with Conde's ruling Rally for the Guinean People (RPG) will be in the western area of Kindia and southern city of N'Zerekore, which were heavily affected by Ebola.

Political distrust is high in Guinea, a mineral-rich but deeply poor country where ethnic tensions often turn deadly around election time. –