A general strike over falling living standards paralysed Guinea on Thursday with activity grinding to a halt in spite of government warnings and the presence of armed riot police on the streets.
Banks, businesses, schools and offices shut while streets were virtually deserted as a result of industrial action aimed at forcing a reduction in the price of oil-based fuels and the quadrupling of wages, among other demands.
Armed with tear gas launchers, helmeted anti-riot police units were deployed along roads, especially in working-class suburbs, after the government warned Wednesday that any troublemakers would be dealt with mercilessly. The situation, however, remained calm with no notable incidents as the work stoppage began.
The indefinite strike was called by unions in the poverty-stricken West African country to protest against deepening economic hardship and maladministration by the government of President Lansana Conte. The country's two leading trade unions organised the strike in a bid to sanction Conte's government, which they accused of being "blind to the systematic misery of the population".
"Workers do not have any other choice but to start this strike," said Ibrahima Fofana, spokesperson for the movement which brings together the National Confederation of Guinea Workers (CNTG) and the Public Service Union of Guinea (USTG).
The unions want in particular a reduction in the price of fuel, which rose by 30 percent last month, and a four-fold hike in wages and salaries of government workers. In a statement labour movement described the strike as a "success". The strike action is the second the unions, which represent more than 90 percent of Guinean workers, have organised this year.
Late February they staged a five-day highly successful industrial action. A series of talks resumed afterwards with Conte's government, but the unions said they had not yielded any positive outcome.
"Negotiations carried out between the government and the trade unions over the past two weeks have failed," said Fofana.
The government has said that while it recognises the right to strike, those not willing to take part in the action should be not be forced to do so. "If the right to strike is recognised for workers in Guinea, the right to work must be recognised for those who want to go to work," said Decentralisation Minister and government spokesperson Moussa Solano.
"The government will take all measures at its disposal to protect workers (who want to go to work) and will be merciless to troublemakers," he said in remarks carried on state radio and television late on Wednesday.
Unions also complain that rampant corruption, nepotism, bad management, demagogy and underhand dealings are endemic in the Guinea government. Guinea has been under the iron grip of Conte since 1984 when he seized power in a bloodless coup days after the death of the West African country's founding president Sekou Toure. His poor health over the years and lack of an obvious successor have fuelled fears of a power vacuum that could plunge the former French colony into chaos in the event of his sudden death.