Just a few months ago, Guinea was a battered nation devoid of hope, ruled by an out-of-control army captain whose troops massacred pro-democracy demonstrators and raped women.
Today, the West African country is on the verge of putting half a century of coups and repressive rule behind it — through a presidential election Sunday that would be its first-ever free ballot.
The stunning turnaround — made possible after a renegade soldier shot dictator Moussa "Dadis" Camara in the head — may be one of the fastest in modern African history, and it has filled the anxious nation of 10 million with the feeling things may really be looking up.
"We've had a lot of false hope over the years, but this time, everybody believes it's for real," said Sow Bailo, a prominent actor and longtime participant in public protests against Guinea's military regimes.
The country is rich in bauxite, diamonds, gold and iron ore. But its people have been profoundly impoverished from the misrule of communist dictatorships and repressive military juntas since independence from France in 1958.
When Camara seized power in a 2008 military coup after despot Lansana Conte died in his 70s of a lengthy illness, the future looked grimmer than ever. While promising clean government and frugality, Camara plastered the walls in his office with life-size portraits of himself and left his soldiers to plunder on the streets.
And then a single outrage changed everything.
On Sept. 28, 2009, army units opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators gathered at a Conakry stadium who were protesting over rumors Camara was reneging on a promise not to run for president. Security forces killed more than 150, wounded more than 1,000 and raped more than 100 women.
The bloodbath drew international condemnation, a U.N. investigation and infighting within the army's top brass over who would take the blame. On Dec. 3, Camara was shot by his presidential guard chief, but survived and was exiled as part of a tenuous peace deal.
Camara's deputy, Gen. Sekouba Konate, then did an about-face. Starting in February, he appointed a civilian prime minister, established a civilian-led transitional governing council, and helped push through a new constitution that reduces the presidency's power substantially, limiting it to two five-year terms.
Why Konate didn't take power for himself is a mystery. Some say the general truly believes in democratic reform and dislikes the spotlight. Some say he was under too much pressure internally and internationally, and didn't want Guinea to go the way of war-ravaged Sierra Leone, where he served on a regional peacekeeping force.
Either way, he has become an unlikely hero.
The army has largely disappeared from the streets and returned to barracks. Guineans have been able to speak freely, and critically, for the first time in decades.
Konate has deftly marginalized once-powerful hard-line Camara loyalists within the military, removing some and reassigning others, said Corinne Dufka, a Guinea expert for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
And although soldiers responsible for the stadium massacre have yet to be punished, they are being investigated — their sentences likely delayed so as not to endanger Sunday's vote.
The 4 million registered voters will choose among 24 candidates. The top contenders include two ex-premiers, Cellou Dalein Diallo and Sidya Toure, and a longtime government opponent, Alpha Conde. Their supporters have mobbed Conakry's streets in recent days, sporting T-shirts bearing their images, blowing whistles and dancing on the backs of trucks.
Campaigning has been peaceful, apart from a clash Thursday north of Conakry between stone-throwing militants loyal to Diallo and Toure that left four Diallo supporters dead and dozens injured.
International observers from the U.S.-based Carter Center, the European Union and the African Union will be among those monitoring the vote. They, along with diplomats and local and foreign analysts, say all indications point to a clean and fair election. Vote-counting will take several days.
Although candidates have avoided talk of ethnic-based voting, analysts expect the ballot to play out along ethnic lines. Much of the country's estimated 40 percent Peuhl population could vote for Diallo, while the Malinke who make up around 30 percent will likely split their vote between Conde and another ex-premier, Lansana Kouyate.
"It can very easily degenerate into ethnic violence" if people believe there is fraud, Diallo told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. "But we must avoid that at all costs."
Guinea, he said, is in the midst of "a true revolution. We fought for it and died for it. We must protect what we've gained."
The fact that people like Diallo are running for the presidency at all — and have a serious shot at it — shows just how far Guinea has come in so short a time.
During the stadium massacre, troops beat him and broke several ribs. Hospitalized in France, he returned home in late February to find Guinea a very different place. People he said, "had hope."
Rabiatou Serah Diallo, a former union leader who was shot in the leg in a 2007 protest and now heads the nation's transitional council, called Sunday's ballot "a decisive moment."
"This is a new beginning," she said. "What we do in the future is what's important. There's much to do, and it's not going to be easy."
The capital is primarily a shantytown. Some neighborhoods have electricity just one hour a day. Others have gone without water for months; thieves openly siphon so much water from pipes serving the city that little is left by the time it gets here.
Sewage and trash heaps overwhelm beaches. Laundry lies drying on crumbling sidewalks. Drivers gingerly maneuver cars around potholes overflowing with stagnant water.
Staring across a sea of rust-worn roofs held down with huge rocks, tires and black plastic sheeting, Bailo, the entertainer, shuddered.
"You see what we've achieved after 52 years of independence?" he said. "We can't just let these leaders do whatever they want. We won't accept it anymore."
Source: The Associated Press.