CONAKRY, Guinea – Election officials on Thursday confirmed that a critical presidential runoff in Guinea has been postponed by at least two weeks as the warehouse storing voting materials for the upcoming ballot went up in flames, developments that may stoke ethnic divisions at the heart of the vote.
Passers-by covered their mouths with their T-shirts outside the cement wall of the Camp Samory military barracks where the voting materials were being stored, as the acrid smoke floated over the barbed wire. The fire was burning for more than 40 minutes before the first firetruck arrived and a fireman forced a hose over the wall.
Although the spokesman for the country's election commission said the fire appeared to the result of a short circuit, supporters of leading presidential candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo immediately accused the government of sabotage and of attempting to derail the election which has been postponed multiple times since June.
"Is there such a thing as a place that is more secure than Camp Samory, which houses the chiefs of staff of the army? And you tell me that in this highly secure site, it is only the voting materials that caught fire? And you want me to believe that this is an accident?" said Mamadou Bah Baadikko, the spokesman for the Alliance Cellou for President. "That's especially hard to do given that they have done everything in their power to once again push back the vote."
Earlier on Thursday, the head of communications of the National Independent Electoral Commission confirmed that Sunday's vote had been postponed because voter ID cards ordered from a printer in South Africa had not yet arrived. "There will be no election on Sunday," Thierno Ceydou Bayo told the AP. "The vote will be delayed by at least two weeks, maybe three."
The delay is likely to heighten tension in the capital, where campaigning was temporarily suspended after violent clashes erupted last week between supporters of rival political parties.
Many had hoped the vote would mark a turning point for the troubled nation of 10 million that has known only authoritarian rule since independence from France in 1958. Instead, it appears to have exacerbated ethnic divisions that have long been lurking beneath the surface of Guinea's political life.
The parties of the two candidates are divided along ethnic lines, pitting the Peul who are the country's largest ethnic group but who have never had one of their own in power, against the Malinke, the ethnicity of the military general overseeing the transition to civilian rule whose members are overwhelmingly represented in the army. Cellou Dalein Diallo — a Peul — got 44 percent of the vote during the race's first round, trouncing second-place finisher Alpha Conde, a Malinke, who received 18 percent.
Relations between the two groups are especially strained following the 1-year-rule of an erratic army captain who seized power in a 2008 coup, and who stacked the government with his relatives and tribal allies from the Forestier and Malinke ethnicities.
When thousands of protesters gathered inside the soccer stadium last Sept. 28 to demand an end to military rule, the junta's presidential guard opened fire, massacring at least 150 people. The protesters were largely Peul and the soldiers attacking them yelled out racial slurs. Women that had Peul features were tracked down and gang raped.
Diallo's party has been calling for the runoff to go ahead for months and they accuse the government of stalling in order to give Conde a chance to catch up in the polls. They claim the interim government is biased toward Conde because he is a Malinke, like Gen. Sekouba Konate, the country's interim president who agreed to hand over power to civilians.
Over the weekend, supporters of the two candidates began hurling rocks at each other, killing one person and injuring 54. Witnesses say that instead of political slogans, the clashing sides yelled racial names.
In a televised address to the nation late Wednesday, Konate said he fears the "republic is in danger" due to ethnic divisions and called on Guineans to put country before tribe. "It's our responsibility ... to not put ethnicity (and) regionalism ahead of the nation," he said.
Diallo's supporters said they see an ethnic motive behind the multiple delay as well as behind the fire. "They can't stand the thought of a Peul in power," said Ibrahima Balde, a 39-year-old Diallo supporter who is a Peul. "So they are doing everything they can to stop the election from happening."
Election authorities stress the ballots were not harmed and that the fire will not cause further delays to the poll. The portion of the warehouse affected contained the cardboard voting booths erected at polling stations and the tupperware containers in which completed ballots are placed.
Pathe Dieng, spokesman for the election commission says that it appears to have been the result of a short circuit after members of the commission asked an electrician to connect the warehouse to the power grid. Representatives of both Diallo and Conde's parties were at the warehouse doing a final check of the materials and they wanted to hook up a computer to help with their work.
Electrician Mamadou Drame, 33, who stood on the sidelines as firefighters and soldiers yanked out the tupperware boxes and other materials, says he arrived early in the morning and switched on the power. Then he left to go buy lightbulbs. When he returned, he says he had time to screw in four of the bulbs before he suddenly saw a column of smoke rising from the ground. He ran outside and called for help.
Associated Press Writer Boubacar Diallo contributed to this report.