Recent coups make W. Africa democracies endangered species

Democratic government in West Africa is fast becoming an endangered species. Last week the military seized power in Guinea, but failed in another attempt in the Cameroon. One month earlier, another coup attempt was bloodily suppressed by Ghana's military regime.

And the year was ushered in by a military coup in Nigeria - that country's fifth - which abruptly terminated Africa's largest democratic experiment.

The survivors among West African democratic countries can be counted swiftly: Senegal, Gambia, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon.

Mounting economic difficulties, combined with ethnic and religious tensions within artificial political borders, underlie growing instability and increasing intervention by military forces in this region.

West Africa includes some of the world's poorest nations and the options open to the new military rulers are limited. They can crack down on corruption and try to ensure more disciplined government. Sometimes West African civilian governments have been even more repressive than their military counterparts.

But there are no quick routes to prosperity and stability.

Ahmed Sekou Toure ruled Guinea with an iron rod for 26 years with scant regard for human rights and personal freedom. He ruthlessly crushed numerous real and imaginary attempts to overthrow him. And he frequently purged the Army, which he neglected in favor of his more dependable people's militias.

However, on April 3, only one week after Sekou Toure's unexpected death, the armed forces seized power bloodlessly and with surprising ease.

The country's new President, Col. Lansana Conte, says the restoration of human rights and reconstruction of the rundown economy are the two main priorities.

He condemned the ''bloody and pitiless'' dictatorship of the past 26 years, the ''feudal power'' of the Toure family, and widespread government corruption.

He says he plans to liberalize the economy by encouraging private enterprise and foreign investment.

In Cameroon, personal rivalry between President Paul Biya and his predecessor , Ahmadou Ahidjo, and tension between the Christian southerners and Muslim northerners was behind last Friday's abortive coup.

Northerners in the Republican Guard attacked the Presidential Palace after a presidential order transferring northern officers to remote parts of the country.

The rebellion was put down after nearly 36 hours of fighting in which many people are believed to have died.

Cameroon is one of the rare West African countries not to have experienced a successful military coup. But with some 200 ethnic groups - Muslims in the north , Christians in the south, an English-speaking minority and French-speaking majority - there are numerous potentially divisive factors.

The early years after Cameroon's independence in 1960 were marked by a civil war before Ahidjo succeeded in pacifying and uniting the country. Under his firm rule, Cameroon became one of the most stable and economically promising West African countries.

Ahidjo handed power voluntarily to his prime minister, Paul Biya, in 1982, apparently because he thought he was seriously ill.

Biya began to introduce more political liberalization and modern economic management as well as his own men into key positions. Ahidjo soon began to regret his decision to bow out, possibly because he found the diagnosis of his health problems to be exaggerated. Friction between the Ahidjo and Biya grew steadily and Ahidjo went into voluntary exile in southern France.

The quarrel culminated in a treason trial and death sentence for Ahidjo in February for involvement in an alleged plot to overthrow Biya. The sentence was commuted, but tensions have increased between northerners and southerners.

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