CONAKRY, Guinea – Guinea President Lansana Conte, who has ruled the African nation with an iron hand since seizing power in a coup nearly a quarter century ago, has died following a lengthy illness, the National Assembly president said Tuesday.
Aboubacar Sompare, flanked by the country's prime minister and the head of the army, said on state-run television that Conte died Monday evening. He was believed to be in his 70s but the government has never disclosed his birth date.
"I have the heavy duty of informing the people of Guinea of the death of Gen. Lansana Conte following a long illness," said Sompare. He did not provide a specific cause of death or elaborate on the type of illness.
Sompare said that for many years Conte "hid his physical suffering in order to give happiness to Guinea."
Conte was one of the last members of a dwindling group of so-called "African Big Men" who came to power by the gun and resisted the democratic tide sweeping the continent.
He seized power in a military coup a week after the 1984 death of Ahmed Sekou Toure, Guinea's first president after gaining independence from France in 1958. Conte's official biography described the action as "an operation to safeguard and maintain peace in the country."
Conte quickly established himself as the sole leader of the military junta. He abandoned Toure's revolutionary socialist agenda, but like his predecessor, suppressed dissent.
As a post-Cold War democracy wave swept Africa, Conte formed a political party and in 1993 won the country's first multi-party presidential election. He was re-elected in 1998 and 2003, though the opposition rejected the elections, protesting that they were flawed.
Guineau's 10 million people are among the poorest in the world, even though the nation holds half the world's reserves of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum. It exported food at independence, but corruption, inflation and high unemployment made it more impoverished, it had to begin importing food.
According to the Constitution, the head of the national assembly becomes president in the case of the death of the head of state. But transfers of power have rarely been smooth in Guinea, which has been crippled by corruption and rocked by multiple coups.
Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare called on the army to secure the nation's borders, while Sompare directed the country's courts to apply the law.
The two announcements, coupled by the presence of the head of the army, appeared to be an effort to signal that the government intended a peaceful transition.
The most serious recent challenge to Conte's rule came two years ago as demonstrators called for him to step down and Guinea descended into chaos.
Conte responded by declaring martial law and sent tanks into the capital streets. Security forces killed dozens of demonstrators.
Conte's health and his undisclosed illness has been an issue of national debate for years. Rumors of his death surfaced periodically, including in 2003 when he was forced to go on TV to deny them.
Such rumors flared earlier this month when Conte failed to make his usual televised appearance on Tabaski, an important Muslim holiday. The prime minister and others appeared in his place, but people were on edge and numerous businesses shuttered their doors to protect against possible unrest.
Last week, the editor of a local paper was arrested after publishing a picture of the frail leader struggling to stand up. A spokesman for the president went on TV to assure the nation that Conte was not ill.
The newspaper was ordered to print a photograph of Conte, showing him in good health.