Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, Guinea’s self-appointed head of state, has wasted little time making the transition from Robin Hood to Sheriff of Nottingham.
There was relief in many quarters last December when he stepped into the vacuum left by the death of long-term dictator Lansana Conté, promising to champion the poor in the volatile west African state.
But African officials, western countries – which have poured billions into rebuilding Guinea’s war-torn neighbours – and Guineans themselves have watched with growing alarm Mr Camara’s increasingly despotic behaviour, which culminated in a bloodbath this week.
More than 130 people were reported killed on Monday when soldiers opened fire on a crowd of thousands gathered in Conakry, the capital, to demand Capt Camara honour a pledge not to stand in elections due in January.
Accounts relayed by rights groups of women being publicly raped by soldiers during the chaos have extinguished the hope that accompanied the square-jawed young officer’s first days in power.
Then he spoke of breaking with 50 years of autocracy. Officials accused of growing fat during the mafia-style rule of Conté, under whom Capt Camara ran the army’s fuel supplies, were fired. He vowed to break the cartels that had turned Guinea into a way station for cocaine trafficked from South American coca plantations to European nostrils.
“I was born in a hut. I walked to school ... money means nothing to me,” he said, winning early support from a public poverty-stricken after two dictatorships, despite the country’s abundant mineral wealth.
But his style – haranguing bureaucrats, mining executives, ministers and ambassadors – has become increasingly messianic and sinister, a trajectory followed by all but a handful of the coup leaders who have taken power in Africa.
Wall-sized portraits of Capt Camara have proliferated around government offices and he has hinted of his intention to remain in power. An African official familiar with the regime says members of his family are now living in style, and some have been appointed to government positions.
It is a familiar tale. But one with a twist. Guinea’s previous dictators operated in the shadows. Capt Camara’s evolution has been televised in a reality television show popularised across Africa via Youtube.
In regular unscripted performances on what is known as the “Dadis show,” Capt Camara humiliates members of his government and the past one, interrogates cocaine traffickers and has even conducted talks with mining companies – in front of an audience alternating between applause and terror.
The envoy from Germany, where Capt Camara spent 18 months in military training, felt his wrath when he voiced concerns. Capt Camara slipped off his shades and bellowed: “Respect my authority. You are not in Germany.”
For all his bombast, he is looking increasingly insecure. Facing the threat of sanctions, he tried to distance himself from the atrocities, saying the army had lost control.
“I am confronted with a difficult situation,” he told French radio. “The army, which is not structured, has taken me hostage. The soldiers say that if I leave power, they will take it. The army is not united behind my candidacy but it has respect for me,” he said.
For Guinea’s neighbours, a tinderbox of states including three that have barely emerged from civil war, renewed instability is ominous. For Guineans, the future is beginning to look more like the past.
“In Dadis they fear they face yet one more authoritarian regime characterised by abuse and impunity,”says Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.