Mouctar Bah had just left the scene of the protests in Coyah, Guinea when he received a call telling him his brother had been shot. Bah told Al Jazeera that by the time he got to the hospital, his younger brother was dead.

Bah’s brother was one of five killed last week in Coyah, a town about 50km from the capital Conakry, as local youths took to the streets to demonstrate against what they described as mistreatment and racketeering by police enforcing the government’s lockdown measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Trouble began after the government put Conakry into total isolation, preventing people from Coyah and Dubreka — both neighbouring towns — from entering the capital city. For many people who earn a daily living in Conakry, staying at home was not an option. 

The protesters threw rocks and set police vehicles on fire at various checkpoints into Conakry. They accused security forces of harassment and demanding bribes to enter and exit the capital. At least six people were killed across three towns in clashes between police and protesters on May 12. The minister of security was quoted as saying the police were surprised by the violence of the attacks.

There were more protests in the northeastern town of Kouroussa because of power cuts. In the bauxite mining city of Kamsar, a man was reported dead and the mayor’s home torched after protesters demanded the restoration of electricity. Several districts in the city had gone three months without power.

President Alpha Condé mourned the deaths across the country, urging the justice ministry to “shed light on these serious facts and draw all the legal consequences from them”.

But Cellou Dalein Diallo, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea, condemned the killings, describing them as an “abuse of power.”

“If you protest to have electricity, they shoot at you. If you protest that elections should be organised in good time, they shoot at you. If you protest against illegal roadblocks used for extortion, they shoot at you,” Diallo told the Mail & Guardian in a telephone interview from Conakry. “An administrative sanction hasn’t been meted out on any police or army official. It is total impunity,” he said.

Just one day after the violent clashes, anti-lockdown protesters in Kamsar and Dubreka forced their way into mosques that had been locked for weeks. The group of young men cleaned the mosques before praying.

“The gels, the soaps, the barriers — it’s all a joke. It is God who cures this disease; that’s why we must open the mosques,” Mouctar Camara, a 26-year-old student who was briefly detained after the incident, told the AP.

The protests lay bare the political and socioeconomic issues underlying the Guinean government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has recorded 3 076 cases of the coronavirus (as of May 22), making it the fourth-most affected country in West Africa. Guinea has painful memories of a disease outbreak: more than 2 500 people died from Ebola between 2013 and 2016.

Condé declared a state of emergency on March 27, five days after highly controversial parliamentary elections and a referendum that now allows him to run for a third term in office. Opposition leaders say the elections, held 10 days after the first case was detected, may have been responsible for spreading the virus in the country. The head of the electoral commission, Salif Kébé, died of complications from Covid-19 on April 17. Sékou Kourouma, Condé’s chief of staff, died the next day from the same disease.

There have been reports of a highhanded approach by security forces towards opposition party members since the coronavirus containment measures began. Human Rights Watch has said party loyalists have been harassed and arbitrarily detained in recent weeks.

“We have more than 200 members in prison despite calls by the UN [United Nations] and [the] WHO [World Health Organisation] to decongest prisons in order to avoid the spread of the coronavirus,” Diallo said.

Additional reporting by Amindeh Blaise Atabong

Adeoye and Atabong are media fellows with Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.