Amid the damp heat and daily deluges of the West African rainy season, workers polish tiles and trim gardens at a gleaming palace for President Lansana Conte. For Conte--who has ruled from an army barracks for 15 years since he seized power in a coup--a move to the new palace would be a politically correct declaration of Guinea's evolution away from its years of dictatorship and military rule.

But the government has said nothing about Conte moving, prompting speculation that he won't. Although Conte has followed other African soldiers-in-power in portraying himself as an elected, civilian president, he has kept his role as the army's ranking general.

Conte's ambivalent position reflects the limits of democratization here. Among African nations, Guinea suffered one of the tightest of Big Man dictatorships--26 years under its first leader, Ahmed Sekou Toure. Now, as most African countries shift from Cold War authoritarianism toward democracy, Guinea is tagging along--not, Guineans say, because Conte is a committed democrat, but because it is the only way to avoid isolating himself and the country from the rest of the world.

Civil wars in four neighboring West African states have complicated Guinea's crawl toward democracy and Guineans' fears that their country could be next. An estimated 700,000 refugees from the fighting strain Guinea's land and economy.

Forty years ago, as Africans demanded independence from European colonizers, Sekou Toure fired the pride of many blacks. When France pressed its colonies to accept partial independence as members of a French Community, Sekou Toure led Guinea to refuse--the only French colony to do so. "We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery," he lectured French president Charles de Gaulle.

Paris severed all cooperation, destroying government equipment and records as its bureaucrats pulled out. His infant state crippled, Sekou Toure sought help from the Soviet bloc and built a dictatorship that killed or jailed thousands of dissidents.

Sekou Toure died in 1984, but his intolerance of dissent "built reflexes among the people," said Saliou Samb, editor of l'Independant Plus, a weekly newspaper. "People are not aware of democratic rights and it is difficult to speak up about freedom of speech or the press."

Since 1990, Africa's shift toward democracy has seeped into Guinea. Conte legalized opposition political parties and allowed multiparty elections. While the elections have not been demonstrably free and fair, Guineans say, they are improving.

Conte tolerates independent newspapers and a legislature that is trying to assert itself. Opposition legislators, for example, are pushing a bill to permit private radio and TV stations in Guinea, one of the few West African countries to retain a state monopoly on broadcasting.

As have many African leaders, Conte defends his tight rule by saying it is necessary to avoid ethnic conflict. But many Guineans and foreign analysts say continued repression--directed notably at Sekou Toure's once dominant group, the Malinkes--risks sparking an upheaval.

Guinea's vulnerability is deepened by wars in Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Liberia that have glutted the region with arms and impoverished guerrilla fighters. Sierra Leonean rebels escalated attacks on Guinean border villages until May, but a peace accord signed this month remains fragile. For now, the estimated 350,000 Sierra Leonean refugees here are staying put.

The clearest sign of the limits to Guinean democracy is the imprisonment of Alpha Conde, Conte's chief political opponent. Conde, who finished third in December's presidential election, was detained near the border with Ivory Coast the day after the vote. Officials, who had closed the borders for the election, initially said they picked him up to prevent him from leaving the country illegally.

But officials have held Conde for seven months, hinting that he was plotting an invasion from abroad or trying to smuggle foreign currency. The government recently said Conde is to be tried in September, but offers little explanation of the charges against him or why it is taking so long to try the case.

Similarly, the independent press gets few explanations for frequent arrests of journalists or police raids on their offices. In April, police arrested Jean-Baptiste Kourouma, the deputy editor of l'Independant Plus. Samb said he supposes it was because Kourouma had written an article saying a government minister had diverted a large contribution to Conte's election campaign.

On his release, Kourouma, 60, entered a hospital for treatment of a kidney illness. When he published an article on his detention, police arrested him at the hospital, held him for another two weeks, and this time administered beatings, Samb said.

"Insofar as [the government] tolerates us, it is because [it] needs us to appear presentable to the outside world and get its assistance," Samb said.

CAPTION: Lansana Conte has ruled Guinea from an army barracks for 15 years since seizing power in a coup.