Guinea: no timetable for democracy
Guinea’s military leaders, who ousted an illegitimate president in September, currently enjoy some popular support. The junta has made positive moves, including releasing political prisoners and announcing a plan for transition to democracy. But this plan has no timetable, and the military could stay in power for the long-term. While key business partners like China predictably don’t care whether Guinea is democratic, regional institutions are applying pressure. But they are doing it too late: they should have acted when the ousted president rewrote the constitution and won fraudulent elections. Africa’s institutions need to push for the substance rather than the mere rituals of democracy.
When the military took over the government of Guinea on 5 September, many people took to the streets to celebrate. President Alpha Condé had long lost any pretence of legitimacy, having pushed through a constitutional change that erased term limits and brutally suppressed protests before remaining in office through a flawed election in 2020. The military took advantage of the fact that there was no public appetite for Condé’s continuing power. But nothing good can come from long-term military rule.
Positive steps but one big problem
Coup leader Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, head of the elite Special Forces Group, quickly named himself president. Military officers have been put in charge of all levels of government, from the national to the local. Many former officials have been ousted. Condé was placed under military detention and barred from leaving Guinea.
Doumbouya continued to assure people, inside and outside Guinea, that his would be only a temporary role. He said his mission was to ‘refound the state’ and then hand it over. He promised a smooth transition of power and stated that neither he nor any member of the military government will stand in an eventual election. Opposition leaders back the coup, characterising it as a second, corrective coup to restore democracy following Condé’s first coup of rewriting the constitution.
The junta has taken some positive steps. It has released many of the political prisoners jailed around the election. It has promised to put on trial those responsible for the notorious 2009 Conakry stadium massacre – in which over 150 protesters against military rule were killed and numerous women raped – something Condé failed to do. It quickly began consultations with civil society, faith leaders, opposition parties, business leaders and diplomats.
On 28 September, the military government published the National Transitional Charter, ostensibly setting out a roadmap for the restoration of democracy, entailing a new constitution and the holding of elections. It establishes a legislative body, the National Transitional Council, tasked with drafting the new constitution, with representatives from opposition parties, civil society organisations and others. Anyone who served in the Condé regime is barred from it.
A new civilian prime minister, former civil servant Mohamed Beavogui, has been named. He hasn’t served in government before, so he looks like a clean pair of hands. There is rightly no way back to power for Condé.
There’s just one big problem with all this: there’s no timeline for the restoration of democracy. It isn’t remotely clear when the new constitution might be drafted and when elections will take place.
That’s a problem because there’s a distressingly long track record of what happens when the military, with broad public approval, kick out corrupt and illegitimate presidents. What happened when the military took power in neighbouring Mali last August is a case in point. There, the army is still in government over a year on and in May it organised a ‘coup within a coup’, forcing out the interim president and prime minister it had installed. Promised election dates have come and gone.
Time and again military governments have promised they will be temporary correctives with the only function of restoring democracy. But generals who become presidents tend to start enjoying the role. Their temporary office becomes permanent, often sanctioned through a fake election, as in Thailand. As time goes on, they tend to buttress their position with increasing authoritarianism. This must be the fear in Guinea now.
While moves such as the release of political prisoners are welcome, already there’s concern about media freedom. Private media has been prevented from covering the national consultations, with coverage monopolised by state media, and in October shots were fired during an army raid on a media outlet owned by a Condé supporter.
Such examples show once again that civic freedoms can never depend on the largesse and whims of a leader, subject to withdrawal at any time; rights must be guaranteed in laws and realised in practice, underpinned by functioning democracy.
Civic freedoms can never depend on the largesse and whims of a leader, subject to withdrawal at any time.
Business as usual for foreign mining corporations
There seem few international levers to put pressure on Guinea’s new leaders. Unlike Mali, among other West African states, Guinea is not seen as particularly strategic by western states. It is not home to western bases. It has thankfully been largely untouched by the scourge of Islamist terrorism.
What Guinea does have is minerals, in abundance. It is the world’s second-largest producer of bauxite, the ore that contains aluminium, crucial for industry the world over. It also has iron ore, gold and diamonds.
Mining is crucial to Guinea. It accounts for 78 per cent of all export earnings and 18 per cent of GDP. Demand for bauxite is high and Guinea’s GDP has grown by as much as five per cent a year. But it’s the usual story: the country is rich but its people are poor. They are no better off from recent growth. Successive presidents have proven corrupt. Perhaps the military will surprise everyone and set a precedent by resisting the corruption that has lured all the country’s past leaders.
Guinea provides more than half of all the bauxite processed in China. Russian interests are also significant: there are three Russian-owned bauxite mines and a refinery, and Russia has in the past been accused of interfering to keep Condé in power. The coup caused a surge in bauxite prices, as investors feared a shortfall in production, but Doumbouya was quick to minimise disruption, and the mines continued to operate.
China and Russia might have been perturbed but will now have been assured that the change won’t threaten their business interests. The military has signalled it will be business as usual for them, and any failure to move towards democracy will be no problem for these two powerful autocracies.
Regional bodies act too late
While major business partners can be expected to do nothing, the key regional institutions, the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) acted quickly: both suspended Guinea’s membership. A range of ECOWAS economic sanctions followed on military leaders and their families. ECOWAS has insisted that elections be held within six months.
The stern line taken by ECOWAS is commendable. This is a big test of the institution’s credibility, as so far Guinea has allowed ECOWAS teams to visit but showed no sign of heeding its demands. But ECOWAS’s credibility is also strained by its past actions towards Guinea. It did nothing when Condé rewrote the constitution and trampled down on dissent at the election. ECOWAS and AU teams even called the election free and fair, ignoring people’s complaints, presumably out of some misguided hope of ensuring stability.
Credibility is also undermined by the actions of other member states. ECOWAS is stuffed with countries led by people who did what Condé did. Two generations of the Gnassingbé family have held the presidency of Togo since 1967. Benin’s President Patrice Talon faced only token opposition at his April 2021 re-election and opposition leaders have since been jailed. And Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Dramane Ouattara won an unconstitutional third term last August. It seems ECOWAS acts strongly in response to coups but not to blatant perversions of democracy; as long as the ceremonial trappings of elections are observed, it will stand back.
If action had been taken against Condé when he tore up the constitution, the coup might not have happened. Perhaps stronger action following the Mali coup and the military’s takeover of Chad would have sent a deterrent signal too. What Chad, Guinea and Mali have in common is that they all had evidently undemocratic leaders who self-servingly twisted the political system, and now they are run by the military.
Genuine democracy is the best defence against a coup, because it makes public support for the military unlikely. ECOWAS must start engaging on the substance of democracy – and that means acting on term limits and pushing for routine peaceful transfers of power. It means it must start hearing the voices of civil society, who act as the early warning system when democracy is under attack.
Need for more pressure
The junta must face ongoing pressure to produce a timetable for transition, and to stick to it. Otherwise it should face stiffer sanctions. People in Guinea deserve the right to elect a government that serves them rather than itself – perhaps even one that might offer some progress on tackling corruption and distributing the country’s wealth more fairly.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The military government must produce an immediate timetable for transition to democracy over the shortest possible time.
The military government should continue to engage in dialogue with a broad sweep of civil society to develop the new constitution.
ECOWAS should intensify sanctions in the absence of a timetable for transition.