Guinea’s military in no hurry to return to the barracks
Guinea’s military junta, in power for almost a year, recently announced its plan to rule for another three years. It followed up this unilateral decision with a blanket protest ban. When democracy protests went ahead in July, they ended in deadly violence and the detention of protest leaders. The army has made clear it doesn’t intend to abide by its Transitional Charter and promises of consultation. While the government reportedly recently agreed to shave a year off its timeline, it should face concerted pressure to reverse its protest ban and allow people to express their dissatisfaction with military rule.
Having recently given itself a generous three-year grace period, Guinea’s military junta is clearly in no hurry to hand over power.
The military’s National Committee of Reconciliation and Development (CNRD) has already been in power for almost a year, having forced out President Alpha Condé in a coup in September 2021. Condé made himself unpopular with many by engineering a third presidential term, sanctioned through a flawed referendum and followed by an election marked by appalling security force violence.
Last year, some people took to the streets to celebrate the ousting of a president who had parted ways with democracy. Similar scenes greeted coups in Mali in 2020 and Burkina Faso in 2022. In all cases the military has claimed to be briefly intervening to restore constitutional rule – but then transitions are mysteriously delayed. In Mali, a return to democratic rule was promised this year, but the current plan is to hold a presidential election as late as February 2024.
In Guinea the junta’s initial actions sent reassuring signals: it released many of the people jailed during the 2020 election, reached out to civil society and opposition parties, and published a National Transitional Charter. Civil society cautiously engaged. But the process lacked a key element: there was no timetable for a transition.
That’s until 13 May, when the junta announced the transition would take three years. This unilateral announcement was in clear breach of the Transitional Charter, which stated that the timetable was to be agreed through consultation.
Two days later came a second announcement: protests deemed ‘likely to compromise social tranquillity’ or prevent the implementation of the military’s announced timetable are now banned until the eventual election campaign begins – which could mean years of no legal protest.
The junta is doing everything possible to restrict civic space and silence any dissenting voices.
This is hardly the act of a government that seriously intends to move towards democracy – or that respects its own Transitional Charter, which says it guarantees the freedom of assembly, among other core civic freedoms.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the junta, having realised its unilateral and lengthy extension of its rule would be unpopular, moved to stamp out dissent.
Protests bring violence
That the junta means business with its protest ban was amply demonstrated in July. The National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC) – a coalition of civil society groups and opposition parties that demands democracy – called a protest on 28 July in the capital, Conakry. Armed forces were deployed, and when protesters burned tyres and threw stones, the army sprayed teargas. FNDC reported that five people had been killed.
The junta’s retaliation to this show of defiance didn’t stop there. Shortly after the protest it arrested and detained two FNDC leaders and a senior opposition party official. They are charged not only with participating in a prohibited gathering, but also with looting, destruction of property and assault and battery.
Earlier in the month FNDC activists, who are also members of regional democracy network Tournons la Page, were violently arrested during a media conference.
FNDC first mobilised against Condé’s third-term plans. The same people who were detained for expressing dissent under Condé’s rule are now being arrested by the forces that rid the country of Condé.
Voices from the frontline
Abdoulaye Oumou Sow is head of communications at FNDC.
The CNRD, the junta in power since September 2021, is more interested in seizing power than organising elections. It is doing everything possible to restrict civic space and silence any dissenting voices that try to protest and remind them that the priority of a transition must be the return to constitutional order. It is imprisoning leaders and members of civil society and the political opposition for mobilising to demand elections, and has just ordered the dissolution of the FNDC under false accusations of organising armed demonstrations on the streets and acting as a combat group or private militia.
In violation of Article 77 of the Transitional Charter, which provides for the duration of the transition to be determined by agreement between the CNRD and the country’s main social and political actors, the military junta has unilaterally set a duration of 36 months without listening to the opinion of social and political forces. The junta is currently set on not listening to anyone.
The military are savagely repressing citizens who are mobilising for democracy and demanding the opening of a frank dialogue between the country’s social and political forces and the CNRD to agree on a reasonable timeframe for the return to constitutional order. Lacking the will to let go of power, the head of the junta is wallowing in arrogance and contempt. His attitude is reminiscent of the heyday of the dictatorship of the deposed regime of Alpha Condé.
The junta runs the country like a military camp. Starting on 13 May 2002, a CNRD communiqué has banned all demonstrations on public spaces. This decision is contrary to Article 8 of the Transitional Charter, which protects fundamental freedoms. Human rights violations have subsequently multiplied. Civic space is completely under lock and key. Activists are persecuted, some have been arrested and others are living in hiding. Despite the many appeals of human rights organisations, the junta multiplies its abuses against pro-democracy citizens.
The democratic future of the region is at stake in our country. If the international community, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in particular, remains silent, it will set a dangerous precedent for the region. Because of its management of the previous crisis generated by the third mandate of Alpha Condé, Guinean citizens do not have much faith in the sub-regional institution. From now on, the force of change must come from within, through the determination of the people of Guinea to take their destiny in hand.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Abdoulaye. Read the full interview here.
The protests aren’t over, and neither is their repression. A mobilisation planned for 4 August was suspended following talks between FNDC and regional body ECOWAS. But more are planned. On 15 August, the democracy movement took its demands outside the country, as hundreds of FNDC supporters held a demonstration outside the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels. Two days later, when another protest was held in Conakry, a young man was reportedly shot dead.
By then, the junta had moved to dissolve FNDC, announcing this with immediate effect on 10 August, on the confected grounds that it is an armed group.
International pressure needed
The military have shown their true colours. Civil society and opposition parties have gone from partners in consultation to enemies to be attacked, detained and banned. The Transitional Charter isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
ECOWAS imposed sanctions following the coup and has pushed the junta to commit to a quicker timetable for transition. In July it was reported that following talks the junta had agreed to shorten the timeline by a year. But the military’s refusal to lift the protest ban shows how prepared it is to ignore international disapproval.
It’s a testing time for democracy in ECOWAS, with three of its 15 members – Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali – under military rule that shows no signs of giving way, and several others having ceremonial rather than functioning democracies.
But the military’s blatant suppression of protests should make this a more urgent matter. Its protest ban is a clear breach of African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights guidelines, which guarantee the right to protest and state that blanket bans can only come as a last resort.
There’s a pressing need to defend the right to protest in Guinea. Protest is effectively the only means by which civilian groups can communicate to the military their unhappiness with both the lax timetable for transition and the unilateral nature of decision-making and demand a faster and more consultative process. It the junta wants its claims of transition to be taken seriously, it must let people protest.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The military junta must immediately reverse its ban on protests and release all those detained for protesting.
The junta should commit to fresh consultations with civil society and political parties on the timetable and process for transition.
ECOWAS and the African Union should strongly urge the junta to end its protest ban and stick to a shorter transition timetable.
Cover photo by Front National Pour La Défense De La Constitution-FNDC/Facebook