Foreign Policy

Denounce Guinea’s Coup—and Incumbent Leaders’ Abuses of Energy

On Sept. 5, Guinea’s controversial President Alpha Condé was deposed from power by an elite military group led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya that was established in 2018 to battle growing terrorist threats in the region.

Doumbouya wants to be seen as a defender of democracy against one-man rule, paraphrasing in his first televised public address sentiments of the late Ghanaian military strongman-turned-President Jerry Rawlings: “If the people are crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom,” Doumbouya said.

Coming on the heels of successful coups in neighboring Mali and Chad, and an unsuccessful attempt in Niger, the coup has revived fears of military governments.

In line with its zero-tolerance policy toward military takeovers, the African Union suspended Guinea on Sept. 10, two days after the Economic Community of West African Nations (ECOWAS) did the same. The United Nations, European Union, United States, and France have all condemned the coup and called for Condé’s release.

The 83-year-old Condé is no democrat. His second presidential term was characterized by increasing authoritarianism. Notably, he orchestrated a fraudulent third term in October 2020 after manipulating the constitutional two-term limit through a rigged referendum in March 2020, brutally suppressing peaceful protests in the process. The AU and ECOWAS failed to denounce this effective constitutional coup. This reluctance to stand up to such self-coups has fed a strong sense of hypocrisy and undermined these organizations’ standing when denouncing military coups.

Indeed, the regional and international condemnation contrasts with the celebrations of the coup in Guinea. Prominent civil society and opposition leaders, notably Cellou Dalein Diallo, who lost the 2020 presidential election to Condé, have welcomed the coup as a necessary evil to reverse the country’s descent into autocracy.

Ironically, amid a coup, and even with the possibility of a counter-coup, the country is probably less tense now than in the past several months. Several military checkpoints have already been dismantled, particularly in areas of Conakry opposed to Condé.

The coup leaders seem to be saying and doing all the right things so far. Political prisoners have been released, and the main opposition party has been allowed to access its headquarters, after being blocked for months by Condé’s regime. Even some former ruling party officials and supporters appear to be changing tack, with elements in the party expressing support for Doumbouya’s National Committee for Reconciliation and Development.

The new coup came a little over one year after Condé orchestrated the constitutional coup. In doing so, Condé had followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, the dictator Lansana Conté—a man he fought so hard and so long to depose. Conté amended the constitution to run again himself in 2003 and died in office in 2008, paving the way for a military takeover.

Following a brutal two-year military government, a new constitution was adopted, and elections were held in 2010. Condé won, becoming the first democratically elected president in the country’s history.

He seemed to have all the ingredients to become Guinea’s democratic legend. He came to power with a reputation of being a relentless crusader for democracy and human rights, and a foe of corruption. His tenure saw relatively good economic performance, particularly in the mining sector, with the country becoming one of the leading producers of bauxite and iron ore in the world. Although the economic windfall has yet to trickle down—and the country’ mineral-guaranteed debt levels, particularly toward China, have created worries—Guinea’s economic fortunes have markedly improved since 2010. Unsurprisingly, Condé was reelected in 2015.

Then, he squandered it all. Instead of gearing himself up to prepare the ground for the first ever peaceful transfer of power in the country, in line with the constitutional two-term limit, he manipulated the constitutional framework to push for an ostensibly new constitution in March 2020 to justify resetting the term count.

Guineans resisted the move, led by civil society groups and the opposition. Condé’s regime brutally suppressed the opposition, with hundreds killed and countless detained. Condé went on to win a contested and heavily rigged presidential election in October 2020 against longtime rival Diallo.

Condé’s years also saw increasing ethnicization of politics, notably between Diallo’s Fulani group and Condé’s Malinke, which together account for some 70 percent of the population.

The growing popular frustration pitted the military against an agitated public, with military leaders disgruntled with the inevitable instability Condé’s move generated. Rivalries within the military did not help. Condé and his defense minister established a parallel elite force, clearly designed to neutralize the growing prominence of Doumbouya’s forces. Reported attempts by Malinke community leaders to reconcile the growing wedge between the factions failed.

On top of this, under pressure from COVID-19, economic conditions deteriorated, with the price of fuel increasing by a whopping 20 percent in August alone.

In politics, as in life, the best time to leave is at the high point. Condé missed that moment and put himself before his country—seeing himself as the sole engineer of Guinea’s fate. He was wrong, and he will now be remembered as another failed dictator.

Condé is not as fortunate as Conté, who died. He has been removed from power and is in detention. The military has reportedly indicated that it would release him if he publicly resigned. But subsequent legal measures against Condé are a possibility, particularly in connection with the deaths during protests against his third-term bid and the election manipulation.

Condé is the third president in the region to be removed from power in recent memory in connection with constitutionally questionable attempts at a third term—following the popular uprising that removed Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso in 2014 and the 2010 military coup that removed Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja.

In all cases, as well as in Ivory Coast in 2020, when President Alassane Ouattara ran for a third term, the AU and ECOWAS were reluctant to publicly denounce the patently undemocratic constitutional manipulation that laid the groundwork for a third term. Nevertheless, they strongly rejected the coups that followed, despite the popular support the coups enjoyed.

This contrasting reaction has fed a sense across the region that hypocrisy is rampant in organizations that tolerate and protect incumbents no matter how much they bend the rules. The hypocrisy has undermined regional legitimacy and effectiveness when the AU or ECOWAS seeks to stand up against patently abusive coups (such as the Mali coups in 2020 and 2021). The Guinea situation marks the most serious challenge to this hypocrisy, coming as it has against a president guilty of a third-term manipulation.

Indeed, in three of the most notable coups in the past three years—namely those in Sudan, Mali, and Chad—the coup leaders have successfully managed to secure leading roles in the transitional governments despite AU opposition.

The Guinean coup leaders were likely aware of the weakened stature of regional institutions and confident of gaining popular support in pursuing their goals. They have preempted part of the AU-ECOWAS call by announcing plans to form a unified transitional government and to draft a new constitution.

In view of the recent experiences, the suspension from the AU and ECOWAS may not be sufficient to pressure the coup leaders to completely hand over power to a transitional civilian authority. Regional leaders have under the threat of sanctions demanded that the military “urgently and unconditionally return to the barracks” and called for civilian-led rule, but they may have to settle for a hybrid civilian-military transitional government, a relatively short transition period, and an assurance that the coup leaders won’t participate in the next elections.

On top of the continental precedents and the AU’s and ECOWAS’s lack of credibility in Guinea, the country’s critical position in global supply chains along with significant Russian and Chinese mineral holdings—Guinea supplies their aluminum industries—will limit the diplomatic tools available to the AU and ECOWAS.

If the AU, ECOWAS, and other subregional organizations want to revive their stature and address accusations of being a mere “big men’s club” protecting insiders, they have to implement a paradigm shift in the way they deal with incumbent leaders’ abuses.

First, they must be ready to call out and confront incumbents seeking to extend their terms in any manner or engaging in egregious electoral manipulations. Beyond this reactive and firefighting mode, they must endorse an unequivocal resolution affirming regular transfers of power as a fundamental African value.

Second, they must proactively identify and act in countries where presidents are serving their last terms from early on. This would require a deliberate strategy to engage political groups, prominent national figures, civil society, and other stakeholders in such countries to affirm support for democratic transitions of power, clearly state their expectations, and broadly prepare the ground for transitions.

Such early and proactive engagement and an on-the-ground presence are likely to reduce temptations for incumbent manipulation. Once the talk of term manipulation starts, it is often too late for engagement.

This means a different approach to planning and budgeting. International partners and donors should therefore work closely with the AU and regional communities to prioritize early warning and proactive planning to prevent crises, rather than intensifying engagement when a crisis hits.

Despite the popularity of the coup, concerns remain. The coup leaders would do well not to confuse the disdain toward Condé with support for themselves. If experience is anything to go by, military regimes in Guinea—the latest between 2008 and 2010—were brutal, including a 2009 massacre of over 100 opposition supporters at a rally protesting against former military leader Moussa Dadis Camara’s plan to run in the 2010 presidential elections.

The new strongmen should therefore enable a transition primarily led by civilians. While civil society and key opposition leaders have expressed interest and are likely to be part of the transitional arrangement, it is also important to ensure that the former ruling party—at least those members who did not actively support the third-term drive—is given space to participate.

The drafting of a new constitution should be more participatory and inclusive than the process Condé led in writing the 2020 constitution. Regional institutions should monitor this process and form partnerships with established supporters of constitution-building processes.

Given Guinea’s growing divide along ethnic lines, it would be useful to consider the value of rules that could incentivize cross-ethnic coalitions, including through requirements that candidates must receive a certain share of their support and votes outside their home regions, much like in Nigeria and Kenya.

The introduction of a new vice president position could similarly encourage cross-ethnic tickets for the presidency. Beyond this, mechanisms to ensure the efficient, effective, transparent, and sustainable management of natural resources and ensuring that proper benefits trickle down to local communities would be critical.

With the right African and international support, the situation presents a renewed opportunity to plant the seeds of democracy and reshape continental policies and approaches toward democratic transitions.

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