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We should not ignore Guinea’s constitutional coup

COMMENT

As Africa watchers focus their attention on the military coup in Mali and a contentious upcoming election in Côte d’Ivoire, another crisis is unfolding in Guinea with little notice. But recent developments show Guinea deserves further scrutiny.

On Sunday, Guineans will go to the polls to vote whether to grant President Alpha Condé a third term in office despite the two-term constitutional limit. 

The story has a familiar ring — a constitutional referendum approved in a vote boycotted by the opposition and a president claiming this “resets” the mandate count, allowing him another term (or even two). Since 2015, at least 13 African leaders have attempted to bypass or weaken term limits while in power.

With the opposition divided between 11 candidates, Condé is likely to be re-elected, rendering Guinea as yet another data point in the continent’s worrying trend of “third termism”. 

Condé was elected in 2010 in the country’s first democratic elections after decades of authoritarian rule followed by a military coup d’état. A veteran opposition leader who had never served in government, Condé banked on his outsider status and support from his Malinké ethnic group to clinch the presidency in the second round, pledging to raise standards of living, reform the military, rewrite the mining code and be “both the Mandela and the Obama of Guinea” among other promises.

Guinea President Alpha Conde addresses his supporters during a campaign rally in Kissidougou on October 12, 2020. – Presidential elections are to be held on October 18, 2020, with incumbent President bidding for a third term in office, defying critics who say he forced through a new constitution this year enabling him to sidestep two-term presidential limits. (Photo by CAROL VALADE / AFP)

Guinea’s 2010 transition sparked hope that Condé would lead the country on a path toward democracy, but Guinea appears to be creeping more toward its authoritarian past. Condé has consolidated power under the presidency, gaining excessive control over state resources and institutions that further preserve his authority, including the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante and state security forces. 

Corruption allegations and scandals have plagued Condé throughout his mandate, particularly related to the mining sector he promised to overhaul to the benefit of Guineans. Protesting has again become a deadly activity in Guinea, with at least 102 killed since Condé was first elected. Furthermore, Condé is 82 years old — another two terms would put him in power until 2032, when he will be 94 years old. More than 60% of the population is under the age of 25.

The election is a reminder that democratisation is a continual process and does not conclude with the free and fair election of one man, even if he is an experienced opposition figure. In fact, Condé himself opposed the removal of presidential term limits under Lansana Conté in 2001. 

In addition to broad support for the two-term limit in Guinea, regular elections and transfers of power are critical so that leaders remain accountable to citizens. Condé has profited from the past 10 years to consolidate power and authority under the presidency. As a result, he has no incentive to heed the weakened institutions that are unable to provide much-needed checks and balances on his rule.

A supporter holds up a painting of main opposition candidate, Cellou Dalein Diallo in Conakry on October 14, 2020. – The president of Guinea, Alpha Conde is bidding for a third term in office with the Presidential elections to be held on October the 18th, defying critics who say he forced through a new constitution this year enabling him to sidestep two-term presidential limits. (Photo by JOHN WESSELS / AFP)

Unrest has broken out regularly since October last year during key events related to the referendum and the election. Clashes in Nzérékoré on the day of the constitutional referendum in March resulted in an unknown number of casualties who were buried in a mass grave

Violence has occurred along the same ethno-religious lines that marked previous clashes, signalling a risk of future instability in an already delicate context. Furthermore, the trial of suspected perpetrators of the 2009 Conakry stadium massacre has yet to begin, leaving justice and reconciliation an elusive dream for the victims’ families.

The country’s extensive bauxite deposits have piqued the interests of international players who are probably exerting pressure behind the scenes to ensure the most beneficial outcome for their investments. 

Russia, whose aluminum firm Rusal sources 40% of its bauxite from Guinea, publicly supported Condé’s bid for a third term as early as January last year. China is probably opening its diplomatic toolkit as well, as it finalises the construction of the 450-megawatt dam in Souapiti as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. 

In addition, a China-backed consortium is making progress on a long-delayed development project targeting possibly the world’s largest untapped iron ore deposit in southeastern Guinea.

The outcome of the election, and the international reaction to it, will send a message to neighbouring leaders attempting to extend their rule through constitutional manipulation. Guinea’s election will be followed by a similar attempt at a constitutional coup by Alassane Ouattara in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, who backtracked on his promise to step down after two terms when his hand-selected protégé died suddenly earlier this year. 

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), always quick to denounce and impose sanctions in cases of military coups as happened in Mali in August, has been silent on Guinea, preferring instead to protect incumbents and preserve stability where violence has not yet broken out. 

But swift and blunt responses from Ecowas, the African Union and other international actors to the circumvention of term limits will be critical to safeguarding democratic will in Guinea and the region.

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Miriam Frost
Miriam Frost is the West Africa programme officer at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington DC

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