‘Freedom’: People celebrate in the streets with members of the armed forces after the arrest of Guinea’s president, Alpha Condé. (Cellou Binani/AFP)
Early on 5 September, residents of Kaloum in downtown Conakry were roused from their sleep by the sound of heavy gunfire near the Sékoutouréyah Palace.
No one knew what was going on until midday, when Lieutenant Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, the head of the army’s Special Forces Group, appeared in a video alongside two soldiers. From a desk, his eyes masked by dark sunglasses, Doumbouya announced that a “national rally and development committee” had detained President Alpha Condé, dissolved the government and rejected the constitution. All land and air borders would be immediately closed, he said.
Another video appeared, serving perhaps as the coup de grâce: the 83-year-old head of state is seen reclining on a sofa, seemingly casually, with his shirt open. But he is visibly strained. Silent, he looks away in anger when one of the coup plotters asks him if he has been mistreated. Other images flood social media of the president in a vehicle, surrounded by soldiers, bound for an unknown destination.
There can be no doubt: the first democratically elected president in Guinea’s history had just been ousted in a military coup.
Usually suspicious of the army, the people of Conakry celebrated. They took to the streets with cries of “Freedom! Freedom! Doumbouya! Doumbouya!”
Many converged on military camps and bases to show their appreciation.
In the Bambéto district, the epicentre of long-running protests against Condé, men in uniform were suddenly being treated as heroes — much to their surprise. The crossroads of the same name, the starting point for multiple opposition protests, was occupied throughout the day by euphoric crowds of thousands.
Condé made his name as a brave and outspoken opponent of the various military regimes and dictatorships that preceded him.
When he was elected in 2010, he promised that things would be different. But the man known as “Le Professeur” failed to meet the aspirations of his people, despite favourable economic conditions for much of his tenure.
Despite some minor improvements, basic services such as electricity and running water remain a luxury in Guinea. The country’s roads are in terrible shape, perhaps the worst in West Africa. And despite being the world’s second-largest producer of bauxite, this vast mineral wealth has seemed to benefit only a handful of individuals in Condé’s orbit.
But it was in seeking to change the constitution, to allow himself to run for a third term in office, that the president’s despotic nature became impossible to ignore.
Condé succeeded in making this change, and then won a disputed election last October, but his prolonged stay in the presidential palace came at great cost. Dozens of demonstrators were killed by his security forces and many more injured, hundreds of political opponents, journalists and activists were imprisoned and there was increasing isolation from regional and international communities.
His frequent insults against his own people — “Guineans are afraid, they are like a turtle, you have to put a fire in their behinds,” he said at a conference in February — made him even less popular.
“The Guinean political system lives by recycling its authoritarian spirit,” said Amadou Sadjo Barry, a professor of philosophy. “Alpha Condé has helped renew the logic of arbitrariness and establish military legitimacy.”
Ironically, it was the Special Forces Group created in 2018 by the president that brought him down. At the head of this battalion of 500 men is 37-year-old Doumbouya, who is recognised as much for his physique as for his military career.
Speaking after the coup, he said he was ridding Guinea of corrupt elites, and promised to install a government of national unity for a transitional period before democracy and the rule of law is restored.
Guinea has heard all this before. The country is now onto its third military coup. But this one appears to enjoy the support of most citizens.
“However, we must remain suspicious,” said political scientist Kabinet Fofana. He also warned that further instability could come from Doumbouya’s disagreements with Defence Minister Mohamed Diané, who is seen as a threat.
For now, the reaction of the international community has been muted, with the Economic Community of West African States restricting itself to suspending the country and demanding Condé’s release.
Even amid the fears and uncertainty about Guinea’s immediate future, no one appears to be especially sorry to see Condé go.
This story was first published by The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. To subscribe, click here.