Can coups be removed from Guinea’s political culture?

The transition process should focus on building strong, accountable institutions rather than just a government of national unity.

On 5 September, Guineans woke up to the news of a military coup against the president Alpha Condé. What started as rumours were confirmed when footage of Condé in the hands of military officers circulated on social media. The disgraced president and now captive was driven around the streets of Conakry to the crowd’s jubilations. 

The coup effectively ended 82-year old Condé’s contested third term, which he won after a change to the country’s constitution allowed him to run in the October 2020 elections. His constitutional manoeuvring drew protests from Guineans in which about 400 people were arrested. Many political figures and social activists were jailed, while some died in detention. As with previous regimes, victims of political repression have not seen any justice.

This lack of accountability is a major problem holding back Guinea’s transition to democracy and stability. To remove coups from the country’s political culture, leaders need to promote and uphold justice and systematically end impunity.

The military overthrow brought back the perennial tension between the democratisation and militarisation of politics. The latter seems to be gaining ground in West Africa. Experiences under various military governments since the 2000s show that, with a few exceptions, insurrections are no longer staged by generals. Most recent coup leaders have come from the lower military echelons – largely captains and sometimes colonels. This exposes the vulnerability, if not a lack of cohesion, in the national security apparatus. 

A lack of accountability is a major problem holding back Guinea’s transition to democracy

This is the third military intrusion in Guinea’s national politics since the country’s independence in 1958. At the death of its first president Ahmed Sékou Touré in 1984, Colonel Lansana Conté staged a coup and then held onto power for 24 years until his death in 2008. He was quickly replaced by another military leader, Captain Moïse Dadis Camara, in an ouster that plunged Guinea into several years of violent political repression.

As the country’s first democratically elected president, Condé’s assumption of office in 2010 raised hopes for democratic progress, political stability and better management of the country’s vast natural resources. Instead, his rule epitomised the failure of a political opponent who swept to power on a democratic agenda only to later scorn and abuse it.

Guinea’s coup seems to have received the endorsement of most citizens because of Condé’s bad governance and repression, and the country’s widespread poverty. National, regional and continental responses to Guinea’s key governance challenges haven’t been effective. 

Ironically, while in office, Condé didn’t realise that he had made himself vulnerable by weakening systems that provide checks and balances, and using the military rather than citizen-based legitimacy to maintain power. His legacy will cost the country dearly. By changing the constitution to allow his third-term bid for president, and stoking tensions between communities, the scene has been set for political trouble. 

Condé made himself vulnerable by weakening checks and balances and using the military to maintain power

Guinea now faces the daunting challenge of planning another transition. This will be its fifth attempt since 1984 to embrace and move closer to genuine democratic rule. The country will likely see a flurry of diplomatic attention with partners seeking to guide the transition back to political normalcy.

The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States have suspended Guinea’s membership. Both bodies are committed to helping stabilise the country along with other external partners such as France, which expressed support for a quick return to constitutional order.

The transition process should be driven by Guinean citizens. Social and political actors need a role in assessing the causes of instability and designing a new political pact that can withstand future manipulation. The recent coup gives Guinea this opportunity. 

The country’s past experiences are rich in lessons on the use of political violence to acquire and maintain power. These need to be incorporated into new democratic institutions to guarantee their resilience and sustainability.

Guinea now faces its fifth attempt since 1984 to embrace and move closer to genuine democratic rule

As civil society and political representatives meet to chart the transition, more attention is needed on institution building and adherence to the rule of law rather than the shallow concept of a government of national unity.

Contrary to popular sentiment, the recent succession of coups in West and Central Africa (two in Mali in less than a year, then Chad and now Guinea) shouldn’t raise questions about the applicability of democracy in Africa. Rather the problem stems from faulty governance systems that thrive on corruption, a lack of accountability and decades of weak service delivery.

African countries need to systematically address the ambiguities related to bad governance and unconstitutional changes of government. There is plenty of evidence from the AU and other policy discussions about the conditions that legitimise these processes, such as authoritarian rulers, ineffective constitutional arms of government, and military involvement. 

The AU and regional economic communities should prioritise how to deal with unconstitutional retention of power among their member states. A good place to start the process of removing coups from a country’s political culture is to openly condemn and sanction leaders who abuse their power. 

David Zounmenou, Senior Research Consultant, ISS

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Photo: Human Rights Watch

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