Military officers overthrew the regime of Alpha Condé on 5 September 2021, less than a year after the former Guinean president had started a controversial third term. In response, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) suspended the country from their decision-making organs and demanded a ‘reasonable’ timetable for transition.
Two weeks after the coup, ECOWAS and the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) proposed a six-month timetable – a deadline that most Guineans deemed unrealistic. The major problem was that the timeline focused on only one element of the process. This was the holding of elections as ‘urgent restoration of normal constitutional order’ underlined in the PSC’s communiqué of the council’s 1036th meeting in October 2021.
Over a year later, Guinean authorities and ECOWAS agreed on a 24-month transition period starting in December 2022. The PSC welcomed this agreement at its 1116th meeting in Addis Ababa on 31 October 2022.
By contrast, the new approach adopted by ECOWAS that led to the October 2022 agreement provided an action plan and implementation timetable allowing certain actions to be carried out simultaneously. This approach facilitated the adoption of a results-based timeline and agenda that could easily be monitored. It also allowed for a more realistic estimation of transition time needed.
Key transitional elements
The transition covers 10 essential elements that authorities consider necessary for in-depth sociopolitical state reform. These include conducting two types of population census, preparing the electoral registrar, adopting a new constitution, establishing an election management body and organising elections (referendum, local, legislative and presidential). However, some political actors argue that the transition should focus only on actions necessary for a return to constitutional order. They fear some elements of the agenda could prolong the process.
To reassure sceptics, transitional president Colonel Mamady Doumbouya pledged to respect the timetable. On 9 February 2023, he issued a presidential decree establishing a monitoring and evaluation committee under the authority of Prime Minister Bernard Gomou. But the committee seems to have been set up unilaterally without consulting ECOWAS – contrary to the spirit of the October 2022 agreement.
The ECOWAS representative on the committee is treated as an observer rather than a member. Yet having ECOWAS – which would also speak for the AU – as a fully fledged member would not only respect the spirit of the October agreement but also build trust with Guinea’s political actors.
Three important elements of the transition agenda deserve highlighting. One is the new constitution, which should define the choice of institutions, accountability mechanisms and legal safeguards to protect them. The controversial 2020 constitution adopted by Condé, gave him disproportionate powers to choose constitutional court members, making this vital judicial body vulnerable to political interference.
Presidential term limits and safeguards will also be decided in the constitution, as will Parliament’s powers and relationship with the executive. Yet constitutions provide legal guidance and cannot fully delineate political leaders’ behaviour. What ensures good governance is political will and attitudes.
Guinea has suffered from poor governance under corrupt and power-hungry politicians. The political landscape needs rigorous public scrutiny to ensure post-transition leaders act in the national interest and respect the ethics of sound and accountable governance.
The second significant issue is the electoral management body. Since inception in the mid-2000s, successive electoral commissions have comprised political party members with only a few representatives from civil society. This has meant that participants’ political rivalries often affected their objectivity. Many observers have called for a non-partisan commission whose members are chosen for their technical expertise and impartiality, not affiliation.
The voters' roll is the third important element. Its quality and inclusivity will be essential in deciding the acceptability of future election results. The context in which the action plan is implemented also matters. No effort can be spared in ensuring the transition is as inclusive as possible. Financial and technical resources are also required. Thus it is encouraging that the transitional government has already provided budget lines for some of the 10 transitional elements. But more funding will be needed.
Some bilateral and multilateral partners in the country indicate a willingness to contribute, but they require specific activities from the action plan, with clear budget lines. Transitional authorities need to indicate how much they can organise and what gaps must be filled. ECOWAS and the AU should also contribute funds to ensure regional ownership of transition support.
This falls in line with the PSC request to the AU Commission at the end of the former’s 1116th meeting ‘to develop a support programme for countries in transition, especially Guinea, in conjunction with the ECOWAS Commission’. This, it stated, would address issues such as national reconciliation and governance ‘premised by national ownership and leadership’. In fact, this has been a consistent call by the PSC not only for Guinea but also for all countries in transition since 2019.
To avoid tensions that could jeopardise the process, dialogue with all stakeholders is needed on important aspects of the transition agenda. Due process in legal proceedings must also be followed. The transition president, prime minister, religious leaders and the ECOWAS mediator can all help to prevent and manage conflict. Politicians must also put national interest above partisan and personal considerations.
Contact group framework
AU and ECOWAS collaboration on the Guinea situation has been coherent and is based on the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity. This is also true for other countries in transition, particularly in West Africa. However, both organisations seem to have neglected the management of the current wave of military transitions using an important coordination framework successfully used before – the international contact group.
The group framework allows close and regular monitoring of transition processes with the involvement of transition authorities – even those suspended from decision-making organs and the international community. While it would have been ideal to think of this from the start, as with other transitions in the region that occurred between 2008 and 2015 (Mauritania, Guinea, Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Niger), it is worth reconsidering where appropriate.
Manipulated democratic processes
The Guinea communiqué of the 1030th PSC meeting of 10 September 2021, with several PSC pronouncements, addresses the sustainable prevention of military coups and other unconstitutional changes of government in Africa. The AU and regional economic communities, it notes, must undertake a comprehensive and objective analysis of the causes and impact of unconstitutional government changes arising from non-consensual and/or politically manipulated democratic processes.
They should, it continues, take effective actions against guilty governments and sitting leaders. This is crucial as the credibility of regional and continental structures and the alignment of their decisions with the aspirations of African citizens depend largely on managing such situations.