Guinea transition falls foul of Africa’s governance architecture

On 5 September 2021, Guinea experienced another coup d’état, led by Mamady Doumbouya, head of the country’s special forces. This is the third since its independence in 1958 and the third successful power grab in West Africa in just over a year (after the two coups in Mali in August 2020 and May 2021).

This military intervention in Guinea’s politics signals a failure of the civilian-led transition initiated in 2010 to usher in a democratic dispensation. It also highlights the challenges facing regional and continental norms in eradicating military power grabs to access and preserve power. Various coups d’état in Africa continue to test normative provisions promoting good governance. 

Shambolic 2010 transition

The event of September 2021 ends attempts at democratic political transition in Guinea. In 2008, soldiers of Guinea’s army led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara took advantage of the death of General Lansana Conte ― in power since 1984 ― to stage a coup.

Guinea endured two years of difficult and violent transition. The electoral process that followed to return the country to political normalcy saw Alpha Conde, a veteran political opponent, voted to power and tasked with building democracy. As historical as it might have appeared, Conde’s rule and contribution to democratisation did not meet citizens’ expectations.

Citizens’ hopes for democratic governance were dashed when Conde amended the 2010 constitution

Guinea’s post-transition political institutions were evidently not infused with democratic norms such as the separation of powers and respect for fundamental human rights and basic freedoms that shape a democracy. President Conde did all he could to craft the new political system to his advantage, a common practice in countries whose democratic trajectories have circumvented strong institutions and effective checks and balances.

Conde’s rule has targeted and arrested opposition leaders manipulated communities’ differences and banned protests, while developing a military repressive machinery as a base for his legitimacy. Citizens’ hopes for democratic governance were dashed when Conde amended the 2010 constitution and stood for a controversial third term. This is something he said he was opposed to during his years as a political opponent to late presidents Sekou Touré (1958 to 1984) and Conte (1984 to 2008).

Guinea effectively descended into authoritarianism with a series of violently repressed protests, corruption and the collapse of the political consensus that had guided its transition in 2010. Following the referendum on the amended constitution, the outcomes of the 2020 presidential election were contested, tarnishing Conde’s legitimacy.

International ambivalence

Quite often, the fear of coups d’état forces leaders to neglect the army, create divisions or appoint influential military officers in foreign embassies. It has also led to decisions by governments to invest more in special units devoted to the protection of the president and his close allies than in the rank and file. There are two implications. Either they make the president vulnerable if there is no solid institutional and people-based legitimacy and could cause a palace coup, or coups could be mounted by the army lower echelon.

Founded in 2018 and heavily equipped against potential threats of violent extremism, the special forces responsible for the coup also repressed protests against Conde’s third-term bid and against the presidential elections results. Yet, its loyalty to the regime was divided and influenced the decision to end Conde’s rule and respond to the legitimate aspirations of the citizens’.

ECOWAS suspended Guinea from its structures and imposed sanctions on the military leaders

Contrasting with jubilation that welcomed the coup across the country and probably through the region and beyond was the response of Guinea’s external partners. The African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) offered principled, ceremonial reprimands of the coup’s failure to sanction Conde’s own actions and decisions that derailed the democratic process.

ECOWAS suspended Guinea from its structures and imposed sanctions on the military leaders ― decisions endorsed by the AU, which insisted on Conde’s immediate release and a short transition to civilian rule. Neither demand was heeded by the junta.

The continental organisations’ reactions and decisions are derived from the existing normative frameworks to promote good governance as part of the peace and security architecture. However, the bodies’ lack of strong reactions against leaders’ abuses of power, manipulation of constitutions and electoral processes, and the lack of respect for African governance architecture, compromise their authority and credibility.

The AU, strategically, did not suspend Chad following the coup earlier this year. This led many observers to allege preferential treatment that reinforced the perception of the organisation’s double standards. This ambivalence further feeds public discontent with regional and continental bodies criticised by citizens for their lack of consistency in political crises.

Therefore, the challenges facing the international community and regional actors, and their inability to effectively deal with leaders who manipulate political processes undermine the authority and implementation of their decisions. There is little doubt that the AU’s position on Chad has implications for the ongoing transitions in Guinea and Mali.

Charter for uncharted waters

Guinea now has a new transition charter approved by the Conseil national pour le rassemblement et le developpement (National Committee of Reconciliation and Development) on 28 September. It provides for the Transitional National Council to serve as the legislative arm, the appointment of a civilian prime minister to lead the government and the drafting of a new constitution.

The continent’s recent coups should spark debate about the role of the army in political processes

The charter meets AU and ECOWAS requirements of engagement as it bans members of the transitional organs, including the interim president, from standing in future elections. If this sheds some light on the intention of the military junta to transfer power, doubts remain on the transition’s duration.

In principle, the AU and ECOWAS advocate a six-month transition. For Guinea’s new authorities, the length will be determined by national social and political forces, taking into consideration major tasks to be completed before the transfer of power.

The overall aim of Guinea’s transition is what is called the ‘refoundation of the state’, understood as a new political pact based on democratic norms and their protective mechanisms. There is room for the AU and ECOWAS to travel the transition in Guinea, serving as guarantors of the electoral process.

Uncertain road ahead

West Africa’s past has shown that post-coup political transitions are fraught with uncertainties as contradictions could emerge. Experience demonstrates that coups hardly ever lead to good governance. In 2008, Guinea’s transition nearly collapsed when Captain Dadis Camara’s aid shot him. Most army units have pledged allegiance to the September coup leaders, but divisions within the security apparatus must be closely monitored. Any further divergences among actors in the transition will need consultation.

Guinea’s transition should focus on immediate and urgent tasks to refine the national democratic framework. Long-term substantial issues such as fighting corruption, improved security sector reform, justice and national reconciliation projects and socio-economic development projects should be left to future elected administrations. Such projects are often used as excuses to prolong transition, delaying the return to constitution-based political order.

The process will allow the AU, ECOWAS and Guinea’s partners to revisit their approach to unconstitutional changes of government and factors causing military intrusion in politics. The continent’s last three coups should spark debate or a rethink about the role of the army and security agencies in political processes to ensure stability. Lessons from these experiences should steer the international response to coups and unconstitutional changes towards consistency and synergy in actions against leaders who violate national and continental norms.

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