Uncertainty plagues Guinea’s polls amid international pressure

President Alpha Condé of Guinea recently signed a decree calling for legislative elections and a referendum to amend the constitution to be held on Sunday 22 March 2020. This came after legislative elections had been postponed three times in the space of three weeks.

The referendum aims to, among others, remove presidential term limits. This could permit incumbent Condé (82) to run for a third term in office.

In the last few months Guinea has seen large-scale protest action against these plans, which, if not addressed, could see the crisis spiral further out of control.

In the last few months Guinea has seen large-scale protest action

Attempted mediation by ECOWAS

The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) has consistently had Guinea’s neighbour, Guinea-Bissau, on its agenda. It would do well to pay some attention as well to what is happening in Conakry and surrounds. So far, the situation in Guinea has not been on the agenda of the PSC.

Meanwhile, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been more forceful in its approach. It declined to send observers to the elections and the referendum initially scheduled for 1 March 2020, as did the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) and later the AU. In the last week of February, a request by ECOWAS to send a high-level mission – composed of the presidents of Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Niger – to the country was reportedly denied by Condé.

A request by ECOWAS to send a high-level mission to the country was reportedly denied by Condé

It was the combined pressure from the OIF and ECOWAS and the subsequent disavowal by the AU that led to the most recent postponement of the elections and the referendum.

Meanwhile, fundamental problems persist around the voters’ roll, the transparency and inclusiveness of the legislative polls and the credibility of the October 2020 presidential elections. Uncertainty over whether Condé is going to stand for a third term in these polls is at the heart of the contestation and needs to be resolved.

Both the AU’s 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and the 2001 ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance discourage any constitutional amendment that undermines the principle of change of power. They also promote free, fair and inclusive elections.

Guinea’s problematic legislative elections and referendum

The crisis in Guinea started over two years ago. After months of public speculation and vagueness on the part of the government, declarations by Condé’s government and Condé himself indicated that they were swiftly moving towards amending the constitution to do away with presidential term limits.

This came after large-scale mobilisation and protests, which had seen Guinea fall into a cycle of violence and repression, with several deaths. The Front National pour la Défense de la Constitution (the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution [FNDC]), composed of Guinean socio-political actors, has been at the forefront of the pushback against Condé’s plans.

Opposition parties had decided to boycott the legislative elections on the grounds that the electoral process was not going to be free and fair

The FNDC and opposition parties had decided to boycott the legislative elections on the grounds that the electoral process was not going to be free and fair, citing issues around the viability of the voters’ roll and the impartiality of the National Electoral Commission (CENI). The voters’ roll is contested, while seven members of CENI resigned over concerns regarding the transparency of the electoral process and its ability to deliver on its mandate.

The electoral process faced even more boycotts after the president signed back-to-back decrees calling for legislative elections and a referendum at the same time. This coupling was viewed as a thinly veiled attempt to draw more voters to the polls to boost turnout, thereby increasing the legitimacy of the referendum.

International scrutiny

The opposition to the electoral process was backed by both the OIF and the European Union (EU). The OIF, in particular, found that the government had not cleared the outstanding issues around nearly 2.5 million problematic voters (with 11.6 million registered voters) as established by a 2018 audit of the voters’ roll. The audit was conducted by the OIF, the EU and the United Nations (UN), at the request of the government of Guinea.

ECOWAS deployed a fact-finding mission to Guinea from 3–13 March to look at, among others, the issue of the voters’ roll. The ECOWAS mission ended on 11 March and recommended that the problematic voters be struck off the roll.

Constitutional amendments and instability

Condé’s decision to amend the constitution will be difficult for the continent to address, given that in the recent past several other African leaders have done the same. 

Over the past 10 years, seven African countries – the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Chad, Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire and Egypt – have amended their constitutions in order to remove presidential term limits, reset the counter for term limits or increase the power of the executive, while weakening the separation of power among the different branches of government. Some have changed their constitutions to achieve several of these objectives. These moves have seriously damaged those systems’ capacity for checks and balances, creating a shrinking civic space across the continent.

In all these cases, the governments made controversial and contested – yet mostly legal – moves to subvert constitutional order, making it harder for a continental or regional intervention to take place. Their favourite line of defence has been to argue that the processes are in line with existing national legislation and even their constitutions, although in most of these cases the actions contravene the spirit and principles enshrined in various continental, regional and even national frameworks.

Constitutional amendments under these circumstances have helped to fuel political instability and roll back democratic gains

Overall, constitutional amendments under these circumstances have helped to fuel political instability and roll back democratic gains made over the past two decades in Africa.

This has occurred hand in hand with a rise in riots and public protests over the past decade.

Africans have increasingly had to take to the streets to express their grievances over poor and often exclusionary governance coupled with their governments’ propensity to suppress protests while ensuring regime longevity at all costs. 

What lies ahead for Guinea and the region 

With the current instability in Guinea-Bissau, a troubled Guinea will be a step backwards not only for democratic progress but also for a more stable and politically advanced ECOWAS region. This compounds the challenges of violent extremism already affecting many countries in the region.

Condé’s insistence on clinging to power could see further violence erupt. The country will probably sink into more instability in the run-up to the presidential election scheduled to take place in October 2020. Another ECOWAS heads-of-state mission to Guinea, planned for 17 March 2020, was again postponed sine die. Pushing for legislative elections and the referendum to take place on 22 March, without creating the right conditions for it, will certainly not improve the current situation in the country.

The country will probably sink into more instability in the run-up to the presidential election

The question facing the continent is what action it needs to take in order to deal with the issue of constitutional amendments and the resulting instability. This will require innovative thinking and decisive action from both the AU and regional economic communities.   

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