Guinea Democracy Stillborn?

While it was the first of France’s African colonies to achieve independence, democracy came rather late to Guinea. The country’s first president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, who ruled with an iron grip from 1958 until his death in 1984, turned out to be a Marxist ideologue who aligned his country with the Soviet Union, ruining the economy with ideas imported from the Eastern bloc and clapping the Roman Catholic archbishop of the capital and tens of thousands of other Guineans into an African gulag. He was succeeded by his onetime (literal) hangman, a military officer who was better insofar as he and his coterie were more interested in self-enrichment than revolutionary claptrap. Self-promoted General Lansana Conté likewise lasted nearly a quarter of a century in power before the grim reaper delivered the country from his clutches in 2008. Conté was barely in his tomb before another military man, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, seized power. Mercifully for Guineans, his reign was cut short when he was shot by his own bodyguard and had to leave the country for treatment, opening the way for elections which, while far from perfect—and, indeed, not without serious flaws—resulted in the election of the current president, Alpha Condé, in late 2010.

According to the constitution, Condé’s term of office expires later this year and national elections have to be held by October. However, as I pointed out last year in an op-ed in The Hill, the incumbent will have a very tough time making a case for a second and final term: even before the Ebola virus broke out, gross domestic product growth and poverty reduction rates lagged behind even the sclerotic numbers under his authoritarian predecessors. As the leader of the political opposition, former Prime Minister Cellou Dalein Diallo, argued during a roundtable at the Atlantic Council two months ago, not only has both urban and rural poverty increased under the current regime, but access to basic services, including water and electricity, has declined.

All of which makes several recent developments troubling, but not entirely unexpected.

On February 24, President Condé invoked the West African Ebola epidemic, which started in the forest region of Guinea some fourteen months earlier before spreading to neighboring countries, and the supposed need to now “strengthen the mobilization of local authorities” to replace the civilian minister of territorial administration with an army general considered one of his closest allies in uniform, Bourema Condé (no direct relation). As it happens, as minister of territorial administration, the general will also be responsible for providing the logistical and technical infrastructure for the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), which is supposed to run the polls later this year.

Then, on March 10, CENI announced that the presidential election would be held on October 11, but that local elections, which have been postponed on one pretext or another for nearly four years—the latest reason given by regime spokesmen is that local officials have been busy dealing with the Ebola outbreak—would be postponed until next year. The problem with this is threefold. First, there is no basis in the Guinean constitution for these repeated postponements and, consequently, as both opposition politicians and civil society leaders have pointed out, none of those occupying local government offices—mayors, local council members, ward chiefs, etc.—has a legal mandate. Second, as many observers have noted, the criteria for which of these officials have been retained sans elections and which have been let go seem to have more to do with loyalty or lack thereof with respect to the incumbent central authorities than anything else. Third, these same unelected local officials will be the very people, under the supervision of the new minister of territorial administration, who will conduct the upcoming presidential vote.

Given all this, it is no wonder that on Wednesday the opposition’s forty-nine deputies walked out of the 114-seat National Assembly in Conakry, announcing that they would not only boycott the legislature, but also refuse to recognize CENI as a legitimate, independent arbiter.

Unless the international community, which did so much to bring about the elections that brought President Condé to power and ended Guinea’s long run of authoritarian rule, steps up quickly to pressure the incumbent regime to achieve a consensus with the political opposition and civil society regarding sequencing and scheduling of the constitutionally required elections, the country’s belated democracy may prove to have been, rather sadly, stillborn.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow the Africa Center on Twitter at @ACAfricaCenter.

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Image: Guinea’s President Alpha Condé with His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces and the Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of the same (since 1994). REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon.