Guinea: has a nascent democracy lost its way?


Guinean soldiers in Conakry

On September 28, thousands of Guinean citizens gathered in the national football stadium in their country’s capital, Conakry, to voice their protest against the country’s de facto leader, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. They were met by a military that did not hesitate to open fire on them, nor to loot and rape during the ensuing chaos. The appalling toll of this short but brutal repression is estimated at 157 killed and 1250 wounded.

For now, violence and unrest do not seem to have spread in the country. In a phone call hours after the event, the President of MDT1, a local NGO for the defense and promotion of human rights and the rule of law, confimred that violence was mostly contained to the stadium and that it did not spill over in the rest of the capital, but that brutal and widespread violations of human rights had taken place there. He stressed that all efforts would be taken in order to press the government to investigate these events and to bring the perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice.

There is no doubt:?Guinea is at a crossroads, and both its citizens and the international community should carefully consider the recent appeal by Lawyers Without Borders Guinea to become conscious of the situation. An account of how Guinea got to this point should help.

A brief history of power in Guinea

The stadium where these sad events took place, the “stade du 28 Septembre”, is named for the date of Guinea’s independence from France, which it gained 51 years ago. At the urging of Sékou Touré, Guinea was the only French colony to voluntarily renounce its colonial status when given the option to do so by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1958. This was a source of great national pride and was followed by policies enshrining the place of local languages and cultures, as well as attempts at economic autarchy.

Unfortunately, as Lansiné Kaba painfully pointed out in his book Le ‘non’ de la Guinee à De Gaulle (“Guinea’s ‘no’ to de Gaulle”), the results was slower development, no unifying national language or education, and  difficulties modernizing public administration. All these aspects pose serious political challenges in a country with eight administrative regions, seven main languages besides French (none of which spoken country-wide) and twenty-four ethnic groups, all within a territory the size of the UK or Oregon.

This diverse population of over ten million was ruled over with a strong hand by Sékou Touré  from independence till his death in 1984, when power was seized through a military coup by Lansana Conté. The new dictatorship, which retained its predecessors’ policies regarding economic development as well as its characteristic brutality against any political opposition, lasted until the death of President Conté, on December 23rd of last year.

Power was promptly seized by a military coup led by a largely unknown army captain. But in response to the long frustrated popular expectations for democracy and respect for human rights, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara promised a peaceful handover of power after free and democratic elections, in which he solemnly foreswore taking part. The citizens of Guinea reluctantly accepted this promise of a peaceful transition among fears of civil war. But the bargain was clear: Captain Camara would hold elections before the end of 2009 and would not run for office, playing a role similar of that of Obasanjo in Nigeria.

How did we get to this bloodshed?

After seizing power, Captain Camara suspended the constitution, banned political and union activity, and declared that the government and the institutions of the Republic had been dissolved. In return, he declared his intention to fight corruption, straighten public expenditure and fight criminality. Camara’s populism gained support with the indictment of the late President Conté’s son, currently detained in Conakry’s central jail. Citizens accepted this delay to democracy in order to assure stability and the peaceful organization of free and fair elections, which were not something to be taken for granted in the region.

But when “arbitrary arrest and detentions, restrictions on political activity, and unpunished criminal acts by the military” were not met by efforts to set a date and prepare the elections, this conditional support started to wane.

Over the summer, people in the streets of Conakry would confess their fears about unmet promises, and some would swear they would even risk their lives to prevent the coup from transforming, once more, into a dictatorship. Camara’s recent allusions to the possibility of running for office proved unbearable.

The crossroads ahead

In the months after the coup, lively discussions divided both internationals and locals in Guinea as to whether elections ought to be held immediately, or after a few months of transition. Advocates of waiting argued that the country has no history of democracy, little political activity, and fragile parties which struggle to gain consensus across the country’s many ethnic and linguistic divides. Those that wanted immediate elections, however, said that the power of the military in Guinea coupled with its disrespect of human rights represented a danger even when it was out of power, let alone when it was not. Moreover, history proves, not just in Guinea, that power tends to be incredibly “sticky”, and the longer one holds it, the harder it is to separate from it.

The late events seem to put an end to the debate: nine months after the military coup, elections are now necessary if not urgent.

If Captain Camara decides to hold on to power, either through the semblance of an election, or all-together without holding any, there will be bloodshed,  and his regime will transform into a brutal dictatorship in order to maintain its grasp.

If elections are held, and Captain Camara does not run, many challenges lay ahead for Guinea’s democratization. The country will require the assistance of the international community to hold off the influence of neighboring states, and to hep jump-start the prosperity of a country that has one of the world’s lowest rankings on the Human Development Index. At any rate, a nascent democracy should not be left alone at night in the middle of a crossroads.

Jean-Louis Romanet Perroux studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has lived and worked in Guinea.

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