Guinea in Transition
Africa Briefing N°37
11 Apr 2006
For too long, public figures within and outside Africa have been timid about discussing Guinea’s deep-rooted problems. Its strong anti-imperialist stance in the 1960s and beyond earned it respect among pan-Africanists, but the hands-off attitude that grew out of that respect has long since degraded into indifference and cynicism. The probability is now high that President Conté’s term will end in a military takeover, which some seem prepared to accept before the fact, as if it were a means of preserving Guinea’s sovereignty. But parts of Guinea’s civilian elite are finally beginning to treat the country’s future as their own collective concern, one not to be resolved by a third party, whether the army or foreign diplomats. They should be given every encouragement, including by relevant international actors, to do so.
The melodramatic events of 4-5 April 2006 are yet to be fully explained. A major cabinet shake-up was announced initially on national radio, then stopped in mid-broadcast by soldiers during a second announcement; this led within hours to the relevant presidential decree being rescinded and the prime minister sacked. Some claim the prime minister forged part or all of the decree that was said to be signed by the president and would have strengthened the prime minister’s position relative to a rival clan close to the president. Others say the clan, led by the secretary general of the presidency, Fodé Bangoura, simply convinced the president to change his position publicly. It does not matter which version is true: both point to fundamental decrepitude, verging on anarchy, at the centre of a government incapable of taking decisions except by the decree of an individual who is fickle at best and may now not be fully competent to act.
In the midst of this ugly scrum for power, civil society is beginning to formulate a vision for Guinea’s future, including a peaceful civilian succession. Donors should be ashamed they have not done more to help. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has slashed its budget by two thirds, Canada has closed its embassy, and European Union (EU) money is just starting to trickle in, after being frozen for years because of Guinea’s poor governance record. While Guinea’s civil society moves forward, average citizens are buckling under the combined weight of hunger, lack of electricity and water, a decrepit communications infrastructure, and absence of health and education services.
If the new spirit of self-reliance is to gain traction among the general population, civil society organisations, press and labour unions need a real influx of donor money now. Donors should immediately begin work on how the inadequacies of the December 2005 municipal elections might be repaired. They were well prepared but poorly executed, especially because of inadequate voter identity cards and a powerless electoral commission.
The proposals coming out of the National Consultation (Concertation Nationale) in late February/early March 2006, bringing together political parties, civil society organisations, trade unionists, women’s groups and youth, must also take better account of realities on the ground. A civilian transition is the prerequisite for them to be applied. Calls for all existing institutions, from the Supreme Court to the National Assembly, to be abolished are more likely to throw the government’s civilian politicians into the arms of the military than to entice them or to encourage the generals and colonels to think about a legal transition.
The way forward will have to mix the ideal with the actually existing. It should build upon the modest political reforms made in 2005 and distinguish the technical interventions necessary for more transparent elections from the longer-term dialogue required to plot out major changes in political practice, including a more independent judiciary, constitutional reform, and addressing past injustices that fester just beneath the surface of Guinean society.
The seriously ill President Conté’s trip to Switzerland for medical treatment, in the midst of the National Consultation, dramatised what was already a fact: his increasing absence from the day-to-day management of government over the last two years. The opportunism and disarray surrounding that absence were publicly displayed on 4-5 April. With the general strike, however, civil society has presented itself as a possible counterweight to the “war of clans” that dominates the government. As an observer said, “the genie is out of the bottle”.
To help Guineans as they start to look forward for the first time in many years:
donors should accompany their funding with clear diplomatic signals that a government formed through military takeover (even if it had a civilian component) would be unacceptable and denied recognition or aid;
international actors should support the dialogue begun in the National Consultation along two separate but parallel tracks: the first, immediate preparation for transparent elections, whether they be presidential, or the legislative polls slated for 2007; the second to institute a National Conference that would set social, political and governance goals, including recommendations for constitutional reform;
the Vatican should authorise the widely respected engaged priest, Msgr Robert Sarah, to lead the National Conference in the event he is elected as its head; and
if Conté’s office becomes open suddenly, international actors should press the president of the Supreme Court to extend the 60-day interim period envisaged by the constitution at least long enough to allow electoral lists to be revised, photographic identity cards for voters to be prepared and parties to organise their campaigns; and the EU should release money from the European Development Fund to make this possible.
Dakar/Brussels, 11 April 2006