Guinea Briefing: Alpha Condé And The Politics Of Military (Mis)Adventure
Vincent Foucher, African Arguments |
17 Oct 2011
Vincent foucher is Senior Analyst for West Africa at International Crisis Group and the author of the recent report Guinea: Putting the Transition Back on Track
On July 19, a group of soldiers attacked the Conakry home of Alpha Condé, the president of Guinea. Condé had come to power only a few months earlier, in December 2010, the first postcolonial Guinean president to attain office as a result of a competitive if troubled electoral process. After decades spent in opposition, Condé had a tough mission: consolidate Guinea’s new democracy, put the country’s fantastic mineral wealth to use, and mend the ethnoregional tensions which the electoral troubles had aggravated. The situation with the armed forces was also of particular importance – the military had been growing influential but also greedy, factionalised and unruly as a result of the border war with Charles Taylor’s Liberia in the early 2000s, the long agony of President Lansana Conté, and the two years of rule of the junta that took over after his death in December 2008 and ruled Guinea until Condé’s victory.
The July 2011 assault against Condé’s residence ended in a rout. A member of the presidential guard was killed, and two dozen people were wounded. In the days that followed, several dozen soldiers and a few civilians were arrested, some questioned and quickly set free. Between the end of July and the beginning of August, with a rather remarkable and welcome diligence in a country where prolonged detention without indictment is common, the attorney-general released the names of 37 persons (nine of whom civilians) who would face prosecution for their part in the attempt on the president’s life. Towards the end of August, one more soldier, Colonel David Sylla, was indicted. On September 11, in a widely commented interview to a Senegalese newspaper, President Condé implicated a new set of people, three political figures – Tibou Kamara, the former secretary general of President Sékouba Konaté under the military transition, as well as Oury Bah the vice-president of the leading opposition party, Union des forces démocratiques de Guinée (UFDG) and Sadaka Diallo, a businessman associated with UFDG. But none of the three men have been formally prosecuted since. In the same interview, President Condé claimed the Senegalese and Gambian authorities were complicit in the attempt. Finally, on September 19, Kerfalla Person Camara, a wealthy businessman with close connections to the former junta, was interrogated by the gendarmerie and some sources consider this was related to the July 19 attempt.
More than two months after the event, many things remain unclear, especially as far as its extra-military dimensions are concerned. One can nevertheless discard as unlikely the hypothesis, raised by some of president Condé’s hardcore opponents, that the whole affair is nothing but a false conspiracy in the style of Sékou Touré, Guinea’s first president, organised by the regime to get rid of its opponents. The authorities may well have played up the attempt for maximum political profit and some suggest that they may have “let it happen”, but this whole affair comes with too high a credibility cost for the new regime to be a set-up. This interpretation reveals little else than the degree of suspicion and mistrust characteristic of Guinea’s politics. But what is it, then, that is already known about the attempt? And what does it tell us about Guinea’s fledgling democracy?
First, it is to be noted that the attempt itself was a commando operation by a mixed bag of army men, with a single target – the life of the President. It was not a fully-fledged coup with organised military units coordinating the take-over of a series of strategic sites to impose a new regime. This does seem to indicate that President Condé has so far kept the bulk of the armed forces on board. There have been hints that the armed forces were slow to come to the rescue of the embattled presidential security. If this delay is indeed confirmed, can it be blamed on organisational issues? Or does it mean that some in the military command decided to give the conspirators a chance? The fact that Colonel Sambahou Diamankan, commander of the Bataillon Spécial de Conakry, in control of Camp Alpha Yaya Diallo, Conakry’s main barracks, is among those indicted seems to indicate that the authorities suspect foul play. But Diamankan is the only officer with an operational command among those arrested, hardly a proof of a conspiracy reaching up in the hierarchy.
In fact, a consistent picture emerges from the list of the people indicted so far: with the exception of Diamankan, all the soldiers mentioned are marginal within the armed forces. A good part of them were set aside by the new regime on account of their proximity with General Sékouba Konaté, the junta leader who led the transition. Most notable was General Nouhou Thiam, chief of staff of the armed forces under Konaté. He had been quickly replaced by President Condé, who regarded him a threat and he was briefly detained in January 2011, shortly before Condé’s first foreign visit. Others included General Bachir Diallo, Konaté’s cabinet director, and Commander Sidiki “De Gaulle” Camara, his aide de camp.
The presence of several officers close to General Konaté in the attempt and Condé’s recent denunciation of Konaté’s close civilian collaborator Tibou Kamara have raised questions, especially as the general’s relation to Condé has not been very smooth. Konaté’s financial governance during his transitional presidency has been called into question by audits carried out by the new regime. He has stayed clear of Conakry since Condé came to power, but he has also criticised his successor almost openly. Konaté, who now holds major responsibilities with the African Union, has however explicitly condemned the 19 July attempt, while chiding Condé over the slow pace of security sector reform. He also took pains to point out that arrests “did not necessarily mean guilt”.
A number of soldiers with no specific affiliation to Konaté are among those prosecuted. Some of those were close associates of late President Lansana Conté, including two of his kin, Issiagha Camara and David Sylla, and his one-time bodyguard, Alpha Oumar “Boffa” Diallo, alias AOB. The three men went through a hard time under the junta, serving time in jail, and Sylla himself was still in detention at the time of the 19 July attempt. Among those indicted are men who seem closer to Moussa Dadis Camara, Konaté’s predecessor as the head of the junta, such as Colonel Abdoulaye Chérif Diaby, Camara’s Health Minister, or Lieutenant-Colonel Mamadou Bondabon Camara, who became a préfet of Dubréka under Dadis Camara and was removed by Condé because of his abuses against the population. But from Burkina Faso where he has been living after his demise in December 2009, Moussa Dadis Camara has dissociated himself from the attempt against Condé as vehemently as Konaté. And contrary to Konaté, he had always expressed support and appreciation for Condé since the latter’s election.
Judging from the prosecution list, it is rather clear that the attempt was carried out by a limited number of soldiers who had held influence at some earlier point but were now on the losing end of the armed forces. The minority character of the attempt would make sense, given Condé’s care not to upset the military. As mentioned above, since his take-over, Condé has removed Konaté’s closest associates and he did renew the command of most operational units, thus probably making a few enemies. But he also confirmed many key military officials, kept three junta ministers in his cabinet, protected the influential and controversial military big men Moussa Tiegboro Camara and Claude Pivi. He also made good on the promise of a pay raise made by Konaté to the armed forces and did not rush to tighten the financial governance in the military. While the new regime has been able to take the soldiers off the streets and roads of Guinea (at least until July 19), security sector reform is moving slowly and thus far vested military interests have been protected. While he has not been able to prevent the formation of a set of unhappy marginalised military available for the attempt, Condé has indeed been “going slow” with the military.
Still, there are indications that some within the armed forces resented the take-over of key positions by pro-Condé officers, often ethnic Malinké, just like Condé himself. Although the new chief of staff of the armed forces, General Kéléfa Diallo, is a Peul, key officials such as Condé’s personal chief of staff, General Boureima Condé, his cabinet director at the ministry of Defence (a ministry which Condé holds personally), General Aboubacar ‘Idi Amin’ Sidiki Camara, or the officer-in-charge for the security sector reform, General Biro Condé, all are Malinké. A tract denouncing the Malinké push within the armed forces was in circulation in the barracks in April 2011. There are thus reasons to believe that this ethnic resentment played a part in the 19 July attempt.
Some sources seem to consider that there were actually two different attempts on 19 July – Condé’s residency actually sustained two assaults at a few hours interval on that day. The biographies of those indicted may indeed point in the direction of two different networks: one, a group of civilians and soldiers led by Alpha Oumar Diallo, many of them Peul and inspired in part by frustration against a regime perceived as particularly hostile to the Peul; the other, constituted around Sidiki Camara, grouping soldiers who had lost power following Sékouba Konaté’s departure. But these two networks may well have been connected. After all, Alpha Oumar Diallo was General Thiam’s ordonnance under Konaté’s presidency.
This potential ethnic dimension raises the question of the broader, extra-military aspects of the affair. Early on, President Condé hinted at its ‘communal’ dimension. One cannot fail to notice that all names in the first batch of persons indicted, which includes the greatest proportion of civilians, are typically ethnic Peul. When one considers the whole list of indictments, there is a much larger diversity in ethnoregional origin, but Peul family names seem to be over-represented. This is of importance in a political sphere where the last presidential election has brought ethnic disputes to a new level: Alpha Condé, a Malinké, and his adversary at the second round of the election, Cellou Dalein Diallo, a Peul, have been floating accusations of ethnic politicking at each other, and there were a few limited episodes of interethnic violence during and after the campaign.
In the first days after the 19 July attempt, investigations targeted key figures within Diallo’s party, the Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée (UFDG), which is closely associated with the Peul community: the house of UFDG’s vice-president, the vocal Oury Bah, was searched, and Bah himself went missing for a few days, only to reappear in an unidentified refuge ‘abroad’. Some close kin of Cellou Dalein Diallo, the UFDG leader, were briefly detained for interrogation. Several figures of the legal opposition denounced risks of a crackdown against them. As mentioned above, President Condé explicitly implicated Oury Bah in the attempt, though he was not then, and has not been since, on the list of those indicted. If one cannot rule out individual initiatives and contacts between some UFDG members and the conspirators, it seems unlikely that the UFDG leadership would support a military take-over. First, the UFDG and its leader Cellou Dalein Diallo derive a substantial measure of legitimacy from their legalism and acceptance of the results of the past presidential election, they hope the forthcoming legislative elections will offer an opportunity for a rerun, and they probably would not want to tarnish their image by backing a coup. Second, the Peul are a minority in the armed forces, and there has been little love lost between the military and the Peul community these past years. Still, in the uncertain days that followed the attempt, given the current tensions and the significant number of Peul officers involved in the attempt, it must have made some sense to the authorities to check on the UFDG. It may also well have been tempting to explore and play up the part of the Peul, and hence of the UFDG, to try and weaken their legitimacy.
Overall, the nature of the attempt on Condé’s life and the identity of those indicted seem to indicate an essentially military affair, a risky attempt by a minority of soldiers angry at losing their influential positions as a result of the changes in the chain of command. The cynical analysis of an associate of President Condé may not be too far off the mark: the conspirators “are just furious to have lost their privileges, they cannot provide for their wives, their mistresses, their girlfriends and their villas any more.” The fact remains that the broader political situation did contribute to making the attempt thinkable: the tensions that keep rifting the political sphere, their ethnic sub-text, the ongoing controversy about the long overdue legislative elections, the mutual accusations and provocations by the regime and its opposition all provide ground for military adventures. Those within the armed forces who are unhappy with their fate are in a position to assert that the transition is stalled (indeed, the national assembly and all other institutions provided for by the new constitution are not in place). With or without General Konaté’s blessing, they can claim that Condé has betrayed Konaté’s conciliatory spirit and his firm stand against ethnic politics, that the transition is blocked and that only military intervention can put it back on tracks.
On July 18, a few hours before the attempt on his life, President Condé went on air to call for dialogue with the opposition. It is a testimony of Guinea’s political culture of suspicion that this coincidence led some to suspect that he had chosen to make that appeal while knowing that troubles brewing within the military would detract attention from the political sphere and would allow him to further delay dialogue with the opposition. Whatever the truth behind this, one can only be glad that President Condé quickly took a few more steps since the attempt on his life to reach out to the opposition: he has released UFDG supporters condemned after their participation in a march repressed by the authorities last April; he has granted an audience to Sidya Touré, a major political figure and a member of the coalition that gathers most opposition parties. These steps are symbolic in both meanings of the word: they are meaningful and spectacular, but they are still not quite sufficient. Indeed, Condé has subsequently backpedalled, going along with electoral preparations in a unilateral fashion and hinting at the UFDG’s implication in the attempt, giving new cause for concern for those who think he is not willing to hold legislative elections if it does not go his way. Recently, under heavy national and international pressure, he has renewed calls for dialogue, only to again waiver. When the opposition called for peaceful protest on 27 September, their demonstration was forbidden by the governor of Conakry, Commander Sékou Resco Camara, one of the few soldiers still in charge of a governorship or préfecture. While it is good thing that military forces remained in the barracks and that only the police and gendarmerie were in charge of crowd control, the demonstration was violently suppressed, with reports of loss of lives. To make military adventures a thing of the past once and for all in Guinea President Condé has to make good on his calls for political dialogue, and the opposition should pursue reconciliatory gestures.