Eve of elections in Guinea
Eve of elections in Guinea
Ebola en Guinée : une épidémie « politique » ?
Ebola en Guinée : une épidémie « politique » ?
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Eve of elections in Guinea

Even if a new president brings change, Guinea's chaotic army will have to be reformed.

After a catastrophic year of military rule in 2009, Guinea is making a remarkable turn around. The presidential elections, scheduled for June 27, with a second round on July 11 if needed, are now almost certain to take place. With no military candidate, Guinea is on the brink of ending over 50 years of dictatorship and entering a genuinely new era. The feeling among ordinary people in Conakry is a mixture of elation and disbelief — “Can we really do this”?

The change has come from above and below. Following the shooting of junta leader Dadis Camara on Dec. 3, a new transitional government and national transitional council was established. Some in the new set up wanted to slow down the march to elections, either from a desire to have a perfect electoral process, or in order to draw their own short-term profit from the transitional set up.

But they have been marginalized. The population, particularly those working to get ballot boxes out to far-flung villages, has engaged in a huge push to democracy. They are eager to move beyond the “state of exception” imposed by the country’s three dictator-presidents since independence in 1958. Their work is ample proof that political will, not technical challenges, remain the principle obstacle to electoral democracy in West Africa.

The new interim president, Gen. Sekouba Konate, has played a vital role. He has sent clear messages to the troops that military rule must end, that the army must regain national and international respect, and that they must be neutral in the electoral process.

He has restructured the top levels of the army to marginalize Dadis’ Camara’s violent henchmen. Vitally, he has tolerated no slowing down in the transition process. Previously a key member of the military junta, his change of heart is undoubtedly due to the massacre of Sept.. 28, 2009, the subsequent threat of international isolation and the shooting of Dadis Camara. It is evident that international pressure has played a key role.

With a population tired of instability and an interim president who is not a candidate, the forthcoming elections are reminiscent of those in Liberia which brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power in 2005.

Risks remain, including that losing candidates will refuse to accept the results of an imperfect process. But as long as the army stays the course, the chances are good that a minimum threshold of credibility will be reached, and a new civilian president will be in place come mid July.

But that is just the start. In Liberia, the transition to democratic rule was protected by 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers. When Johnson Sirleaf came to power, she effectively handed over reform of the army to the Americans, with the U.N. taking the lead on police reform.

 A similar story happened in Sierra Leone, another of Guinea’s neighbors. There, a large U.N. force and major British presence helped put the country back up on its feet after a 10-year civil war. Although imperfect, security sector reform, under strong international lead, has made genuine progress in each country. In Guinea, post-election tensions will have no such security blanket. And legislative elections, scheduled for end of the year, will carry their own risks of instability at the more local, village level.

It will be vital to get the right messages to the new president, who must avoid any hint of bias towards his or her own community at this fragile moment. But the most important medium- and long-term task for the international community remains helping with army reform — reducing the military from its current estimated 45,000 to a number the country can afford; thoroughly reviewing recruitment and training; and dealing with those recruited under Dadis Camara who have no place in the army and have to be inserted back into society.

Guinea has had no shortage of help in army reform over the last few decades. But international efforts have been fragmented and short-term. The American trained “Rangers” battalion, set up in 2001 to resist Charles Taylor, subsequently fragmented, with some of its units absorbed into the presidential guard, and then into the military junta.

Separate units of the Guinean army have been trained by countries as far apart geographically and in military practices as China, Morocco, France and the U.S. Such fragmentation, which can create divisions and rivalries in the army, should be avoided this time round.

It is expected that the regional organization ECOWAS will take the lead in coordinating the international effort. But financing for training, and for the vital question of military pensions, will likely come from many sources. A trust fund or similar mechanism will have to be used, to pull together the international effort.

Most of all, the effort needs to be long-term. Guinea’s chaotic army will not be reformed overnight, and will not come cheap. Half measures risk leaving an army that could scupper all the gains being made in terms of democracy. Creating a culture of professional recruitment, and of respect for civilian rule will take time. But the prize — a smaller and more professional army — will be a major gain for Guinea and all its neighbors.

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