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Guinea Needs Consensus on Poll Position if Election Race is to Pass Peacefully
Guinea Needs Consensus on Poll Position if Election Race is to Pass Peacefully
Briefing 52 / Africa

Guinea: Ensuring Democratic Reforms

The political and economic change Guineans demanded in 2007 at the cost of nearly 200 lives is in jeopardy. Dismissal on 20 May 2008 of Prime Minister Lansana Kouyaté and his replacement by Tidiane Souaré, a close ally of President Lansana Conté, puts reform at risk.

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I. Overview

The political and economic change Guineans demanded in 2007 at the cost of nearly 200 lives is in jeopardy. The dismissal on 20 May 2008 of Prime Minister Lansana Kouyaté and his replacement by Tidiane Souaré, a close ally of President Lansana Conté, puts reform at risk. Calming talk of inclusion and pursuit of “change” from the new head of government should fool no one. Unless robust internal and external pressure is applied, there is every chance the government will break the promise of credible legislative elections in December 2008, compromise economic revival and bury the independent commission of inquiry tasked with identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the 2007 crackdown. Civil society actors, heads of
political parties, religious leaders and all who want real change must present a united front against restoration of the Conté dictatorship.

Political parties, civil society and ordinary citizens had great expectations for Kouyaté, a prime minister initially endowed with powerful popular support. However, Crisis Group’s assessment of his government
in November 2007, after only seven months in power, already identified the end of the honeymoon. It pointed to mounting disillusion among the populace, despite encouraging results in controlling inflation, stabilising the economy and restoring credibility to the Guinean state in the eyes of donors.

Despite the mounting discontent of trade unions and the advice of civil society organisations, which had favoured his selection and were his core support base, Kouyaté made no attempt to put aside his personal ambitions, prioritise reforms or reply publicly and convincingly to accusations of poor management of public resources. Paralysed by the continual obstruction of Conté and his allies and cut off from Conakry’s political and intellectual elite, the prime minister was progressively neutralised and finally sufficiently weakened for the president to be able to dismiss him without fear of new demonstrations.

The tension in military camps in Conakry and other cities on 23 May; the detention of the deputy chief of staff of the army by the mutineers; the dismissal of the defence minister; the occupation of Conakry airport by more mutineers on 28 May; the detention of the chief of police on 16 June by discontented police officers and strike action by customs officials have all demonstrated the degree of ongoing political instability in the country.

The nomination of Tidiane Souaré as prime minister serves the interests of the presidential clan well. While an experienced technocrat and minister untainted by the scandals of past Conté governments, he remains, nonetheless, a close Conté ally. His appointment will ensure that little substantial reform will occur.

The mutiny by soldiers, unrest within the national police and strike action by customs officials are symptoms of the disintegration of the state and its incapacity to provide security. If Conté and Souaré cannot find a solution to the continued security sector unrest, the risk of a military coup, with its possible violence and ethnic divisions, cannot be ruled out. It is essential that the security sector regains stability and that Souaré moves towards organising legislative elections for December 2008. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union (EU), the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), France, the U.S. and Guinea’s other external partners must send a common message to the new prime minister and not hesitate to make any direct assistance to the government conditional on the following priorities:

  • organisation of legislative elections in December 2008, without calling into question the prerogatives of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). Revision of electoral lists must continue, supported by a regional and international observation mission;
  • provision of financial and logistic support and security measures (protection of investigators and witnesses) necessary to launch the independent commission of inquiry into the events of June 2006 and January-February 2007; 
  • drawing-up of an action plan against drug trafficking and the opening of inquiries to support the prosecution of traffickers, including into the alleged involvement of individuals close to the president; and
  • opening of discussion, with participation of opposition parties and civil society, on the status, pay and benefits of soldiers, the strict neutrality of the army during elections and the investigation into crimes committed in 2006 and 2007. This should be part of a package to include the strengthening and reform of military institutions.

Dakar/Brussels, 24 June 2008

Op-Ed / Africa

Guinea Needs Consensus on Poll Position if Election Race is to Pass Peacefully

Originally published in The Guardian

Guinea’s history of electoral violence may not be over. Tension is building around the presidential poll scheduled for this October and the local elections planned for early next year. The opposition – principally Cellou Dalein Diallo's Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea and Sidya Touré’s Union of Republican Forces – is concerned about possible fraud. Threatened protests should be taken seriously: in 2013, about 100 people died during electoral unrest.

To set the stage for a comprehensive dialogue about the voting system, the local elections should be rescheduled for this year, so that they take place before the presidential ballot. International actors, in particular the UN Office for West Africa and the EU, would then need to support that dialogue and ensure its results are implemented.

Unlike other African countries with contentious electoral processes, Guinea’s problem is not one of an incumbent president delaying a vote or trying for an unconstitutional new term. The opposition's quarrel is with the order of the two elections. They are convinced that the local authorities, whose mandate formally expired in 2010, are completely under the president’s control.

These local officials, some of whom have been replaced by administrative appointees in constituencies where the opposition has weight, are said to have been responsible for a variety of disenfranchisement schemes in pro-opposition areas during the 2013 legislative elections. They have also been accused of massaging the vote in pro-government areas.

The opposition fears a repeat in the presidential contest unless earlier local polls give them a better chance to get fair play.

Before agreeing to the 2013 legislative elections, the opposition had insisted that the next round of local elections be held well before the presidential ballot, in early 2014. This was written into an annex of an agreement resulting from the 2013 political dialogue, but the government did not sign the document and now disputes the commitment.

Pro-government politicians do not support the schedule change (and possible delay of the presidential vote), fearing the opposition would claim there was a constitutional vacuum, as some opposition figures have threatened. But contemporary Guinea has experienced many exceptional situations – three- and five-year delays for the legislative and local elections respectively, for example. This would not cause it to crumble. In informal discussions, some opposition leaders said they would agree to a reasonable delay in the presidential election were it necessary in order to hold the local vote first.

The controversy, however, goes well beyond the calendar. The opposition has also repeatedly challenged the electoral registry, the map of constituencies, the composition and functioning of the electoral commission and the constitutional court. Not to mention the conditions for diaspora voting, the neutrality of prefects and governors, and much more. Even the recent population census is disputed: the opposition says the authorities inflated results in pro-government areas, in order to prepare to justify a forthcoming increase in pro-government voters there.

Reliable observation missions (particularly the EU’s) noted a long list of problems in the 2010 and 2013 elections. In 2013, for instance, the number of 18-year-old voters registered was unusually high in some pro-government areas, as was the level of participation and the number of voting stations. The number of polling stations and votes invalidated on procedural grounds was correspondingly low. In the closely disputed swing state of Guinée Forestière, the results from more than 180 polling stations were cancelled without explanation.

Some or all of the opposition claims may be false or exaggerated, but why take the chance over a few months’ change in the electoral calendar? As Crisis Group wrote in December 2014, a consensus on arrangements would offer the best chance to avoid an escalation from local incidents fuelled by political affiliations that function largely along ethnic lines.

Such a consensus would be all the more valuable because worrying rumours and suspicions are being fed by other matters, including the Ebola epidemic and a handful of assassinations and attempted assassinations of politicians and administrators. The opposition’s spokesperson, Aboubacar Sylla, claims he was shot at on 4 April, for example. While President Alpha Condé has done a good job of reining in the military and other security forces, sustained troubles could put these important achievements at risk and further poison relations between the country’s communities.

The government called for dialogue on 26 March. The opposition responded that there had been two such dialogues in 2013-14; the authorities simply needed to implement the conclusions reached then. It is up to the government to take the first step by asking the electoral commission to schedule the local elections before the presidential (with a reasonable three- to six-month interval between them). This would build confidence and could pave the way for a dialogue covering the other pending electoral issues. In turn, the opposition should commit to that dialogue and produce a detailed, realistic and time-sensitive assessment of what it considers essential.

In all this, international engagement is essential. In 2013, European observers stayed several nights at a key tallying centre in Conakry to guarantee results would not be tampered with. That is how tense the situation has been, and why an international presence is so essential.

President Condé initially excluded such missions for this year, but he has changed his position: the authorities have approached the EU for observers, and the UN is due to dispatch a mission this month to review electoral preparations. The new secretary general of the International Organisation of la Francophonie has visited Conakry. These are welcome moves. International partners will need to develop a solid coordinating mechanism, however, to prevent Guinean actors playing them off against each other.