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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
Report 164 / Africa

Guinea: Reforming the Army

If the armed forces of Guinea are not reformed thoroughly, they will continue to pose a threat to democratic civilian rule and risk plunging the country and the region into chaos.

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Executive Summary

After decades of bad governance and misuse, the armed forces are a potential source of instability which could still throw Guinea and the region into chaos. At the very least, if not reformed thoroughly, they will continue to pose a threat to democratic civilian rule. The recent establishment of a transitional government and the ongoing, although fragile, electoral process are a significant opportunity. Getting army reform wrong could have disastrous consequences for the country’s political future. Getting it right entails numerous technical challenges, redefining the relationship of the armed forces with civilian power and addressing the critical issue of military financing, in order to create disciplined, effective and affordable armed forces. The suspension of the second round of the presidential elections, originally scheduled for 19 September, has heightened tension. Though the army has remained neutral, fears remain that if the election is not completed successfully and without excessive delay, it may seize the opportunity to intervene again. This would be a major setback to any prospect of medium-term reform, which requires respect for civilian rule and oversight.

The army’s well-deserved reputation for indiscipline and resistance to democratic civilian rule is a product of its troubled past. The country’s first two presidents both manipulated the armed forces to their own political ends, allowing insubordination to develop, and bought off senior ranks with patronage opportunities. Mutinies over poor conditions, and waves of irregular recruitment characterised the last years of President Lansana Conté. The junta that took over on his death in December 2008 further exacerbated the situation in the military. Its leader, Dadis Camara, used the army against political opponents, fostered tension between the junta and the rest of the armed forces and recruited ethnic militia.

The armed forces today are divided along ethnic and generational lines and notorious for indiscipline, human rights abuse, insubordination and criminality. While military life is difficult and unrewarding for most, a handful of senior officers live opulently. Financial management is clouded in corruption; civilian and military oversight institutions are weak or non-existent. The army is bloated and poorly trained. With public confidence in it at an all-time low, reform would be a major step to help Guinea achieve a secure environment in which democratic institutions can grow.

Since General Sékouba Konaté took over as interim leader in December 2009, reforming the armed forces has assumed new importance. Basic discipline has been improved, and the transitional authorities have welcomed the May 2010 report of an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)-led security sector reform (SSR) evaluation mission. The army has thus far remained neutral in the lengthy and delicate electoral process. Dadis Camara, whose support in the institution is fading, remains in exile in Burkina Faso and effectively contained. But the extent to which senior officers have really bought into a meaningful reform agenda has yet to be tested.

The new president will face dilemmas and pressures pulling him in contradictory directions. He first needs to build consensus in the army to accept reform and to align expectations in the ranks with what the country truly requires. Balancing the need to keep the military on board with the need to reduce numbers and reform financial management will be tricky. While the president must satisfy some army concerns to assure his security and that of the transition in the short-term, the most contentious issues cannot be ignored for long. Army attitudes combine a willingness to engage on SSR with fears for loss of jobs and privileges and possible punishment for human rights abuses. The fears are exacerbated by awareness of the deep antagonism felt against it, especially after the massacre of opposition supporters on 28 September 2009.

There is a risk that the military will be willing to relinquish formal power but want to retain significant backroom influence and will ultimately refuse subordination to civilian rule on issues that concern it. This is what has happened in neighbouring Guinea-Bissau, where EU- and UN-led SSR has failed because the army has played the international actors off against each other. Good international coordination will be vital in order to avoid this in Guinea.

The objective of the reform process is to establish a much smaller force, accountable to civilians and capable of meeting the country’s security needs. The most pressing priority should be to get a larger part of the army to understand and embrace that objective without letting it dictate the nature and pace of the process. The longer-term challenges will be to enhance civilian oversight, cut the size of the force and establish financial transparency. These steps should go hand-in-hand with improved living and working conditions for the armed forces. The president must also resist the temptation to use the army for partisan ends, relying instead on democratic credentials to govern effectively.

Senior officers must come to recognise that comprehensive reform is in the military’s best interest and that any attempt to undermine it would damage their credibility; reinforce anti-military sentiments in society; render the army less able to share in international peacekeeping missions; engender political instability; and result in further isolation of the country, potentially including international sanctions such as travel bans for individual officers and their families.

The international community will probably not be as heavily involved in reform of Guinea’s security system as it has been in Liberia and Sierra Leone, although offers of aid and training will likely be forthcoming. Most donors are in wait-and-see mode, ready to negotiate help with a new civilian administration. Their help needs to be generous and long term, because the situation will be fragile for some time, and any reverse would threaten gains elsewhere. Reform of its army will take sustained effort and both require and feed into broader public sector reform, with important stakes for West Africa.

Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 23 September 2010

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.