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Guinea: The Transition Has Only Just Begun
Guinea: The Transition Has Only Just Begun
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
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 58 / Africa

Guinea: The Transition Has Only Just Begun

The military junta that took control of the country just hours after President Conté’s death on 23 December 2008 has tightened its grip on power. The self-proclaimed president, Moussa Dadis Camara, and his group of mid-ranking officers calling itself the National Council for Democracy and Development (Conseil national pour la démocratie et le développement, CNDD), have shown few signs of moving towards elections by the end of 2009 as promised.

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The military junta that took control of the country just hours after President Conté’s death on 23 December 2008 has tightened its grip on power. The self-proclaimed president, Moussa Dadis Camara, and his group of mid-ranking officers calling itself the National Council for Democracy and Development (Conseil national pour la démocratie et le développement, CNDD), have shown few signs of moving towards elections by the end of 2009 as promised. As Guinea’s dire economic prospects erode popular support, the junta, unpracticed in governing, is also in danger of resorting to authoritarian measures. With the risk of a counter-coup from dissatisfied army elements still present, a democratic transition at best faces a long and difficult road. Concerted national and international pressure is urgently needed to produce a return to civilian rule, even before elections if the junta begins to stall on preparations for a vote.

Conté left a legacy of abusive security forces, a collapsed economy and lack of trust among a divided civil society and quarrelsome political parties. Despite their troubled relationship with the military, many Guineans have welcomed the junta as the least worst option. Political parties and civil society groups have argued that the constitution was so manipulated under Conté that it could not provide a way out of the crisis he left behind.

The junta’s leaders are unacquainted with the exercise of state power. While some are undoubtedly sincere in their declared intention of cleaning up the corruption of the Conté years, serious allegations of human rights abuses have been levelled against others. Although the junta has said it is willing to hand over to a civilian president, it has spent more than two months consolidating its grip on power by replacing dozens of administrators with its own supporters. Most of the key posts in the government named on 14 January are held by the military. The junta’s governance style is unlikely to be sustainable, but the exercise and sinecures of power may prove too attractive for the soldiers to give it up voluntarily.

The principal risks to the transition are fractures within the junta and subsequently among the wider security forces as they fight over the spoils of power and perhaps fragment on ethnic lines as well. A violent counter-coup is a distinct possibility and likely to become more so the longer the junta stays in power. Other risks include a spillover into the streets of public dissatisfaction with the junta’s record and the continuing decline in living standards; divisions emerging between newly formed youth groups and political parties competing for junta patronage; intractable disagreements over the transition; or a combination of any of these.

High expectations have led to a proliferation of uncoordinated demands and proposals for reform, but if civil society groups and political parties are to play a constructive role in the transition, they need to overcome their historical differences and concentrate on the priorities of the next ten months. A clear transition timetable needs to be agreed upon. If a National Transitional Council (Conseil national de transition, CNT), as proposed by both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and civil society groups and now endorsed by the junta, is to be put in place, its terms of reference and precise powers must be agreed upon with no further delay.

Preparations for elections still have a long way to go, and potentially controversial issues are yet to be resolved. The longer elections are delayed, the greater is the junta’s ability to create further obstacles from which a dangerous impasse could result. This should not be allowed. The 16–17 February meeting of the International Contact Group on Guinea helpfully pressed the CNDD to stick to a short transition timetable, but it did not go far enough. There is no reason why civil society, political parties and the international community should accept the CNDD remaining in power beyond the end of 2009 if elections are delayed. The military needs to be edged out, to prevent it becoming rooted in the country’s public administration. Although the nomination of a civilian transitional head of state might pose problems, other scenarios could be much worse. The debate over alternative governance arrangements should start now.

The CNDD is in a similar position to the reformist governments Guinea has known over the last ten years. Initial popular support will be put to the test by a deteriorating economy. The international community will then, once again, be asked to bail out the government. It is vital to use donor leverage effectively this time, so as to minimise the risks that military rule presents to Guinea and the region. The following steps are urgent:

  • The CNDD should rein in security force abuse, stop centralising state functions in its hands and instead allow the newly formed government to work unhindered. CNDD leaders should clarify their position on the transition, accepting unanimously the principle of leaving power by the end of 2009, regardless of the electoral timetable, and making clear plans for a return to barracks.
  • Political parties and civil society must put the euphoria of late December aside, urgently build a working consensus on the rules for democratic transition that includes alternative transitional governance arrangements as necessary and demand a clear timetable for the CNDD’s departure by the end of 2009, independent of the electoral timetable.
  • The international community must significantly support democratic transition by pressing the junta on elections, assisting their preparation and providing early observation, as well as emphasising that the apparent legitimacy of the bloodless coup will fade rapidly if the transition drags on. It should press the junta to allow the government to work free of military influence and desist from appointing military personnel to posts in public administration. With Guineans, it should decide on an end-of-year deadline for return of civilian rule even if elections have not yet been held. International organisation (AU, ECOWAS) and bilateral (U.S.) measures put in place after the coup, including suspension of Guinea’s membership and limitations on aid, should be maintained until there is firm progress on transition, and it should be made clear that violence within the junta or against civilians will be met with targeted sanctions.


Dakar/Brussels, 5 March 2009

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.