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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 199 / Africa

Guinea: A Way Out of the Election Quagmire

Overdue legislative elections in Guinea could rapidly degenerate into violence in the absence of consensus on electoral procedures.

Executive Summary

Two years after President Alpha Condé’s victory in the first really competitive election in the history of postcolonial Guinea, the country still does not have a national assembly. Forthcoming legislative elections look set to be complicated: ethnic tensions, compounded by the 2010 polls, remain high and the electoral system is deeply controversial. The establishment of a new Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in September 2012 was an important step, but progress stalled again in December on the issue of the voter register. President Condé must engage in a genuine dialogue with the opposition and the INEC must reach a consensual solution on the register. With international support, the government and opposition must consolidate the electoral system. Peaceful and credible legislative elections are essential to establish a parliament that reflects the country’s diversity, give the opposition a real voice, restore checks and balances, and prevent the hope raised by the replacement of illegitimate military leaders with an elected civilian president turning into disillusionment.

Direct dialogue between the government and opposition on the legislative elections started more than a year after Alpha Condé came to power, with the Inclusive Framework for Political Dialogue (Cadre de dialogue politique inclusif, CDPI). It ended two months later with limited results. Between March 2012 and February 2013, there were no further direct talks, but instead a series of interventions, facilitations, consultations and announcements. Some questions have been settled and others brushed aside, but the opposition still strongly disagrees on two key issues: the INEC and the voter register. Soon after a banned opposition protest on 27 August 2012, which led to widespread disorder in the capital Conakry, the government pledged to reconstitute the INEC, and the commission’s controversial president asked that his mandate not be renewed. His successor, Bakary Fofana, presented in December a timetable setting the elections for 12 May 2013. Does this signal a way forward? Did this peculiar form of dialogue, with accusations, manoeuvres and anger, eventually yield progress?

Although there has been some headway, the level of polarisation remains high. The appointment of the new INEC members created fresh friction, with its new president rapidly coming under fire, and it is this contentious institution that must resolve the key problem of the electoral register. Tension on that issue boiled over on 10 December, when the opposition accused Fofana of violating the procedures of INEC by refusing to release a report on the register prepared by the International Organisation of Francophonie (Organisation internationale de la francophonie, OIF), and considered calling for his resignation. Fofana’s announcement, the following day, that elections would be held in May 2013 raised the temperature further: the opposition rejected that date, arguing that the INEC plenary had not been consulted.

The opposition also protested against the technical weaknesses and lack of transparency in the process of revising the electoral register, as well as the lack of preparation for the Guinean diaspora’s vote. On 29 January, the opposition, allied with a number of “centrist” parties, called for new demonstrations and dismissed the direct dialogue called for by the authorities as a ploy to have them cancel the protest. During a new INEC meeting to discuss the electoral register on 11 February, the majority supporting President Condé voted to endorse the controversial revision while opposition commissioners walked out. They might decide to suspend permanently their participation.

In sum, the situation remains worrisome. Holding elections while the government and opposition disagree on fundamental issues is dangerous. The government shows contempt for the opposition and took almost a year to engage in dialogue. The opposition maintains that President Condé was elected through fraud and prefers to avoid elections (or, at least, does not want transparent and consensual polls). It accuses the regime of ethnic favouritism. Civil society, which played a key role at the end of the 2000s, is now divided along political and ethnic lines. Controversial elections against the backdrop of ethnic disputes raise many risks at both local and national levels.

Electoral turmoil could degenerate into significant violence. Security sector reform has made limited progress and tension remains very high between the security forces, accustomed to impunity and also affected by ethnic disputes, and the population, exasperated by police and army brutality. Electoral troubles could offer opportunities to those in the armed forces who have not fully accepted their new submission to civilian authority.

The Condé regime cannot simply talk about its good governance and development ambitions: it must also iron out political tensions. Moreover, it is more important that the vote is credible than that it takes place in May – although with so much time already lost it should take place as soon as possible and certainly before December 2013. For this to happen, dialogue is vital. The road to the elections will be rocky, but it is crucial to keep friction to a minimum, maintain serious dialogue between the parties and rebuild trust in the electoral apparatus. It is also necessary to strengthen the capacity of the political system – the judiciary, territorial administration, security forces, INEC, political parties – and for civil society to manage in a proper and credible manner the conflicts that will inevitably emerge during the long electoral journey ahead.

Dakar/Brussels, 18 February 2013

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.