The president’s bid for a third term is a fresh challenge to West Africa’s constitutional democracies.
Guinean President Alpha Condé’s decision to proceed with a controversial referendum, which will allow him to remain in office for up to 12 more years, threatens to undo the progress the country made when it transitioned from a military junta to a democratic government a decade ago.
– Ethnic tensions and political instability are likely to increase ahead of Guinea’s 2020 presidential elections
– Condé’s decision could result in Guinea being politically isolated and economically disadvantaged within regional and international organisations
Guinea’s current trajectory towards political instability and violence has been palpable over the past two years. The country’s political uncertainty is a result of President Alpha Condé’s dithering over whether or not he would extend presidential term limits by amending the country’s constitution. The amendment, which ultimately passed in March, renders Condé a viable presidential candidate for another two six-year terms.
Campaigning in the lead up to the referendum prompted demonstrations and confrontations between government forces and supporters of Condé’s Guinean People’s Assembly (RPG) and a coalition of non-governmental groups and opposition parties called the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC). At least 30 people died between October 2019 and February 2020, and the tensions resulted in the repeated postponement of legislative elections.
Those elections, finally held alongside the constitutional referendum on March 22, were a predictable landslide victory for Condé and his ruling party. The FNDC, led by Cellou Dalein Diallo, unequivocally rejected the constitutional referendum result. The polls were marred with reports of a communication blackout, violence, demonstrations, looting and barricading. At least six people were killed, according to government officials. However, the opposition disputes the government’s figures and claims that the number could be as high as ten.
NEW CONSTITUTION, SAME PRESIDENT
The sticking point between the government and the FNDC was Condé’s decision to hold a constitutional referendum at the same time as legislative elections. The opposition repeatedly stated its intent to boycott the polls for two reasons: first, it called the polls a ploy for Condé to be able to govern for 12 more years, and second, the FDNC alleged that the national electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), is in cahoots with the RPG. The electoral commission’s impartiality and neutrality was previously questioned in a UN Human Rights Committee report on Guinea in 2018. There were also concerns about CENI’s electoral register, which included 2.5 million names with irregularities, such as duplication of names or invalid registration of Guinean citizens who were either dead or too young to vote. Those names were later removed. But the concerns highlighted by regional organisations — such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF) — resulted in the withdrawal of election observers from Guinea’s March elections.
Condé’s RPG has defended the constitutional amendments, adding that the country was in need of a “modern constitution.” Condé and his allies have pointed to the progressive provisions of the new constitution, stating that it “responds to the needs of the world today” by outlawing female genital mutilation and underage and forced marriages, and ensuring a fairer distribution of the country’s mineral wealth. In an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, Condé defended his pursuit of a third term and pointed to contemporaries in Chad, Rwanda and Togo who have altered the constitution to remain in office. Condé has also asserted that during his tenure, he has tightened his grip over the armed forces, a reference to the country’s transition from a military junta to a democratically elected government in 2010.
That Guinea had to repeatedly postpone the legislative elections illustrates the effect of FNDC’s demonstrations on Condé’s government. An unexpected postponement of the March 1 vote was caused not only by the FNDC’s persistent demonstrations across several Guinean cities, but also by the opposition’s request for ECOWAS and the AU to intervene before chaos engulfed the country. The FNDC also welcomed statements made by the OIF, which suspended its participation in the elections citing doubts about CENI’s electoral register. It remains to be seen whether the FNDC’s long-term goals of demanding Condé’s abstinence from a third-term presidential bid will be achieved, as Guinea’s constitutional court ratified the referendum results and Condé subsequently enacted them.
EYES OFF THE BALL
The number of demonstrations and confrontations between pro-referendum and opposition supporters will mostly increase as the October presidential election nears. Acts of violence may be on the rise. Security forces, in particular armed soldiers, police officers and gendarmes, have repeatedly been condemned for their excessive use of force against opposition supporters. Such developments have drawn the attention of UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, who in her February 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council noted that Guinea’s “ethnic divisions are deepening, with increasing incitement to hatred and violence on social media and at political rallies.” Indeed, in the aftermath of the March 22 elections, ethnic tensions and religious clashes between the Guerze, a majority Christian community, and the Konianke, a majority Muslim community, were reported in southeast Guinea, resulting in the torching of properties and leaving several people dead. Regional and international calls a reduction in ethnic and political tensions are likely to increase in urgency as the election edges closer. Expect ECOWAS and the AU, through the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), to lead demands for inter-Guinean dialogue, encompassing stakeholders such as political parties and civil society organisations.
But political and deep ethnic tensions between the Malinké and the Fulani (Peuhl) groups are likely to be exacerbated as the presidential elections near. The Malinké are the second largest ethnic group in Guinea and the bedrock of Condé’s RPG, while the FNDC’s main and largest party, the Union of Democratic Forces in Guinea (UFDG), draws its support from the Fulani, the country’s largest ethnic group. Acts of political mayhem and disruption between pro- and anti-Condé supporters are likely to spill into the streets of Conakry, Guinea’s political and economical capital. The chaos will probably extend to neighbourhoods in Conakry such as Kindia and Télimélé, which are RPG strongholds, whilst suburbs such as Wanindara, Hamdallaye, Coza and Simbaya could be battlegrounds.
Regional and international organisations, such as ECOWAS, the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) and the EU, have been swift in their condemnations of the violence. ECOWAS’s 15 member states may contemplate suspending the membership of Guinea from the organization. The bloc used this measure against the Gambia in December 2016, an action that proved crucial in then-president Yahya Jammeh’s decision to step down after his initial refusal to leave office. Both the AU and ECOWAS are most likely to reemphasise and remind Guinea of its obligations to the AU’s Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, Elections and Governance, as well as the 2001 ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. Both of these protocols highlight the imperativeness of free, fair and transparent elections, as well as the independence and impartiality of national electoral bodies. However, the general reaction from the AU, the continent’s overarching body, has been meek. Unless the AU becomes more assertive and pronounced in its statements, Condé is likely to become more emboldened and defiant as the October presidential election nears. However, the bloc’s attention is likely to be held by the political crisis in neighbouring Guinea-Bissau, leaving Condé relatively unchallenged.
Condé’s apparent intention to extend his tenure under the guise of ‘modernising the constitution’ threatens democratic progress in West Africa, a region that has consistently ranked as having the most stable democracy in Africa. Whether an organised and united opposition, and incessant pressure and calls from regional and international observers, will be enough to force Condé to rescind his candidature, remains to be seen.