The 21st of December 2010 was an important day for West Africa: Alpha Condé was sworn into office as President of Guinea, meaning that for the first time since achieving independence, all 15 countries in the region were led by elected officials, including a female president.
Claus-Dieter König is the director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s West Africa Office in Dakar, Senegal.
The democratic integrity of some of these elections was questionable. For the people of West Africa, however, it was nevertheless a time of hope: they dreamed that more democracy would bring about policy shifts that would benefit the majority of the people. This hope has since been dashed, not only by military takeovers, such as in Mali in 2012, but most notably by the absence of any major change and the cementing of undemocratic structures, even within the election system.
On 5 September Condé was removed from office by a special military unit that he had created himself. While the new junta claims that it was a bloodless coup, other sources suggest that about a hundred people were killed, most of them members of the presidential guard. Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, a former French legionnaire, led the coup and has anointed himself as Guinea’s new leader.
According to reports from Guinea, the people are hesitantly celebrating the end of Condé’s rule. For what reason?
To begin with, Alpha Condé’s election win was hardly democratic. Until recently Guinea’s constitution allowed presidents to serve a maximum of two terms, as is the case in most West African countries. But Condé, who is now 83 years old, wanted to hold onto the country’s most powerful office at any price. In March 2020 people took to the streets en masse to protest a constitutional referendum to allow him a third term. The demonstration was violently broken up, costing more than 30 people their lives. The main opposition parties subsequently announced that they would boycott the parliamentary election that was scheduled to take place at the same time as the presidential vote.
Protests and state violence thus also marred the October 2020 election, which Condé won. The election was by no means fair, however: the state-run media gave the opposition candidates no airtime, and the streets of the capital Conakry were decorated almost exclusively with large-format Condé election posters. At the time, Cellou Dallein Diallo, the losing candidate, made accusations of election fraud.
But even if the election was fair, it still exemplifies the state of crisis of West African presidential electoral systems. More than 7 million people are eligible to vote in Guinea; 5.3 million of them are registered to vote and 4.3 million actually went to the polls, where 2.4 million people voted for Condé. This means that, despite massive election interference, only about a third of eligible voters cast their ballot for the incumbent president. On top of that, nearly half of Guinea’s population is under the age of 18 and thus ineligible to vote.
From a Cause for Hope to a Dictator
A former opposition member and law professor, when Alpha Condé was elected to office in 2010 it was considered a cause for hope. Many people dreamed of a democratic awakening and a new economic start.
Instead, Condé sold out the country even further. His presidency was plagued by continued economic stagnation and a lack of prospects for young people. Guinea is in fact rich in natural resources, such as phosphate, bauxite and gold. Similar to in other countries of the Global South, however, Condé allowed corporations from the Global North to extract these commodities, depriving the country of the profits. During his years as an oppositionist, Condé had a reputation for calling out corruption. As president, however, he built a network of exploitation and nepotism that allowed his family members (i.e. his son Mohamed Condé) and his friends in business to become obscenely wealthy.
During Alpha Condé’s rule, poverty was also exacerbated. Living conditions deteriorated for the vast majority of Guineans, especially in the last years of his time in office. Infrastructure—above all roads—became increasingly disastrous. The government allegedly allocated enormous funds to improve the supply of electricity and water. These structures remain rudimentary to this day, however, and many people wonder if the money was even invested at all, or if it was spent otherwise. The crisis reached a dramatic peak a month ago, when the government raised the price of petrol by more than 20 percent, directly impacting the cost of food and everyday goods.
In the end, the ousted president left the country deeply divided, even sowing ethnic hatred to secure his grip on power. Condé belongs to the Malinké, the second largest people in Guinea. He inflamed conflicts with the Fulani people, who include his most significant opponent, Cellou Diallo.
Reactions to the Coup at Home and Abroad
In Guinea, no one is shedding a tear for Condé. At the same time, excitement for the country’s new rulers can be described as cautious, at best. People are simply accepting the coup. There have been no protests, as of yet. Rather, as one trade unionist has put it, the coup is “the agony of the people making themselves heard”.
The country’s new strongman, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, was appointed in 2018 to lead the country’s elite Special Forces Group—an official counterterrorism force of nearly 500 soldiers whom Condé trusted more than his own presidential guard to protect him. Ironically, it was precisely this special unit that toppled the president.
Just one day after the coup, the junta began setting up a transitional government of “national unity”. They released imprisoned opposition members and announced that they would draft a new constitution. This garnered them initial support: some civil society organizations and Condé’s political opponent Diallo have already declared their support for the junta, as long as it keeps its promises.
In the meantime, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and France have all condemned the coup and, in some cases, threatened sanctions. It is foreseeable that ECOWAS will try to exert their influence—as was the case in Mali—and will soon send a delegation to Conakry for negotiations. Because of the looming threat of sanctions, the junta will hardly be able to refuse them.
Alassane Ouattara, President of Côte d’Ivoire, is a very influential figure in the ECOWAS committees. He closely coordinates with France, the former colonial power, on all issues affecting the region. Much like Condé in Guinea, Ouattara repressively bent the rules to stay in office for a third term, despite strong resistance from the people. Here one can clearly observe the consequences of ECOWAS having in the past turned a blind eye to constitutionally questionable third terms and elections that are anything but free and fair.
Guinea is a perfect example for how the entire region is at a crossroads once again. Most West African countries gained independence around 60 years ago. Predominantly multiparty political systems were introduced around 30 years ago. The region is now entering an era of transformation that will be just as pivotal.
More and more, today’s youth are organizing protests against the “political class”, which they perceive as parasitic. As a result, the old model of authoritarian presidential regimes is losing its legitimacy. But, as of yet, no new model has emerged.
Young people are now calling for high up government officials with integrity, who care about the welfare of the people and the nation. Their search for a role model in West African history led them to Thomas Sankara, who was president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. Sankara seized power in a military coup, and was later assassinated by military officers himself. Many claim that Sankara successfully fought corruption, economic dependence, and poverty in the country. They overlook the fact that his regime also had authoritarian features.
Guinea and other West African countries are faced with a radical choice. On one hand, there is the path of authoritarian presidential regimes, embedded in corrupt, clientelist systems. These leaders regularly renew their claim to power in elections that fall short of democratic standards. Change may well occur on the highest level, either through elections or military coups, as we are seeing right now in Guinea. Yet it will never lead to real, structural transformation. An extreme example of this is Togo, where a family dynasty has ruled for decades. Moreover, in Sahel, this form of corrupt authoritarianism has opened the door to radical religious groups and armed terrorist organizations.
The alternative to another authoritarian presidential regime is genuine structural change, which will usher in democracy by transferring control over decisions involving the use of raw materials, as well as agriculture and industry, from foreign corporations into the hands of institutions that genuinely represent the interests of the people. The path there is rocky. It would require political organizing: in trade unions, youth associations, farmers associations and “from below” in other spheres.
Such an alternative vision would be successful only if a broad majority of citizens want it as well. The current situation in Mali—and in Burkina Faso—is a good example of how difficult it is to bring about fundamental transformation in society.
The conditions in Guinea are similar. It is thus foreseeable that the coup will more likely lead to the replacement of government elite, rather than usher in a fundamental shift. This also means, however, that dissatisfaction will continue to mount among Guineans, along with pressure for genuine change in the interest of the majority.