An Update on Guinea

Stephen DeAngelis

February 04, 2010

Last October I published a post entitled Guinea: A Setback for Africa. The focus of that post was a brutal assault by government troops on unarmed participants involved in a political demonstration in a stadium located in the country’s capital of Conakry and the aftermath of that massacre. Over 150 civilians were killed during the attack. At the time, the government was led by Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara who seized power in a 2008 military coup following the death of longtime president Lansana Conte. In the post, I wrote: “Things are not likely to go well in Guinea. Camara is quickly becoming a pariah internationally and a tyrant at home — exactly the opposite of the kind of leadership necessary to usher in an era of development, hope, and peace. Given the right kind of leadership Guinea could have a very promising future. The country has major mineral, hydropower, and agricultural resources. It sits atop almost half of the world’s bauxite reserves — the most important aluminum ore. Unfortunately, Guinea’s military junta looks like it is going to be propped up by Chinese investments.”

Then suddenly, in December of last year, Camara was shot by the former head of the presidential guard who claimed that Camara was trying to blame him for the stadium massacre in September. Camara fled to nearby Burkina Faso where he remains in exile. When Camara fled, General Sekouba Konate assumed leadership of the military junta. Konate flew to Burkina Faso to convince Camara to remain in exile and allow him to lead the country in a transition to democracy. Much to my surprise (and the surprise of most of the rest of the world), Konate got his way and has been true to his word and allowed a peaceful transfer from the junta’s prime minister, Kabiné Komara, to an opposition leader, Jean-Marie Doré [“After Massacre, Guinea Sees Hope of Lifted Chains,” by Adam Nossiter, New York Times, 3 February 2010]. Nossiter reports:

“Something rare has happened in a region often given to brutal autocracy: power has been peacefully transferred to a civilian, just four months after an army massacre that recalled the worst of Africa’s past. … Now, the swift and unexpected turn of events has surprised Guineans, who wonder warily if the new prime minister, Jean-Marie Doré, a gaunt and wily opposition leader who left the stadium bleeding, can actually deliver democracy in a country that has never truly known it. The omnipresent military, arbiter of power for decades, hovers in the background, a potential foot on the fragile plant of civilian rule. ‘Things have happened so fast,’ said Sydia Touré, a widely respected opposition leader. ‘This is something we couldn’t have imagined two months ago,’ he said. ‘It’s a new vision.’ People here are still trying to understand exactly how the transition occurred, as the larger question arises of whether Guinea holds any lessons for the region’s future.”

Nossiter reports that Mr. Doré has “promised the nation its first truly free elections within the year.” The scene following the peaceful transfer of power was almost surreal according to Nossiter. He reports:

“‘Democracy!’ people shouted after Mr. Doré left a downtown restaurant, slapping the hands of well-wishers from his S.U.V. He was guarded, paradoxically, by the same cadre of red-bereted presidential guards responsible for the stadium massacre.”

Things in Guinea moved swiftly following the assassination attempt on Camara. In late January, “a military hard-liner who was among the most vocal supporters of Guinea’s exiled coup leader and who chartered a private plane to try to force him to return to Guinea was arrested” [“Military boss arrested in Guinea,” by Boubacar Diallo, Washington Post, 30 January 2010]. That was a good sign that General Konate was not going to allow the brutal Camara to return from exile and that “the balance of power within the military has shifted in favor of officers willing to go ahead with a transition to civilian rule.” All of these events beg the question, “Why such a big change-of-heart in Guinea?” Nossiter believes that international pressure was the answer. He continues:

“Guinea could be the rare case in which swift international sanctions actually worked, politicians and diplomats here say. Sharp words from the United States and France in October were quickly followed by travel and aid bans, which struck hard in an impoverished land where over half the budget is financed from abroad. The United Nations and the International Criminal Court investigated the stadium massacre, with the United Nations focusing on the junta — including its erratic chief, Captain Camara — for crimes against humanity. Pressure built, and the government gave in.”

Both the new prime minister, Mr. Doré, and Sydia Touré, who is expected to run for president, agree with Nossiter’s assessment. Touré said: “The pressure from the international community, the pressure was very strong, and very fast. The horizon was closed very quickly.” Hopes are running high inside Guinea and events must continue to move swiftly; otherwise, unfulfilled expectations could breed another round of violence — something the country knows too much about. Nossiter continues:

“‘We have a historic mission to give our country, for the first time, democratic institutions,’ [said François Lonsény Fall, a former prime minister]. That will not be easy in Guinea, where one dictator has replaced another in the 52 years since its separation from France. First there was a Stalinist, Sékou Touré, who saw plots everywhere and killed dozens of people to stamp them out; then a military man, Lansana Conté, who bled the resource-rich country dry as his entourage enriched itself; and finally Captain Camara.”

Nossiter reports that “hope” is being “tempered by wariness” in Guinea. He continues:

“‘There’s a new momentum that is promising, but it must be well managed,’ said Mouctar Diallo, president of an opposition political party who was beaten at the stadium and forced into hiding afterward. ‘We are optimistic but vigilant.’ Much depends on General Konaté, a burly career military man whose decision to allow opposition forces to pick an interim prime minister — Mr. Doré — was critical in defusing Guinea’s crisis. Diplomats here say General Konaté, the junta’s ailing former defense minister, appears uninterested in political power. Unlike other senior officers, he was not implicated in the massacre, and he has publicly warned about the dangers of isolation and upbraided troops over extortion against civilians.”

Opposition leaders are giving General Konate full points for moving ahead with the transition from military to civilian rule. Although Konate has cleared the path to democracy, that journey must still be taken. Nossiter concludes:

“Mr. Doré’s main role is to form a government — with 10 representatives from the former opposition, 10 from the junta and 10 from provincial governments — and oversee preparations for elections. A fierce competition for these positions is now under way, and Mr. Doré is already being criticized for being too slow, a week after taking office. … On the nation’s future, he gives the measured responses of a political professional. ‘I can’t predict what’s going to happen, but I think the army and its chief understand the necessity for Guinea of ending this incoherence,’ he said. There have been brief outbursts of joy to greet what appeared to be the return of civilian rule, but also much wariness. Mr. Doré has given ambiguous statements about running for president, and some worry that he will be reluctant to hold elections in which he is not a candidate. Many also worry about the military.”

For its part, the international community also remains hopeful but wary. Guinea’s neighbors are particularly keen that the process work. “Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says the Economic Community of West African States will help Guinea return to constitutional rule through a transitional government led jointly by the country’s acting military leader and its new civilian prime minister” [“Liberian President Wants International Support for Guinea,” by Scott Stearns, Voice of America, 2 February 2010]. An international contact group for Guinea, which was formed last February, also supports the transitional government. The Contact Group is co-chaired by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) Commission. Other members include: Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), the European Union (EU), the Mano River Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the International Organization of the French-speaking World (OIF), the UN, the Chair of the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the Chair of ECOWAS, as well as the African members and the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Needless to say, the picture in Guinea is much brighter today than it was four months ago.