Guinea’s elections hearken back to the autocracy and violence of its past
In the latest indication that the elections scheduled for October 18th in the West African country of Guinea are a matter of international concern, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and UN official Pramila Patten issued a joint statement warning that the situation in Guinea is "extremely dangerous" and could lead to violence. Bachelet and Patten expressed particular concern over the "increasingly pervasive and divisive appeals to ethnic affiliations"—an admonishment that comes on the heels of accusations that incumbent Alpha Condé has been deliberately stoking ethnic tensions. The UN officials also demanded accountability for extremely worrying reports that the Guinean security forces have been engaging in brutal crackdowns against protesters in recent months.
The UN statement is an encouraging sign that the international community is paying attention to the escalating situation in a country that has slipped from the public eye after its stint as ground zero of West Africa's Ebola outbreak. While there are plenty of serious issues around the globe to command the attention of policymakers and international human rights observers—a laundry list topped by the herculean challenge of the coronavirus pandemic—the specter of disputed elections and authoritarian repression in Guinea should not be ignored.
Alpha Condé's slide into authoritarianism
82-year-old incumbent Alpha Condé has pointed to his past as a respected democrat to argue against allegations that he is drawing Guinea back into the autocracy and violence which it endured under Sékou Touré's decades-long rule. "It's extraordinary that I should be seen as an anti-democratic dictator", Condé, who likes to compare himself to Nelson Mandela, recently protested. "I fought for 45 years; I was in the opposition". Unfortunately, Condé's recent actions speak louder than his words.
A decade ago, Condé was indeed internationally celebrated as Guinea's first democratically-elected leader since gaining independence from France. Rather than seizing the opportunity to bolster his country's fledgling democracy by stepping down this year after the constitutional maximum of two terms, however, Condé ignored widespread protests and polls indicating that the vast majority of Guineans supported the two-term limit to revise the constitution, allowing the octogenarian to stand for a third term.
If the constitutional change was particularly brazen, Condé has carefully ushered in an era of authoritarianism well in advance of the 2020 elections. In the last few years alone, Condé has replaced the head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), removed the head of the Constitutional Court, and ousted the Minister of Justice over his opposition to Condé's constitutional changes. In the runup to the presidential elections, he has unilaterally shuttered Guinea's borders with Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Senegal for "security reasons"—widely believed to be an attempt to disenfranchise expat voters who predominantly oppose Condé. Media outlets have been shuttered, and opposition leaders arrested. Citizens who take to the streets in protest face slaughter at the hands of security forces.
Guinea does, however, have an established opposition leader in former Prime Minister Cellou Dalein Diallo. While other parts of the opposition movement prefer to boycott the elections, Diallo has accepted calls from his supporters to put himself forward as a candidate and channel the energies of Guinea's democratic opposition via the electoral process.
"You do me the honor of asking me to represent our party in this election," Diallo declared to an audience of Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG) supporters last month, "Do I really have a choice when the militants and officials of our party, in their unanimity, ask me? When the Guineans, in their overwhelming majority, trust me...as the ultimate bulwark against the despotic and clan power of Alpha Condé?" Diallo has warned that Condé's proposed third term is anticonstitutional and a step backward for Guinea's democracy, and reassured supporters that his party has put in place an independent system to ensure that votes are counted fairly—a serious concern is given that the voter roll released in September showed a number of irregularities appearing to benefit Condé.
Meanwhile, the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC) has slammed Condé as a "ferocious dictator," for whom the third term in office would be "illegitimate." Supporters of FNDC have been urged to prepare for upcoming demonstrations, with the movement against Condé purportedly reaching a "decisive phase." The stage has been set for a provocative, if not devastatingly violent, presidential election on October 18th.
Brutal crackdowns from security forces
Tragically, the events of the past year give Guineans little reason to hope for a democratic election without bloodshed. During legislative elections and the controversial constitutional referendum in March this year, security forces were complicit in violence which saw at least 32 people killed and a further 90 injured. In Nzérékoré, the second-largest city in Guinea, confrontations between the opposition and ruling party supporters resulted in people being shot, hacked, or beaten to death. At least one person was burned alive, and a 17-year-old girl reported being raped by a group of armed men.
An Amnesty International report released on October 1st highlighted how this brutal violence appears to have been carried out with complete impunity, which the human rights organization noted: "has remained the rule for the past decade" while Condé has been president. If Guinea is to stand any chance of inheriting a peaceful and democratic future, the international community can't let its plight slip out of the public eye.
The establishment of a robust democracy and effective government in Guinea could very well have positive spillover effects for the whole of West Africa. Positioned between other recent regional flashpoints, such as Mali and Sierra Leone, stability and economic development in Guinea may be the start of an entirely new trend on the continent— one in which the doors on Africa's club of persistent presidents are closed for good. Guinea's opposition movement and civil society are clearly prepared to do their part in securing such a positive outcome, but international observers need to keep a close eye on this election and use its levers of influence to ensure a free and fair vote.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)
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