24 October 2013

Guinea Election Results Reveal Entrenched Ethnic Vote, or Do They?

Photo: Aminata
President Alpha Condé.

analysis

Beyond notions of clan rivalries and ethnic bloc voting, a closer look at Guinea suggests its realities are far too complex to be boiled down to just 'us' and 'them'.

On the surface, the ethnic prophecy touted by foreign reporters as well as many within Guinea ahead of the country's recent parliamentary elections seems to have been fulfilled.

According to recently announced results, President Alpha Condé's and his Rassemblement du Peuple de Guinée (RPG) came out on top, winning 53 seats and its allies a further 7 of the national assembly's 114. And he did so in part by winning big amongst his own ethnic group.

In two key parts of the country in particular, the vote from September's poll was starkly split along ethnic lines. In Haute Guinée, the savannah homeland of the Malinké population, Condé's RPG won an overwhelming majority; while in the neighbouring region of Moyenne Guinée, home to the Peul, the vote went in equally overwhelming numbers to the leader of the opposition, Cellou Dalein Diallo, and his Union des Forces Républicaines de la Guinée (UFDG).

But is this necessarily reflective of an entrenched ethnic vote?

The ethnic paradox

Well before independence in 1958, Guinea's first president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, warned against the rivalries that should not be allowed to tear the new country apart. It seems he never intended to heed his own warning, however, and cynically based part of his politics on fomenting ethnic rivalry. This culminated in the infamous 'Peul Conspiracy' of 1976 in which Touré claimed that the people from Moyenne Guinée were plotting to overthrow him. What followed was one of the deadly purges for which his reign will be remembered.

But here is the paradox of Guinea's 'ethnic politics': Touré was a Malinké from the savannah town of Faranah, yet his most ardent supporters were living on the coast, including the capital Conakry where he enjoyed unwavering support among the Susu and Baga populations. What is more, some of Touré's most vicious fights were with fellow Malinké, especially the moneyed traders from the city of Kan Kan, most of whom he chased from the country.

Touré's successor, Lansana Conté, followed a similar path and did not significantly change the principle of governance-by-conspiracy. Conté, a Susu from the coastal region, first turned against his predecessor's clan by physically eliminating virtually all remaining political and military leaders from Touré's group following another coup conspiracy. He then set about enriching his own clan, which included his family, his in-laws and a never-ending parade of shady foreign businesspeople. In corrupt unison, they bled the country dry.

Friends, enemies and neighbours

The lessons we can learn from these two episodes are, firstly and most importantly, that it is a mistake to conflate the victory of a single Peul, Susu or Malinké politician with a victory for the entire ethnic group; political winners are family- or clan-based, and those from the same ethnic group that do not belong to the in-group are refused entry to the gravy train. Second, it is a mistake to see ethnic groups as monolithic blocks with all the same interests. And third, it is wrong to assume that the interests of any particular ethnic group are somehow naturally inimical to those of others.

This is not to say that ethnicity is not an important and emotive issue in the country. On the internet, for example, one can find countless platforms for individuals who clearly relish the prospect of seeing their country going up in flames fanning group-based hatred. Shrill websites denounce everything done by Condé's government, describing the president as a Malinké power politician whose main aim in life is to destroy the Peul. Equally unedifying texts can be seen on sites friendly to Condé, which call his detractors "jealous power hungry Peul supremacists."

However, like electorates all over the world, Guineans ultimately vote for politicians who they believe will best defend their interests. Currently, the Peul and the Malinké seem to feel overwhelmingly that these politicians come from their own circles. But historically this has not always been the case, and in the future this dynamic may well change. In fact, a look into the past reveals that the two groups have much in common; they share the same faith, their elites intermarried, and they were military allies against common enemies including the French in the 19th century.

Distractions from development

It is unfortunate that Condé's elevation to the presidency in 2010 did not signal a clean break with the preceding '52 years of bad habits' - Guineans' way of describing the corrupt and violent cliques that long misgoverned the country.

Indeed, Condé's record is decidedly mixed. The introduction of a new Mining Code that increases the state's stake in Guinea's most profitable sector was clumsy; the transfer of Conakry's port in 2011 was so cack-handed that it led to litigation; and Condé himself has admitted that he massively underestimated the problems facing the country. That, however, does not make the government a marauding Malinké-driven ethnic cleansing machine, as some would have us believe.

Attributing everything to identity politics deflects attention from the real priorities: creating a functioning state, boosting the economy, creating jobs, reforming the army and building - pretty much from scratch - basic services including water, electricity, rubbish collection, healthcare and education.

Reporters covering Guinea are particularly prone to falling into this trap. They routinely refer to "ethnic tensions" or "ethnic clashes" without offering further explanations. This offers tidy journalistic shorthand that offers simple explanations for policymakers in foreign capitals, but as a look at Guinea's complex historical and social dynamics reveals, the country's realities are far too complex to be boiled down to "us" and "them".

Bram Posthumus is an independent press and radio journalist with more than 20 years of experience living and working in West and Southern Africa. Alternating between Dakar and Amsterdam, he reports on political, cultural and economic events for a variety of radio, print and internet media.

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