Guinea: Hopes for Reform Dashed Again

2 January 2009
guest column

Guinea’s political elite has once more been rendered powerless by an army whose leaders owe their survival to a political system built upon confusion and fear.

Though many political actors had long hoped for a coup to end Lansana Conté’s regime and the political impasse it generated, it is highly unlikely that the military junta which seized power last week will relinquish control and lead Guinea into a stable democratic era.

While the latest coup is a logical outcome of the socio-political situation of recent years, it is also a result of an inter-generational conflict within the army itself. There have been tensions for some time between an old military guard, which wanted to remain faithful to the “army unity pact” promoted by Conté, and a younger generation of opportunistic officers who have been seeking a platform from which to assert their authority.

But at the same time the coup and the absence of any substantial resistance to it highlights the complexity of Guinea’s political landscape.

Since the early days of independence, Guinea has seemed trapped in political ambivalence, in which hopes are repeatedly raised then dashed. In all three major historical landmarks of the last 60 years – Ahmed Sékou Touré’s “1958 No” to French rule and his ensuing term in office; the failed democratic transition in the 1990s which followed the 1984 coup in which Lansana Conté came to power; and the January 2007 popular revolt initiated by the trade unions – the incompetence of the political class, including the opposition, has made the army a disturbingly destabilising factor.

In 2007, what began as a protest for better working and living conditions turned into a call for political reforms in Guinea which reflected the popular rejection of a regime that had failed dismally to improve living conditions. When the unions and political leaders reached a deal to end the crisis, one of the major concerns of Guineans was whether in the volatile environment of West Africa, the authorities would lead the country into an era of better governance.

After more than a year, there is consensus that the process has collapsed and that there are many challenges to establishing a democratic political process.  When President Conté died, the question was whether his death, combined with the changing context brought about by social forces since January 2007, would  break the political impasse without generating violence. But hardly had news of his death broken when the army again took control with a fallacious promise of a new transition.

It seems that at each time there is glimpse of hope, Guinea’s political elite is outclassed by forces over which it has little or no control.  A review of the three major historic periods in Guinea’s political trajectory helps to make sense of the current political crisis.

Sekou Touré’s historic decision to reject the integration of his country into metropolitan France was saluted across the continent and paved the way for independence in 1958. With his anti-imperialist stand and pan-Africanist vision, Sekou Touré’s Guinea presented an image of radical experimentation in social and political development, and throughout his rule Guinea occupied a special position among African states.

Sekou Touré promised prosperity and dignity to Guineans. But a combination of external and internal factors compromised his leadership and forced him to resort to violence to survive. Internally, his regime was characterised by extreme repression, motivated by fear of assassination plots. Externally, it was isolated from the West and relied heavily on Soviet aid for development projects. But the aid was never sufficient to ensure that the basic needs of Guineans were met.

His political legacy is now a matter of controversy: like Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, he is celebrated as a hero for his stance on colonialism and his rhetoric on indigenous development, but blamed by many of his countrymen for failing to live up to the promise of independence by laying the foundations for sustainable development.

Ahmed Sekou Touré’s death in 1984 opened a new chapter, marking the first attempt at transforming the political system from autocratic rule to a pluralistic democratic system. At first, the bloodless military coup that brought Lansana Conté to power initiated an era of limited political restoration. Political prisoners were released and about 200,000 Guineans returned from forced exile. This was followed by some initiatives aimed at liberalizing the political and economic environment and improving relations with the West.

But the illusion did not last long. Within a few months, Lansana Conté reverted to authoritarian rule. His troops arrested and executed potential political rivals accused of plotting a coup. The victims included Conté’s close ally and then prime minister, Colonel Diarra Traoré.

The next attempt at political reform came with the 1990s wave of democratisation across Africa. When pressure from the street became unbearable, Conté introduced a quasi-democratic multiparty system – more to lure development partners than to respond to his people’s demand for accountability and improvement of socio-economic conditions.

Despite complaints by the opposition over the credibility of the electoral processes, Lansana Conté stood for the 1993 presidential elections and, amid controversies, was declared the winner with 51.7 percent of the vote.  To further the reform process – or at least to give that impression – he appointed Sidya Touré, a technocrat, as his prime minister to liberalize the economy, reduce corruption, channel resources to local development initiatives and poverty alleviation. But he frustrated the prime minister’s efforts and his re-election in 1998 with 56.1 percent of the vote is best interpreted as the consolidation of his dictatorship and the failure of the democratic reform process.

Conté’s repressive rule continued unabated from that point. He dismissed Sydia Touré and entrusted most key government positions to members of his ethnic group (the Soussous) and party (The Parti de l’Unité et de Progrès –PUP).  The five other prime ministers who have served since 1984 have either been subservient or were dismissed before they could implement reforms which might expose the scandals of the regime.

With the 2001 amendment of the constitution that removed term and age limits for presidential candidates, it became clear that there was little hope of an end to Conté’s regime.  Many opponents, including Alfa Condé, leader of the main opposition party, the Rally of Guinea People (RPG), were repeatedly detained without trial. In 2003, Conté won another election, boycotted by the overwhelming majority of voters, this time around with 95.6 percent of the votes.

The popular riots of January 2007 marked the third decisive moment in Guinea’s political trajectory. The appointment of Lansana Kouyaté, former executive director of the Economic Community of West African States and former under-secretary general of the United Nations, raised hopes for political stability. But it did not in any shape or form guarantee the end of Conté’s system.

Kouyaté was quite capable of leading Guinea into a new socio-political era. But the country lacked the ingredients which experience has shown are necessary if countries are to achieve more or less acceptable political transitions in Africa. While the union leaders who took the initiative in demanding change succeeded in negotiating the terms of the transition, they failed to assess carefully enough the difficulty of implementing the agreement in a hostile political environment. Also, political parties failed to seize the opportunity to consolidate the concessions obtained by the unions by insisting on legal and constitutional changes to reinforce reform.

Prime Minister Kouyaté was unable to act without the authority of presidential decrees. These were often delayed by Conté or manipulated by hardliners within the ruling party, placing a major obstacle in the way of the Kouyaté  and his cabinet. Once again, Guineans were misled by empty promises of good governance and a better life.

Twenty-four years after the coup that brought Lansana Conté to power, Guinea’s political elite has again pledged allegiance to a military junta that promises a return to constitutional rule in 2010. There is some evidence for cautious optimism that the anti-corruption stance of the new junta may bear fruit. But the new military authorities are progressively consolidating their control, inspired by the recent coup in Mauritania and confident that the African Union and the international community will not go beyond the rhetoric of condemnation.

Fear has once again been deployed as a tool to induce a government to surrender, while citizens hoping to see some improvements to their living conditions will have to wait. The question is whether this will take another two decades of military rule or whether there is hope for democratic reform. In Guinea, as elsewhere in Africa, military coups hardly serve the interests of a coherent democratic political order.

Dr.  Zounmenou is senior researcher in the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa. He is a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA-BENIN) and of Wits University in Johannesburg. The opinions expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of the institute.

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