Guinea's President Alpha Condé recently signed a decree calling for legislative elections and a referendum to amend the constitution to be held on Sunday 22 March. This came after the elections were postponed three times in three weeks. The referendum aims to, among others, remove presidential term limits. This could permit the 82-year old incumbent Condé to run for a third term.
Guinea has seen large-scale protest action against these plans. So far the situation in Guinea hasn't made it onto the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council's (PSC) agenda. In contrast, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken action - it declined to send observers to the elections and the referendum initially scheduled for 1 March, as did the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) and later the AU.
In the last week of February, a request by ECOWAS to send a high-level mission - comprising the presidents of Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Niger - to the country was reportedly denied by Condé. It was the combined pressure from the OIF and ECOWAS and the subsequent disavowal by the AU that led to the most recent postponement of the elections and referendum.
Meanwhile, fundamental problems persist around the voters roll, the transparency, credibility and inclusiveness of the legislative polls and referendum, and eventually the October 2020 presidential elections. Uncertainty over whether Condé will stand for a third term is at the heart of the contestation and must be resolved.
Uncertainty over whether Condé will stand for a third term is at the heart of the contestation
Both the AU's 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and the 2001 ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance discourage any constitutional amendment that undermines the principle of change of power. They also promote free, fair and inclusive elections.
The crisis in Guinea was looming over two years ago. After months of public speculation and vagueness on the part of the government, declarations by Condé's government and Condé himself indicated that a swift move towards amending the constitution to do away with presidential term limits was likely.
This came after large-scale protests which saw Guinea fall into a cycle of violence and repression, with several deaths. The National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC), comprising Guinean socio-political actors, has been at the forefront of the pushback against Condé's plans.
The FNDC and opposition parties decided to boycott the legislative elections on the grounds that it wasn't going to be free and fair. They cited problems with the voters roll and the impartiality of the National Electoral Commission (CENI). The voters roll was contested, while seven CENI members resigned over concerns regarding the transparency of the electoral process and its ability to deliver on its mandate.
The country will probably sink into more instability in the run-up to the presidential election
The electoral process faced even more boycotts after the president signed back-to-back decrees calling for legislative elections and a referendum at the same time. Coupling the two polls was viewed as a thinly veiled attempt to boost voter turnout, thereby increasing the legitimacy of the referendum.
Opposition to the electoral process was backed by the OIF and the European Union (EU). The OIF found that government hadn't resolved outstanding issues around nearly 2.5 million problematic voters (with 11.6 million registered voters) as established by a 2018 audit of the voters roll. The audit was conducted by the OIF, the EU and the United Nations (UN), at the request of the Guinean government.
ECOWAS deployed a fact-finding mission to Guinea from 3 to 13 March to look at, among others, the voters roll issue. The mission ended on 11 March and recommended that the problematic voters be struck off the roll.
Condé's decision to amend the constitution will be difficult for the AU to address, given that several other African leaders have recently done the same. Over the past decade, at least seven African countries have amended their constitutions to remove presidential term limits, reset the counter for term limits or increase the power of the executive. Some have changed their constitutions to achieve several of these objectives.
Guinea's instability will compound the challenges of terrorism affecting many countries in the region
These moves have seriously hampered those systems' checks and balances, while also shrinking civic space across Africa. In all these cases, the governments made controversial and contested - yet mostly legal - moves to subvert constitutional order. This has made it harder for a continental or regional intervention to take place.
These kinds of constitutional amendments have fuelled political instability and rolled back two decades of democratic gains in Africa. This has occurred alongside a rise in riots and public protests. Africans have increasingly taken to the streets over poor and often exclusionary governance coupled with their governments' propensity to suppress protests while ensuring regime longevity at all costs.
With the current instability in next-door Guinea-Bissau, a troubled Guinea will be a step backwards not only for democracy but also for a more stable and politically advanced ECOWAS region. It will also compound the challenges of violent extremism already affecting many countries in the area.
Condé's insistence on clinging to power could see further violence erupt. The country will probably sink into more uncertainty in the run-up to the October presidential election. Another ECOWAS heads-of-state mission to Guinea planned for this week was again postponed with no further date set. Pushing for legislative elections and the referendum on 22 March, without creating the right conditions for it, certainly wouldn't improve the country's current situation.
Whatever action Africa takes to deal with constitutional amendments and the resulting instability will require innovative thinking and decisive action from both the AU and regional economic communities.
Mohamed M Diatta, Researcher, PSC Report, ISS Addis Ababa
This article was first published in the ISS Peace and Security Council Report.