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Guinea at the Brink of Breakdown

Guinea at the Brink of Breakdown

. 13 min read

Linda Ghirardello and Roland Benedikter are political scientists with specialization in inter- and transdisciplinary policy analysis, re-globalization,  and “glocalization” at the Center for Advanced Studies in Eurac Bozen-Bolzano, Northern Italy.

West Africa is experiencing troubled times. While the world is fighting COVID-19 and looking elsewhere, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Guinea are undergoing violent protests and are seeing increased political instability. In Guinea-Conakry, a former French colony and one of the poorest countries of the region, highly contested presidential elections were held on October 18th in a climate of mistrust. Although the voting day was characterized by calm and a high turnout (80 percent), the situation soon degenerated into post-electoral violence, causing deaths and continuing confrontations between law enforcement authorities and manifestants.

Rising Antagonism

The outbreak of post-election violence is a result of the rising antagonism between the government and the opposition, built up over the last year and intensified in view of the elections. The announcement of a clear electoral triumph of the incumbent president Alpha Condé on October 24th followed a week of violent manifestations, uncertainty, and chaos. Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo declared his electoral victory earlier on, accusing the president and his ruling party of electoral fraud, institutional nepotism, and violent repression. Fear of a civil war escalated as the army was mobilized against protestors, and the government tried to cut communication lines via restricting access to the internet. Moreover, opposition candidate Diallo tweeted that he was illegally caged in his apartment. Along with the ongoing tumult, the opposition announced new mass protests and a general strike for the days and weeks to come, and declined to accept the official results published by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Although the elections have been declared legitimate and transparent by African Union and ECOWAS monitors, two INEC commissioners recently resigned, denouncing several irregularities and giving way to further suspicion about the rightful conduct of the electoral process.

Limited Progress

These are alarming signs for Guinea, a country that since its independence from France in 1958 has made little experience with democracy. The process of societal opening was limited over the past decade of Condé’s ruse and now seems to have come to a potential end. Dan Peterson in 2019 identified six countries that showed totalitarian traits or tendencies, and today, he would likely include Guinea in a list of countries where democracy stands on the abyss. The German Bertelsmann Foundation in its 2020 Transformation Index (which measures governance performance and political and economic transformation in countries on a global comparative scale) ranked Guinea as a “highly defective democracy” with a “very limited” economic development and a governance index of “good.” And while the government efficiency was ranked 27th out of 137, its political transformation was ranked 62nd and its economic one 89th. Specific flaws identified included the shared socioeconomic level, the welfare regime, sustainability, and the rule of law. The 2019 Corruption Perception Index ranked Guinea 130th of 198 countries. And the UN’s Human Development Index 2019 ranked Guinea 174th in the world despite its potential wealth given its natural resources. Apparently it is still not valid for Africa’s nominally “democratic” nations what Alexis de Tocqueville identified as a political law for modern times: that the smaller a country is, the better rooted it is in democracy, since tyranny is felt in more immediate ways in smaller nations, and autocrats are therefore more likely to be toppled in smaller countries. In many “forgotten” small nations of Africa such as Guinea, violence is now on the daily agenda, and is penetrating smaller nations similarly to bigger ones. In some nations, and Guinea has made some experiences with this recently, even the opposite seems to be the case: the smaller the “democracy”, the more penetrative and encompassing violence can be applied.

A Conflict in the Making

Much of the current tension in the country is related to the figure of Alpha Condé, a political scientist and former university teacher at renowned Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris I with strong French academic ties. A former political activist against dictator Ahmed Sékou Touré, Condé was Guinea’s first democratically elected president. Initially emblematic for a successful democratic transition, Condé branded himself the "Mandela of Guinea" in 2010 and was strongly supported by French governments, later appointed president of the African Union in 2017.

After a rapid and successful rise as one of the hopefuls of West African politics (and beyond), and after several programs of liberalization, modernization and rejuvenation of the country’s elite, a significant turning point came: the political crisis that shook neighboring Togo in 2018 for which Alpha Condé was appointed ECOWAS mediator together with the Ghanaian president Akufo-Addo. The Togolese crisis was all too similar to the current situation in Guinea: violent protests had erupted as President Gnassingbé had pushed for reforms allowing him to furtherly extend his presidential mandate. During the Togolese legislative elections there were no official European envoys or substantial NGOs supported by open society initiatives to observe the electoral process; journalists saw their accreditations withdrawn, and telephone lines of international observers were put out of service until the announcement of the results. It seems like Alpha Condé learned some lessons out of the Togolese crisis and took the insights to prepare his own third term in Guinea, for instance by implementing laws such as a law on demonstrations which authorized the police to fire bullets during demonstrations.

Repressive and anti-democratic measures have since increased in the years of Condé's presidency, climaxing in the announcement of a constitutional referendum in late 2019 that allowed him to run for a third presidential mandate. But just as in Togo and currently also in Ivory Coast, Condé’s political game to maintain power met resistance. Over the last year, a wave of major protests was unleashed, establishing the heterogenous National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (NLF) as the main Guinean opposition bloc. The bloc mobilised thousands against Condé’s aspiration to a third mandate, leading to violent and deadly clashes between manifestants and the army over the 2019 referendum and since. The Condé government was accused of violating human rights in view of police violence and the authorities’ and executive forces impunity.

During the post-electoral demonstrations after October 18, the situation has escalated in similar manners again. Amnesty International found evidence of shootings by police officers at manifestants and expressed significant concerns about the freedom of expression in the country. Videos portraying violence and abuses committed by police authorities are spreading online. For instance, cell phone footage obtained by the authors of this article from the local civil society after the election showed hungry and corrupt police officers in teams of two to five patrolling the capital Conakry, threatening passers-by asking for money or anything valuable, beating people up and hunting for chickens in the backyards of citizens to eat them. This may serve as a strong counter-indication against the “good” governmental efficiency evaluation by international observers such as Bertelsmann (if the government’s police forces have to press out money and steal chicken from citizens just to survive, governance cannot have improved that much). On Twitter, posts following the hashtag #AllRising4Guinea and #C’estLheure increasingly demanded the intervention of the international community to “end the bloodbath in Guinea.” In the meanwhile, a delegation of the UN, the AU, and the ECOWAS reached Conakry on October 26th, hoping that the situation would calm down which seems however improbable both in the short and in the long term. The question is what the current developments mean for the next five years in which the 82-year old newly elected president Condé will rule the country. Be it as it may, democratic consolidation and respect for human rights seem, in light of the facts, indeed a distant dream.

Divide et Impera

While Condé has triggered the anger of oppositional voters, many Guineans continue to see Condé as a figure of stability and a sign of hope for economic upturn, represented by the 59.4 percent votes officially obtained at the polls in contrast to the 33 percent obtained by his opponent Diallo. The social scission seems however to reach beyond the spectrum of electoral behavior, causing a profound division of the country’s social and ethnic landscape. Indeed, a good part of the tension is linked to the rivalries between the Malinké and the Fulani or Peul, a divide that has been instrumentalized and manipulated during the election campaign. Given the repeated recurrence of ethnically motivated hate speech, a few days before the elections, the United Nations called the situation in Guinea “extremely dangerous”. Although the (partly divided) opposition repeatedly called for inter-ethnic unification, it seems like Guinean politics and the current composition of the parties, with Alpha being Malinké and Diallo being Fulani, all too often still reverts to an ethnic baseline, which is usually strengthening the status quo.

The increasing polarization is however also due to bubble-based information distribution. Although Guinea has a low internet penetration rate, the young generations living in the big cities have limited access to the internet and often doubtful access to social networks. A recent study by the Stanford Internet Observatory found that disinformation, and lack of transparency over news providers on social media have reached a worrying level during the Guinean election campaign. Propagandistic, partial, and falsified information was distributed and shared by bots and anonymized accounts, including allegedly some of government employees. As web literacy is in its infancy, the Guinean population is supposedly rather prone to social media-based propaganda, which has been normalized to such an extent that political parties can hardly abstain from resorting to it without incurring a meaningful disadvantage.

These worrying developments made the United Nations, and also the European Union, call for a fair and free election process prior to the election, having already urged for dialogue since the constitutional referendum of March 2020. “Unity and peace in Guinea must prevail over partisan interests,” the EU said in a statement then. Already in the framework of the African Economic Outlook 2017, the OECD had pointed out that:

“social cohesion and reducing inequalities [in Guinea] have remained pressing challenges in a context of endemic poverty, which is worse in rural areas. Turning the authorities’ vision for change into economic and social progress is encumbered by a systemic shortage in the administration’s capacities and piecemeal, poorly coordinated implementation of decisions and actions.“

And in a special report of February 2020, the OECD saw Guinea involved in a “geography of conflict” whose pacification both domestic and international is, in its view, the highest priority to come to a more participatory and socially just Guinean society. Yet today Guinea remains a deeply divided country, and divisions seem to be systematically instrumentalized to serve politicians’ purposes.

Overall, misinformation, mistrust and group rivalry have led to a severe political crisis, reviving ethnic tensions and making Guinea a powder keg for the whole region of West Africa. A further destabilization of the country would entail damage to the development and democratic consolidation desperately dreamed of by the youth. The youth are particularly important because they represent the largest share of the population, with Guinea's median age being 18 years. The lack of prospects, jobs, and quality education has led to frustrations for many young Guineans, who see Alpha Condé now as a scapegoat for everything the country is lacking, which may not be the whole historical truth. The political instability the country is currently witnessing will not help remediating these drawbacks. Instead, political antagonism increasingly using civil-war like rhetoric is likely to accentuate violence and hinder civic and economic development, keeping Guinea trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, inequality and bad governance. In view of the chaos the country is sliding into, democracy seems on the brink.

The Rise of Authoritarian Ideology—With Some Help from Outside “Friends”

Non-democratic, authoritarian ideologies are gaining influence in Guinea. Originating from “outside friends” like China, these ideologies appear to have the (open or silent) consent of President Condé. As there is a “Chinese scramble” for the Gulf of Guinea and beyond, China is determined to secure the nation’s natural resources to bind Guinea to its grand Belt and Road Initiative: for these reasons, Guinea is regarded as an African centerpiece for China’s ambitions. The Chinese government’s influence on Guinea has been systematic and follows a long-term strategy that started to be enacted before Condé’s coming-to-power and resembles imperialist tactics. China has doubled-down on its efforts to control Guinea’s area of Simandou North and the Suapiti dam, Guinea’s largest hydropower project so far, even at the expense of human, social and environmental right violations and mass displacement of villagers who are likely to lose their land. China’s actions are supported by a growing military engagement aiming at strengthening China’s perception as “legal order power” and to make African non-democratic regimes “natural” allies on the geopolitical “hardware” power play front. All of this is occuring while China’s illegal fishing fleets work in coordinated swarm tactics to illegally overfish, destroying the African West Coast’s rich ecosystems. As international observers rightly wrote, China’s gigantic armada of “hidden” abroad fishing fleets of more than 3,000 vessels which often endeavor under African country’s flags being paid for by China to autocratic regimes “is more than just a commercial concern; it acts as a projection of geopolitical power on the world’s oceans.” China is covering these operations up by at the same time “helping” Africa in apparently generous ways such as with the COVID-19 crisis: for example, on April 6, 2020, an Air China plane landed in Accra to unload several tens of tons of supplies, which were then redistributed in 18 countries including Guinea.

The lack of new leaders

China’s influence is just one piece of the puzzle which can make some social analysts worried about the future of Guinea, and democracy in West Africa. Next to Condé’s increasing authoritarianism, one of the most problematic aspects of the Guinean crisis is the state of the opposition that fights Condé. Diallo and his allies’ statements don’t appear motivated by “pure” principles of social justice: instead, their rhetoric gives the impression of them being bitter for not getting their share of the cake. Some of the actual opposition party leaders have been former ministers or technocrats (Dalein was appointed prime minister of coupist Lansana Conté in 2004), reinforcing their rivalries and rendering their political baggage heavier through previous personal implications and interests. Moreover, the surrounding international ecosystem cannot be counted on to foster political alternance and promote new democratic leaders. In fact, the ECOWAS and the African Union are in reality unions of state leaders—many of them with similar, “presidency-for-life"-aspirations—who usually don’t interfere in each other’s affairs. The organisational structure and practical functioning of these international organizations barely allow the voice of upcoming peoples’ representatives to be heard. The question that comes to the fore after the Guinean elections of October 2020 is as follows: how and where can countries like Guinea find new leaders determined to democratize the nation?

One of the few emerging figures in the Guinean political landscape over the past years has been Abdoulaye Sadio Barry, an exiled software engineer of influential ethnic and family origins. Barry has been attached to politics for a long time, and his appearance of a person from the diaspora living in Germany may work in his favor. Although Barry’s name recalls Fulani (Peul) origins, he is said to have grown up in the Malinké region (Kankan) and the Sousou region (Fria), making him a “cultural and ethnic mestizo.” Barry’s new-generation party Bloc pour l’Alternance en Guinée (BAG) has declared to set democracy, quality education, and technical training as the priorities for a possible restart of Guinea. Sympathizing with ecological principles, the BAG seems to be oriented towards a more global and technologically innovation-oriented horizon.

“Our country is fortunate to be naturally endowed with mining, agricultural and human resources that could ensure prosperity to our population. But what we lack is good governance and the respect for the rule of law,” Barry said in talks with the authors days before the presidential election in October 2020. He stated he wishes for qualified Guinean emigrants, including himself, to return to their home country and contribute to Guinea’s political and economic recovery. However, a precondition for this dream to come true is solid democratization and a trusted participatory economy, that can, according to Barry, occur only if the ethnic cleavage in the country will be closed once and for all. Which may take time, and continued efforts that will be put to the test by varying circumstances and events.

However, the BAG did not run for the 2020 presidential elections, as the party neither recognized the referendum, nor these presidential elections as rightful. Rather, the primary goal was to make Alpha Condé step down at the end of his second mandate—which is with the 2020 elections—and set the path for new and internationally observed elections that would introduce a democratic transition in Guinea. This did not happen.

Will Sadio Barry get a chance to lead his country towards democracy? Can he do politics differently? How would he himself be transformed by entering high-level politics in his home country? We should not forget that Condé was an exile for many years, too. It will probably take a lot of human resources to establish a new line of thought in Guinea – especially in light of the current crackdown sealing a lost decade for the country’s democracy since 2010. Much will also depend on the ethnic configuration of the BAG, which seems yet to strongly rely on the influence of family and kin ties. Indeed, as too many African cases unfortunately demonstrate, great and principle-driven approaches are unlikely to endure the curse of time when confronted with the manifold malfunctions of the political and economic systems.

Outlook: Reviewing International Body Oversight will be Imperative for Guinea, and Beyond

In this situation, international attention is crucial, perhaps more than it ever was before—both for the sake of the country’s leaders and their opposition. When the United Nations is currently undergoing an epochal review and reform of the Human Rights Treaty Body System (which has in the meantime produced several concrete reports by the UN's Secretary-General), small nations such as Guinea will not be afterthought, but rather bellwethers for how just and balanced the UN’s reform will be. The question is whether the UN’s reforms only take into account big nations with top-down order structures such as China, or whether the reforms sufficiently benefit the small peripheral nations that often are symptomatic for the overall development and the bigger trend underway. The reform of the UN Human Rights Treaty Body System must take a closer look at the development of nations such as Guinea. It must consider human rights and rule of law abuses not only in those nations that are in the eye of the global community, but especially those who aren’t and which do not enjoy open debate in journals, the news, or internet fora. It must consider that some of the major powers like China officially involved in the reform efforts do not concern themselves with human rights, and which simultaneously are pushing their own exploitation and autocratic agenda in Africa forward without much notice by the international community.

Overall, it is exactly small nations such as Guinea that should make the case for a “new globalization” or “re-globalization” agenda of the United Nations. This agenda in and for Africa shouldn’t be left to anti-open-society players but taken up by the community of free and open societies first. Guinea and similar smaller African nations need more international attention, information, and knowledge transfer—especially as their progress toward democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law is worsening with elections rather than improving.