Presidential elections: A shimmer of hope in the reign of darkness

The Republic of Guinea has the dubious reputation of being one of Africa’s most corrupt countries, plagued by decades of mismanagement, a socialist past and autocratic leaders, whose desire to care for themselves is haunting the resource rich country.
Election an Guinée
Supporters of CDD during a campaign rally © © Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation

Now, on Oct 18th, Guineans are once more called to the elections booths to vote for a new president. Yet there is not much doubt that the old president will also be called the new one. The 82 year old Guinean autocrat Alpha Condé is seeking a third term in office after he introduced an new constitution with dubious methods to allow him to stay in power. The opposition is subdued by the guns and bayonets of the security forces, while the electoral commission and the justice system are dominated by the president's cronies.

All in all a picture that is unfortunately very common to Guinea and its history. It seems that the resource rich country, which holds – among other important minerals - about one third of the world’s bauxite reserves, has a strange destiny to remain poor and badly governed by autocratic rulers. Even the latest experiment in democracy did not start very well. When in 2010, after a military coup that ousted long-term dictator Lansana Conté, civil rule was re-established, the presidential elections were hardly transparent, nor free and fair. However, Alpha Condé claimed victory in the second round by a narrow margin against the liberal opponent Celiou Dalein Diallo. 

What followed was a reversal of the “Saul to Paul conversion” by the craving for power. Condé had originally been a fierce advocate of a democratic opening against the socialist dictatorship of Guinee’s first president Sekou Touré. Being threatened for his life by Touré’s security forces, he exiled himself to Paris in 1964, consequently receiving the death penalty in absentia for treason. Condé roamed the streets of Paris as a revolutionary student in the May 1968 events, which - according to himself - helped him to elaborate some proper socialist ideas. He returned to Guinea after Touré’s death and stayed politically active during the successive military and semi-military governments. In 1998 he challenged the new dictator Lansana Conté in elections for the presidency. In completely rigged elections, the dictator confirmed his grip to power, after which he had Condé thrown in prison and tortured. This biography gave Condé somewhat of an aura of a Guinean freedom fighter, an image that was properly groomed by his supporters in the country and abroad. It is therefore even more remarkable that someone who went through hardships like that, who once claimed Nelson Mandela as his role model, turned into the best apprentice of his former oppressor.

Condé’s balance sheet for the last ten years is indeed all but negative. Not only was the ever existing endemic corruption further enhanced and spiked with the most remarkable excesses of crony capitalism, but the country as a whole went into decline. Misuse of funds and public budgets lead to a paralyzed administration that could no longer work properly or provide the most basic services to its people. Economic growth was exclusively generated by the export of minerals, while the corresponding fiscal revenues were funnelled away. Guinea remains one of the poorest countries in Africa with rank 174 on the UN Human Development Index. Furthermore, apart from his erratic style of governing and serving mainly the kleptocratic elite that courted him to power, Condé was also adopting his predecessor’s methods of repression. Human rights abuses, especially against members of the populous Pheul ethnic group, increased steeply. Local elections were rigged, opposition candidates intimidated and the security forces strengthened in his favour.  

Being re-elected in 2015 for his second and last term, he then turned more and more megalomaniac, being convinced that the country could not do without him. With this in mind, he started his third presidential term project for the 2020 elections, a political move which the Guinean constitution explicitly did not allow. By 2019 he had lost all moderation and went ahead to crush violently the massive opposition that was forming.  Since October 2019 mass demonstrations had swept through towns and cities across Guinea, including the capital. The security forces have put them down ruthlessly with hundreds of deaths so far. The opposition was comprised of all major parties into the “National Front for the Defense of the Constitution¨ (French: Front nationale pour la défense de la Constitution (FNDC)”. 

Then in March 2020 with the Corona crisis taking away the world’s attention, the president started a mock referendum for a new constitution that would allow him to stand again for the presidency. The project was deliberately called “new constitution” as to give the impression of a “new start” for the Guinean people and not that of a power-obsessed, 82-year-old president who seeks to stay in his palace. Supported by this ridiculous rhetoric the opposition boycotted the referendum and claimed it an illegitimate constitutional coup d’etat. Despite this, the project - went ahead and in the absence of any international election observers the soviet style results of the ballot with 89,7% in favour spoke for themselves.

While the world was busy fighting the Corona pandemic, President Conde fortified his position and preparing the terrain for the elections on October 18th. He posted his allies in the electoral commission and he made sure he had the right people appointed in the courts, so that victory will be assured whatever the real turnout at the voting booth might be. For the same reasons international election observers were reduced to a minimum, with the EU and western nations being politely “not invited” to send any of their experts. The opposition meanwhile split in those who considered total boycott as the only effective protest and those who were convinced that they must make a stand, even when they have no real chance.

For the latter the most hopeful candidate is Ceilou Dalein Diallo (CDD), who has decided to stand up a third time against Condé and his ruling party. He comes from the Pheul ethnicity who form a large part of the Guinean population. His party, the “Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea” (French: Union des forces démocratiques de Guinée, UFDG) was founded in 1991 and is full member of Liberal International and of the African Liberal Network. Being a convinced democrat, CDD decided that it was better to set a sign and fight at the ballot box instead of boycotting the elections. No matter how tampered the results might be, people would at least have a visible alternative, while a mere boycott would just lead to the opposition passing into oblivion. An important factor for his decision to go against the odds was the passivity of the international community, which may well have continued after a boycotted election. Busy with Corona, neither the US nor the EU have taken a strong stand against this constitutional coup d’etat by president Condé. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has so far given only lukewarm statements asking for dialogue without mentioning neither Condé’s shady efforts to stay in power nor condemning the excessive use of force by his security forces. Given the fact that ECOWAS heavyweight Allassane Outtara from Cote d’Ivoire has also recently pushed aside the country’s constitution for seeking a third mandate himself with elections at the end of October, it is unlikely that ECOWAS will become too critical. France has also avoided any clear comments as president Condé’s network of old French friends successfully play the lobby card in Paris. Open support to the autocratic ruler is coming from the “usual suspect” countries. Condé’s relations with Russia remain strong. The Russian ambassador to Guinea was the only foreign representative, who publicly encouraged Condé to go ahead with his third-term bid. After that, the same ambassador switched sides and now heads the vital RUSAL bauxite and aluminium operations in Guinea. President Condé can also count on the crucial support – and money – of China. He managed the biggest boost in Guinea’s bauxite production since independence by bringing in a Chinese-Singaporean-French consortium that became the country’s largest bauxite exporter. These Russian and Chinese bauxite operations help provide Condé with a war chest that finances his grip to power. With such funding at his disposition and a thoroughly corrupt administration and justice system, it seems to be not too difficult to produce whatever election results may be needed.    

However, despite this massive arsenal favouring Condé’s position, the actual election campaign has not be too favourable for him. Against all his assumptions, the people in Guinea seem to be visibly fed up with his rule and his desperate attempt to secure a presidency for life for him and his cronies. The fraudulent referendum and the cozening of the population has left deeper marks than the autocratic president may have suspected. Even in his own ethnicity, the Malinke, enthusiasm for his candidacy looks limited and the usual masses that are payed with foodstuff and cash to attend his political rallies are considerably smaller than expected. On the other hand, since CDD picked up the gauntlet to go into the presidential race, he is enjoying increasing support, not only from his own Pheul ethnicity, but also in other regions of the country and from the influential Guinean expat community. Like a shimmer of hope he has been drawing the crowds while touring the country in the last four weeks, accusing the government rightfully of all the shortcomings that made the Republic of Guinea into one of the most mismanaged countries on the continent. 

Condé’s degree of desperation in face of this unexpected situation reflects in the rising amount of violence and oppression used against CDD’s supporters. As campaigning draws to its end, more and more cases of violent intimidation by militants from the ruling Rally of the Guinean People (RPG) party are reported. Roads are blocked and wherever possible campaigning by CDD is hindered. His UFDGs party offices in certain regions are looted and volunteers beaten up by supposedly unknown assailants. The police is not surprisingly passive.

Taking these recent developments, the projections for the elections are rather bleak. To justify his grip to power the results must give Condé a lead by a large margin. Only the support of a massive majority will leave him in the right shine; it will allow him to silence the internal opposition and possible international critics. Electoral fraud will be the obvious way to guaranty such results, but with the ever-rising support for the opposition in the last weeks, any massive fraudulent result in his favour risks to backfire. The Guinean population, especially in the Pheul dominated regions, will not accept these rigged results. A wave of protest will follow and betrayed voters will massively take to streets. Violence and counter-violence might follow and it is very likely that both, the incumbent and his challenger, will claim an electoral victory.  

This would be the moment where the international community has to take a stand, as it is   highly improbable that Condé will leave his presidential chair voluntarily. Like any autocrat with lifelong ambitions, he has avoided to build up a trustful successor. Internationally he has been isolated in the sub-region for years and his friends in Russia and China care more about the continuity of their mining concessions than his presidency. With his 82 years Condé knows that he has nothing to lose, which might tempt him to go for the extreme and accept any bloodshed to stay in power. In contrast to Condé himself, it is the inner circle of his immediate supporters, that risks to lose everything. They will defect from their erratic doyen, once they realize that his “devil may care attitude” will doom them as well. This would certainly trigger the beginning of the end of his rule.

A swift response by the international community to the elections is therefore imperative. International pressure may be necessary to guarantee that the democratic will of the Guinean people is fulfilled. The regional and sub-regional organisations as well as the EU have the power to put this pressure on the regime. They should demonstrate that they don’t concede to fraudulent elections and autocratic regimes.  It is time that international community finally wakes up, because Guinea deserves better than this.