Guinea waits for change

Africa’s need for new leaders – Published on Le Monde Diplo, by Tom Rowe, April 2010.

Elections are promised in Guinea this June, causing excitement among its people, tired of military rule and having to live on less than a dollar a day. But is the country ready for elections, let alone democratic rule … //

… The president of peace:

An agreement was reached, guided by President Campaore of Burkina Faso and ECOWAS, the West African version of the EU. Signed in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in January by Dadis and Konaté, it stated that Guinea would return to civilian rule within six months, the military would not contest the election and Dadis would recover outside the country. 

Now banners on the parliament railings proclaim that “Dadis has passed the baton to his brother Konaté”. Konaté’s image is on T-shirts around the capital, with the words “the President of Peace”. He is in control, but does not appear to want political power and has appointed a leader of the political opposition as interim prime minister. Jean-Marie Doré, a wily tactician who was beaten in the stadium in September, has been charged with creating a government and bringing the country to elections.

Yet the mood is cautious, with reason. People say they are sure the elections will happen, as the people have had enough of the military and of their poor living standards: Guineans are well aware of the wealth beneath their feet.

But the shine has quickly come off the new administration. It took three weeks to appoint a government, possibly due to internal army squabbling over who would make the transition to civilian power: the agreement was that the interim government would consist of 10 members of the military, 10 from the opposition and 10 regional representatives. When a government was finally decided, two of the military appointees were officers directly implicated in the September massacre, a fact that has drawn condemnation from the NGO Human Rights Watch. On a positive note, it has been decreed that no member of the transitional government can stand for election in June. This was expected, so most candidates with a chance of winning deliberately stayed out of the current administration. Meanwhile, political parties have been holding congress, publishing detailed programmes for government on their websites. The trappings of modern democracy are coming to Guinea.

Now, the civilians are in charge – but at the whim of the military. The interim president, General Konaté, is at the head of around 15,000 soldiers, but only nominally so. Some elements of the army have been acting with impunity, especially over the last year under Dadis – and some continue to do so. Dadis’ supporters within the military have not melted away, and want him to return, as many of them will lose out if the country changes to civilian rule. Most recently, Konaté felt it necessary to address the army at a well-publicised meeting in the hope that “all rumours and dreams about an imminent military putsch should be buried”, and also claimed that “the present Guinean army is now one and indivisible”. In a reference to the complicated rivalries at work beneath Guinean society and in the military, the general said he would not hesitate to wipe out anyone who would use ethnicity to disrupt Guinea’s democratisation process. Meanwhile, a local inquiry into the massacre blamed only the soldier who shot Dadis and the ICC is still considering whether it can try junta members.

In the capital at night, it is easy to see that you are in a military dictatorship: there are checkpoints, with bribes demanded by aggressive soldiers, although last year things were worse, with soldiers hijacking cars and abusing people.

Ian Felton, the British ambassador to Guinea, speaking of the elections, said that such is the pace of change that “we could not have had this conversation a month ago”. But Guinea is far from ready for elections and democracy. The position of prime minister doesn’t exist in the constitution. There are 101 members to be appointed to a Transitional Council, which is supposed to manage the move to civilian rule. There are an equal number of political parties with no experience of campaigning or elections, much less power, and an electorate with little experience of voting in fair polls. The rainy season will begin in June, when it is normal for four metres of rain to fall. Felton notes that there are still no systems in place in Guinea, and that everything is down to personalities. But he is hopeful. He says: “All is still to do, but the vibes are good.” (full text).

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