The current political situation in Guinea

Until his usurpation on September 5, 2021, Alpha Condé has been the president of Guinea, a West African nation since 2010. President Condé was a human rights professor and activist who fought nearly four decades for democracy in Guinea before his victory at the polls ten years ago. He became the first democratically elected leader after 52 years of dictatorship in Guinea. President Condé is 83 years old and had completed what should have been his last term in office in 2020 according to the constitution at the time.

Last year, the Guinean parliament held a referendum that amended the constitution and extended the presidential term limit to two terms of six years per term—a slight shift from the previous 5-year term. The referendum was held in March 2020, a few months before the general elections in October of the same year. President Conde sought a leeway in the ‘timely’ constitutional amendment to contest a third term in the election. A media report noted that President Condé had hoped that the new constitution would allow him to restart his presidential tenure. This way, he would be looking at another 12 years in office.

Shortly after the referendum, Condé was re-elected president after winning 59.5% of the total votes at the polls in October 2020. He was subsequently inaugurated for a third term (or by his calculation, the first term under the new laws) in November 2020—despite the allegations of electoral malpractices and violence leveled against him by the main opposition, Cellou Dalein Diallo and other contestants.

Guineans have endured a history of authoritarian regimes since their independence in 1958. Condé was the first publicly elected president. It might be interesting to review the socio-economic conditions in Guinea over the last 10 years.

Socio-economic conditions under Condé

Guinea under Conde has not been as bad (in terms of economic indicators) relative to previous authoritarian regimes. Several economic indicators seem to have improved over the last 10 years—compared to the 10 years before. For instance, Guinea’s gross domestic product (GDP) has been rising following the transition to democracy in 2010. The average growth since Condé’s democracy (2010 – 2020) of 6.2% is higher than that of the previous 10 years under dictatorship – 2.7%. Last year, GDP was $15.68 billion – a 131.1% and 82.4% increase from 2011 and 2016 levels. Figure 1 shows how the growth rate spiked in 2010 and 2016 after Conde’s (re)election in the respective years. Despite the pandemic, GDP recorded a positive growth of 5.2% in 2020. The impressive growth is mostly due to the performance of the extractive sector.

Guinea has significant mineral resource endowments such as bauxite, iron ore, gold, diamonds, and limestone among others. The US Geological Survey data in 2021, reported that Guinea was the second-largest producer of bauxite (82 million tons in 2020) with a proven reserve of 7.4 billion tonnes representing 24.6% of world reserves. According to the African Development Bank’s outlook report 2021, activities in the mining sector grew 18.4% in 2020 from 8% in 2019. World Bank data shows that the rents from minerals have been rising—from 4.45% (2001) to 10.2% of GDP in 2018. Mining accounts for 35% of GDP. China is a major trading partner.

In the labour market, World Bank data shows an average unemployment rate of 4.4% since 2001, lower than the Sub-Saharan (SSA) average of 6.1%. Youth unemployment is however slightly higher at 5.4% (SSA: 11.9%). Agriculture is the main employer of labour accounting for 63.9% of employment. Like other indicators, the price level has fluctuated through the years since 2005; there has been some moderation since 2012 (see figure 1). Last year, inflation was 10.6% (2019: 9.5%).

Figure 1:GDP growth rate and Inflation 2001-2020 | Source: Word Bank data

In summary, Condé’s administration had some positive impact at least on the macroeconomy. It implies that Conde’s democratic regime outperformed the dictatorship regime before him. However, it does not imply that Condé’s regime was the best it could have been. For instance, Guinea remains one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita GDP of less than US $1000 in 2020. A recent report by the World Food Program showed that 55% of the population live below the poverty line – a sharp increase from 36.1% in 2012. The outbreak of Ebola and Covid-19 worsened living conditions as food insecurity for households was at 21% while 24.4% of infants suffer severe malnutrition. World Bank shows that only about 36% of the population live in urban centres and 50.1% of the urban population live in slums. The exchange rate to the dollar has depreciated 91.3% since Condé took office in 2010. Currently, one US dollar is worth over 9,100 Guinean francs. Guinea is import-dependent as imports of goods and services account for 42.3% of GDP in 2019. Thus, one could argue that economic growth during Condé’s administration was not so inclusive.

In the Human Development Index (HDI) report 2020, Guinea ranked 178 out of 189 – the same rank it had in 2011. Guinea’s HDI of 0.477 in 2019 is below the average of 0.513 for countries in the low human development group and below the average of 0.547 for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. HDI is a measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living.

Post-Conde Guinea: Autocracy or democracy?

Since independence from France in 1958, Guinea has been through three dictatorship regimes that ended only after the demise of the dictators. So far, regime changes have been effected through coups. Alpha Condé must have been aware of this pattern and perhaps intended to remain in power for as long.

President Condé, like many African freedom fighters in his time who became dictators, seems to dwell on a certain entitlement (akin to the divine right of Kings) to potentate themselves in power. These autocrats claim to embody a mission only they have the vision to accomplish, clinging unto power, taking out opposition, and suppressing dissent. This entitlement seems to come from the struggles and sacrifices they underwent for the emancipation of the people. The longer they remain in power, the harder it is for them to relinquish it. By altering the constitution to suit his agenda, Condé envisioned at least another 12 years in power, but by raising the budgets of the presidency and parliamentarians at the expense of the civil servants, Condé bit more than he could chew.

Mamady Doumbouya, leader of the palace coup, was a close ally of Condé and the leader of the special forces. Like Condé, he is from the Malinke ethnic group – a fact that diminishes any perspective of ethnic rivalry. Colonel Doumbouya was a legionary in the French Army before returning in 2018 to lead the Special Forces Group in Guinea. Doumbouya was close to government officials as the leader of the special forces; it was, therefore, easy for him to execute a coup. Doumbouya, in his address to the public, claimed a sense of duty to the people was the reason behind the action to halt the authoritarian inclines of President Conde. Even though he restates his commitment to return to civil rule. it is still uncertain how the transition would be conducted. Therefore, the socio-political future of Guineans remains hazy at this point.

Nonetheless, Doumbouya has not acted differently from putsch leaders throughout history. Typically, putschists intend to change the status quo citing gross misconduct and corruption as the basis for their actions. But a coup is a shock to the political economy and is never an acceptable method of regime change. The international communities intervene by threatening sanctions, demanding a transition to civil rule. But because the putschists are aware of the consequences of their actions – trials or exile – they avoid this by holding onto power, ensuring a semblance of stability, and gradually winning the legitimacy of the people. The longer the putschist seizes authority, the harder it is for him to relinquish it, and the more acceptance or legitimacy he gets as things douse over time (see figure 2). Then he transitions into a democratic rule and the cycle of quasi-democracy continues.

Figure 2: Simple model of putschist legitimacy (Author’s idea)

The question is, how should coups be looked at in the future? Should the international community view palace coups differently? Are palace coups necessary, progressive in the light of prolonged, stubborn dictatorships? Would the outlook be different if a coup is justifiable and the putschists complete a handover process to civil rule? Can coups be justified? What is the implication of such a stance on authoritarian stability elsewhere? What is the situation in the Gambia, Zimbabwe, Libya, and other countries where coups have taken place? What are the alternatives to remove an authoritarian leader who has potentate himself beyond the constitutional limit? Doumbouya seems to enjoy support from Guineans: should the opinions of the citizens matter in such cases?

Coups are supposed to be moribund but seem to be gaining application in recent times. In 2021 alone, Mali and Niger have had attempts at coups; and in Chad, after the death of Idriss Deby Itno, the Chadian Army installed his son, Mahamat Deby as the interim leader. Other recent examples include Sudan (2019), Zimbabwe (2017), and outside Africa, Myanmar in 2021. Coups were common methods of regime changes in many African countries in the years after independence. It has become critical to revisit the implications of coups for regime changes, especially under authoritarian rule.