Election Fatigue

Alexandra Reza

Six days after the vote in Guinea’s second democratic election, the Electoral Commission in Conakry announced that Alpha Condé, the incumbent president, had won decisively, with 58 per cent. The runner-up, Cellou Dalein Diallo, trailed with 31 per cent. In 2010, when Condé first came to office, he lost to Diallo in the first round, and only pinched it in the run-off. Diallo, the leader of the opposition UFDG, said the vote was rigged. He has repeated the allegations this time, pulling out of the race the day after ballots were cast and saying he does not recognise the results.

Tensions were high in the weeks before the election. More than a dozen people have died in clashes between the UFDG and Condé’s RPG-Arc-En-Ciel party, and there’s been plenty of suspicion about the electoral arrangements. On the day, the UFDG claims that children were seen voting, and that its supporters were intimidated, sometimes by soldiers. Observers from the EU and the AU say that these ‘irregularities’ do not invalidate the fundamental legitimacy of the election. The US government has said that the process reflected the wishes of the people.

The seven losing candidates disagree. Marie Dioubaté, the only woman running, said she been awarded no votes even at the polling station where she voted. Diallo says there has been an ‘electoral hold-up’. But the opposition candidates aren’t planning a legal challenge. Instead, they will call their supporters onto the streets for ‘peaceful demonstrations’. It is unlikely they will be entirely peaceful, and more citizens will be hurt.

Condé is not – or not yet – the dread autocrat that the opposition sometimes like to portray him as. Yes, he is an old man (77); yes, he has a tendency to centralise decision-making; yes, he is sometimes aloof with the opposition leaders (he used to teach law at the Sorbonne). But he is also a veteran oppositionist, who spent years in the forest and in exile opposing the totalitarian rule of his predecessors. He came to power in 2010 with a socialist vision of driving development, standing up to the international mining sector and bringing currency fluctuation under control.

In the face of skill and infrastructure shortages, falling commodity prices, the Ebola outbreak and international pressure to liberalise the economy, Condé has not been able to turn Guinea around in five years. It is unlikely that he actively rigged the election, though he put in the standard groundwork: investment and a new road in the Forestière region near the Liberian border; RPG cadres in local administration across the country; targeted efforts to make sure RPG supporters were on electoral lists. All told, the election has caused a lot of sound and fury, but it seems the result will stand.

Western nations are obsessed with African elections. Aid is tied to them, huge amounts of diplomatic time and money are directed at making sure they happen, but in Guinea, election fatigue is rife. People there know that elections aren’t the most important factor in determining their independence and prosperity. Many even see them as a distraction.

And they come at a high financial and social cost. ‘Ethnic’ strife isn’t normally a problem in Guinea. It is only during elections that ‘ethnicities’ become politicised, as competing parties appeal to their bases. The violence between RPG and UFDG supporters has been described as ‘ethnic clashes’, because UFDG supporters tend to be Peul and many RPG supporters are Malinké. But this is an election-time phenomenon.

Sékou Touré, who led Guinea to independence in 1958, thought that ‘neo-colonialist’ attempts to impose electoral democracy on post-colonial Africa were attacks ‘against unity’: a divide-and-rule tactic to make new states vulnerable to ‘fierce attacks... from outside Africa’. We should be cautious about swallowing Touré’s words whole – he ruled for 26 increasingly repressive years – but he had a point.

The terms of the IMF’s Highly Indebted Poor Country agreement tie the government’s hands. Multinational corporations, indifferent to Guinean development and armed with legal and technical expertise that allows them to circumvent democratically elected governments, do as they please, extracting minerals without providing the government with revenue to pay for schools or hospitals or roads. The limits on sovereignty come from the international sphere as much as the domestic.

The West claims to be interested in elections because it believes that people should be self-determining, independent and sovereign. But in Guinea, the same people who push for elections – the EU, the US, France, the UK – also act as lobbyists for mining companies, pushing for liberalisation and deregulation. If we really believe in the self-determination, independence and sovereignty of Guineans, we should pay attention not only to elections, but also to flows of power out of Guinea that those who are elected cannot reverse.