The electoral commission in Conakry announced on 25 October that the incumbent, Alpha Condé, had won a third term as president of Guinea. Earlier this year, he held a referendum on a change to the country’s constitution that would allow him to disregard a previous two-term limit. His critics have seen this as a constitutional coup d’état and at least fifty people have been killed by state security forces in the attendant protests. The internet and international calls were cut off without warning on the Friday and Saturday before the results were announced.
Asked on French television last month if he was turning into the type of autocrat he had opposed as a younger man, Condé said no. It was ‘extraordinary’, he said, that he, of all people, who had fought for 45 years against repressive regimes, should be seen as an ‘anti-democratic dictator’. He avoided the question of whether this term would be his last.
Condé, who is 82, has visibly aged since coming to power in 2010, when he promised to be the ‘Nelson Mandela of West Africa’. That ballot was often called the ‘first democratic election’ in Guinea’s history. While he was a veteran activist, Condé pointed out, his opponents had been functionaries in the previous regimes.
His principal opponent, Cellou Dalein Diallo, who stood against him again last month, was prime minister between 2004 and 2006, under the presidency of Lansana Conté, who had come to power by military coup twenty years before. Guinea’s electoral politics have been dominated by these two men for a decade. This is the third time Diallo, who is 68, has lost a presidential election to Condé. There are other opposition parties (most boycotted this election) but the meaningful choice at the ballot box since 2010 has been Alpha or Cellou.
In a video he posted on Twitter a few days ago to accuse the president of electoral fraud, Diallo stood under a portrait of Nelson Mandela. Both use Mandela as shorthand for an earlier moment in a pan-African history of resistance; but for Condé, Mandela’s is the success story of a freedom fighter turned president, while in Diallo’s hands, he is a president who left the stage before the story soured. The exchange of claims to be the true inheritor of a virtuous politics unhelpfully individualises Guinea’s collective histories of political resistance and contestation.
The 2010 election wasn’t really the country’s first democratic flourish. In 1958, Guinea was the first African country to win independence from France. As European empires were crumbling, De Gaulle had proposed, as part of the constitution of the Fifth Republic, a new association – or ‘communauté française’ – as the basis of a future relationship between France and its colonies. The idea was put to a referendum across what was then known as the ‘Union française’. Only Guinea voted ‘no’, overwhelmingly choosing independence and a clean break with the former colonial power.
After the referendum, French officials looted Conakry, stripping even the light bulbs from the administrative buildings, destroying documents and damaging the railway lines before they left. ‘The French administrators,’ Walter Rodney wrote in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), ‘literally went crazy and behaved like wild pigs before sailing from Guinea.’ The French departure – or rather the crumbling of the façade of fellow feeling and benevolence that was often used to justify colonisation – was ripe material for satirists. ‘Franci siga/Ama gnoumgou/Yi ma yagui,’ one popular song went (‘so this is the way the French have left/without saying farewell/what a shame’).
Tension between Western interests and meaningful democracy in Guinea continues. Western embassies repeat their rhetorical commitment to liberal democracy, but protests by members of the Guinean diaspora have been harshly put down in Europe. In Brussels, demonstrators were dispersed by water cannon. The mining companies with projects in Guinea were relieved at Condé’s re-election: it ‘provides peace of mind from an investment perspective’, Bloomberg reported.
The country’s independence 62 years ago was celebrated all over the colonised world. The Martinican poet Aimé Césaire travelled to Guinea to see it – won ‘without bloodshed’ and ‘at the ballot box’ – unfurling. The Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé wrote that she lived there ‘in a kind of euphoria’. A long procession of writers, artists and activists from Europe, America, Cuba and all over Africa converged on the country between 1958 and 1970 (among them a young Nelson Mandela, who came in secret to ask for support for the ANC). The Guinea-Bissauan and Angolan liberation fronts set up representations in Conakry. Mário Pinto de Andrade, the co-founder of the MPLA, later talked of his delight, arriving in the city in May 1960, to see that ‘all of my comrades were waiting for me at the airport’.
For the new Guinean government, led by Sékou Touré, supporting culture was a key part of building the country’s independent and democratic future. State funding enabled the proliferation of music recording, filmmaking, radio broadcasting and the expansion of print culture in the form of newspapers and journals. Cinemas were built, and the state film production house Sily Cinéma made newsreels, documentaries and educational films.
Silyphone Records, established in 1958, was the first state-funded record label in independent Africa. Some of the label’s artists became internationally famous, like Bembeya Jazz National and Keïta Fodéba’s Ballets Africains. Some played to a more regional audience, such as Les Amazones de Guinée, who appeared on the cover of Awa, a Senegalese magazine, in 1964. You can listen to the guitar, double bass, drum and mandolin players of Les Amazones in the British Library’s digital archive.
But Touré’s regime quickly became very repressive. It imprisoned dissidents, including Alpha Condé. Many were killed. Returning to that historical moment means trying to understand the complex ways in which collective traditions of anti-colonial critique, dissent and cultural practice changed and reformed after independence.
Condé positions himself as the heir to Guinea’s struggle for democracy. This may once have been true. But Guinean society will now draw on its many and dissident strands of experience of living under, against and in spite of the long-serving men who have assumed the office of the presidency. When the election story is over, and Guinea has again dropped off the international radar, social, cultural and political life there will continue, largely unobserved by the foreign press. What happens then matters.