On the Coup in Guinea
In 1958 Guinea was the first African country to win independence from France. It was a time of celebration for those struggling against empire all over the colonised and decolonising world. The Martinican poet Aimé Césaire travelled to Conakry soon afterwards to witness this new post-colonial society. Guinean independence, he wrote, heralded a new form of democracy: not the European idea of ‘le contrôle par le peuple’ (‘control by the people’) but the more expansive ‘initiative accordée au peuple’ (‘initiative given over to the people’). He hoped it would produce freer, more active and more critical forms of democracy.
Césaire put too much faith in the new regime. Over the next decades, Sékou Touré’s government squeezed the traditions of dissent, contestation and critique of power that had produced the anti-colonial victory. All the same, Césaire’s emphasis on popular sovereignty in its broadest and most resonant sense is useful for thinking about the coup in Guinea earlier this month.
Most of Guinea’s seven presidents have been soldiers. Most have come to power by coup d’état. When Alpha Condé was elected in 2010, there was hope that a system of parliamentary democracy might bolster and strengthen the popular cultures of democracy that long periods of colonial, autocratic and military rule had repressed and worn down, but never extinguished.
Condé first ran for office in December 1998, challenging Lansana Conté, who had succeeded Sékou Touré in 1984. Condé lost. Two days after the vote, he was arrested and accused of fomenting rebellion. International figures weighed in. Amnesty International denounced the arrest. The US secretary of state Madeleine Albright went to Conakry. Jacques Chirac called for a quick and fair trial. Condé stayed in prison, without trial, for twenty months. The Ivorian singer Tiken Jah Fakoly wrote a song called ‘Free Alpha Condé’.
Hours after Conté died in 2008, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara staged a coup. On one particularly notorious day of his short term – 28 September 2009 – the presidential guard, known as the Bérets rouges, killed over 150 people and raped more than 100. Two months later, an aide-de-camp arranged for Dadis to be shot in the head. He survived but has been in exile in Burkina Faso ever since. Regional and national eminences grises oversaw a ‘democratic transition’ to civilian rule that culminated in presidential elections. Condé’s victory at the ballot box in 2010 seemed to mark a turning point.
He came to office with the wind in his sails and good international connections. Tony Blair and George Soros advised him. Bernard Kouchner – Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign minister and one of the founders of Médecins Sans Frontières – is a close friend. Condé secured billions in debt relief and promised to reform both the army and the mining sector. Guinea is very rich in natural resources, especially bauxite.
But popular sovereignty for Guineans remains hampered by international divisions of labour and wealth. Through a complex system of long-term concessions and withheld investments, international mining conglomerates exercise undemocratic control over the fate of the Guinean economy. Condé made some attempts to challenge that, but couldn’t radically alter the structural situation.
Over time he came to forget his own earlier principles, too. Last year he changed the constitution to allow himself to run for another term. In December 2020, at the age of 83, he was elected president for the third time. Before, during and after that election, huge crowds protested against this abuse of the apparatus of parliamentary democracy. Dozens were killed and imprisoned.
On 5 September, a group of soldiers led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya kidnapped Condé and took him to an undisclosed location. They had deposed him, they said, and dissolved the government. Later they released a video of Condé, slouched on a sofa, looking irritable. Soldiers in full uniform try to get him to say on camera that all is well. The ex-president looks at the camera. Is it the old oppositional spirit that flickers on his face, or just the arrogance of power? It is hard to tell. Condé stays silent, his feet up, shirt untucked, lips pursed.
‘If the people are crushed by elites,’ Doumbouya said, ‘it is up to the army to give the people their freedom.’ This is a dubious idea, to say the least: freedom bestowed by soldiers has a bad history in Guinea, as elsewhere. Yet many citizens celebrated the coup as an extension of the popular movements opposing Condé’s autocratic turn. The international press broadcast footage of young Guineans celebrating the old man’s downfall. ‘It’s a victory for the younger generations!’ one man shouted into the camera, as crowds cheered in the Conakry street behind him. ‘Today everyone is free!’
On 7 September, 79 political prisoners were released, many of them from the opposition Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea. The UFDG leader, Cellou Dalein Diallo, said he felt relieved. He’s been around a long time: prime minister under Lansana Conté, he later lost three elections to Condé. Doumbouya, in his early forties, is a more recent arrival on the political scene, but he isn’t Guinea’s first putschist in a red beret.
As for the ex-president, Condé has not been taken far. An ECOWAS delegation dispatched to Conakry told Jeune Afrique that he’s in Doumbouya’s old flat in a wing of the Guinean parliament. His guards have taken away the TV because Condé gets angry whenever he sees Doumbouya on the screen, which is bad for the old man’s health. He complains of not being allowed to go to the gym, and eats only the food cooked by his personal chef. He would prefer to be killed than to resign.
Doumbouya has announced a new ‘democratic transition’. But meaningful democracy is in the hands of the citizens who have demanded it, not the soldiers who promise to bestow it, or the old man who claims still to embody it.