Presidential​ elections in Guinea are scheduled for 18 October. The 82-year-old incumbent, Alpha Condé, has been in office since 2010. I travelled with him earlier this year, during his campaign for a new constitution. Since Guinea gained independence from France in 1958, when its first constitution was ratified, there has been a series of further constitutions, revisions and amendments. There were things to admire in the new draft. It enshrined gender parity in law, instituted state protection for women, children and disabled people, and banned child marriages. It also allowed Condé to extend his presidency, limited to two five-year terms under the existing constitution, drawn up in 2010 by a transitional military government. The polling stations were ready for the referendum when I arrived in the capital, Conakry, in March. The military were on the streets and civilians hoping to move around had obtained laissez-passer permits by a variety of imaginative means.

But on the eve of the vote Condé appeared on television to say that the referendum had been postponed for two weeks – long enough, he promised, for the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to conduct an audit of the electoral roll. The referendum, coupled with legislative elections originally scheduled for January 2019, would take place soon after. Guinea hasn’t had much experience of democracy. Since independence it has been ruled by a series of dictators, some better liked than others. Condé was elected ten years ago, in the country’s first ever free and fair elections. Guinea seemed to be breaking with autocracy: Condé was a professor of public law at the Sorbonne and had spent years advocating freedom of the press, human rights and an end to corruption. He was approaching the end of his second and final term when he announced the referendum. The Guinean opposition decided to boycott both the referendum and the legislative elections. They estimated that more than two million names on the electoral roll were dubious – either duplicates or belonging to people who were dead or too young to vote. (Guinea has a population of around 13 million people, of whom more than a third are under 18.) And, of course, by rewriting the rules, Condé might remain in power for life.

In mid-March Ecowas recommended the removal of 2.5 million names from the electoral roll. The government insisted that it had been done. The referendum was held. There was a social media blackout for a few hours on the day, but I was sent images of scattered polling cards, damaged ballot boxes and dead bodies. On 27 March, it was announced that 91.5 per cent of voters supported the new constitution. The Rassemblement du Peuple Guinéen (RPG), the party Condé founded in 1992, won 37 out of 38 seats in the National Assembly, with 89 per cent of the vote. At least 12 people had been killed. France said the results were ‘not credible’. Ecowas and the UN also registered their concern. But Russia announced its support and China said the people’s choice should be respected. On 6 April the new constitution was adopted; in June the date for the presidential election was settled; and in early August the RPG nominated Condé as its presidential candidate.

At first Condé refused to confirm that he would run for a third term. The delay was tactical: it gave RPG activists time to rally support while the opposition remained in limbo. It also acted as a test for international observers: how would they react to the RPG’s choice? Support came from familiar quarters. On 2 September, Condé finally announced his candidacy.

When I joined Condé on the referendum campaign trail in March, he had yet to announce the two-week delay. The presidential helicopter took off from the courtyard of the Palais des Nations, a run-down building near the harbour with a domed roof and a circular brim jutting out like the folds of a fan, which must have looked better when Sékou Touré, the first president of independent Guinea, inaugurated it in 1983. The helicopter had beige leather seats and an orange 1970s carpet. Condé was attended by his bodyguard, Ben Kourouma, as well as his head of protocols and an old friend. A lightly perspiring soldier handed out drinks.

Guinea lies between Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone, and borders Senegal, Mali, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. The Niger, which flows through Mali to Timbuktu and curls back down through Nigeria, has its source in Guinea’s highlands. Seen from above, the forest and palm plantations are broken up by gashes of red: strip mines for the extraction of bauxite ore, the main source of aluminium. Guinea has some of the world’s largest reserves of high-quality bauxite, which provide something like a third of government revenue. After independence, the newly formed Guinean army was trained and fitted out by the Soviet Union in exchange for returns on bauxite. Guinea still supplies 27 per cent of the bauxite needed by the Russian-owned UC Rusal, the second biggest aluminium producer in the world, as well as almost half of China’s bauxite imports, though the profits haven’t reached the majority of Guineans, who live below the poverty line.

Condé’s campaign visits followed a routine. The helicopter landed in a cloud of red dust. Local officials wearing sashes in the red, yellow and green of the Guinean flag would be waiting for the president. We were rushed down the steps so that he could make a solo appearance in front of the crowds. In Boké, the mining town where Condé was born, a brass band played the national anthem while he stood to attention in front of a female soldier who clashed her cymbals nonchalantly. In Boffa, a fishing port on the Pongo estuary, a group of girls with pom-poms greeted his arrival. ‘Give four thousand francs to each of the majorettes,’ Condé told his chief of staff as we left for the next town. That’s about 40 pence, enough for a short motorcycle taxi ride.

The crowds along the route wore yellow, the colour of the RPG. Young men, often four to a motorcycle, raced past painted entirely in nuclear-alert yellow. Slogans in support of Condé had been added to their chests in red. The colourful displays made for good propaganda, but the main purpose of the visits was to speak to local elders and imams – and to make them the customary donations (Guinea’s population is 85 per cent Muslim, though the state is officially secular). In Dubréka, a mining town, Condé was led up a red carpet to a gilded throne. A military man crouched beside him and whispered in his ear. The president remained impassive. I was reminded of photographs of Bokassa, except the throne was plastic and the president was wearing sneakers.

Condé was born in 1938 and grew up in Guinea’s coastal mining region, home to the Susu ethnic group, although his parents were Malinke from the north. He left for France at the age of 15, while Guinea was still under colonial rule, and attended the Lycée Turgot in Paris, where he became friends with Bernard Kouchner, later the founder of Médecins sans Frontières. At Sciences-Po, Condé headed the Black African Students Federation, a campaigning group for Pan-African independence and unity. He strengthened relations with opposition groups across the continent, including the ANC and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). In the 1960s he visited the US and debated with Malcolm X: Condé argued that the struggle of Indian immigrants in Africa was a class issue, rather than a race issue. He was on the streets of Paris during May 1968, where he was singled out by the police and beaten, escaping with a broken nose.

He returned to Guinea frequently, however, to visit Sékou Touré, leader of the Parti Démocratique de Guinée (PDG). In the 1950s Touré appeared to be the unifying figure Guinea needed. He had pushed for full independence during de Gaulle’s state visit in 1958, ahead of a referendum on the adoption of the Fifth Republic: ‘We prefer poverty in freedom to riches in slavery.’ De Gaulle was furious and warned that there would be repercussions; when they left, the French took everything – even the lightbulbs. As time went on (Touré was in power for 26 years) his presidency became tarnished by plots and counter-plots, imagined conspiracies and purges. In 1982, Amnesty estimated that since 1970 at least ten thousand people had been rounded up by the regime, 2800 of whom were never seen again. In his memoir, A Certain Idea of Africa (an ironic nod to de Gaulle’s ‘une certaine idée de la France’), Condé records the moment he realised that Touré was dangerous. ‘One day when we were alone, he suddenly started to look me in the eyes … and then he looked at my hands and I understood he wanted to see if I would shake with fear.’

A failed coup in 1970 only increased Touré’s paranoia. Condé was sentenced to death in absentia. He stayed in Paris, living in an apartment on the place d’Italie and offering extra tuition to African students on top of his day to day teaching at the Sorbonne. Touré died in office in 1984 and before the PDG could choose a new leader, a military coup installed Lansana Conté, a former assistant chief of the army staff, as his replacement. Six more years of dictatorship followed before Conté finally agreed to institute a multi-party system.

In the 1993 presidential elections, Condé stood and won, but the votes from his two strongholds in the north-east were discounted and Conté remained in power. Condé decided not to contest the result: ‘I don’t want to rule over a graveyard.’ Five years later, during the build-up to the presidential elections in 1998, he was arrested and spent two and a half years in prison with Kourouma. In 2003, Conté ran for president again, after a rigged referendum and the passage of a new constitution, although his health was deteriorating. Condé, now back in France, was scathing about this phase of government. ‘Sometimes, Conté would summon someone and by the time they arrived, he’d forgotten why,’ he wrote in A Certain Idea of Africa. ‘It was at that point that problems ramped up and the widespread looting of the country began.’

After Conté died in 2008, a military council headed by a 44-year-old officer, Moussa Dadis Camara, took charge of the country. Guineans seemed to enjoy the elaborate show trials on national television, with Camara presiding in fatigues and red beret. His suggestion in September 2009 that he was thinking of running for president was less popular, and a protest was organised by opposition leaders, including Condé, at a sports stadium in Conakry. Camara’s soldiers – many of them were probably mercenaries – opened fire. At least 150 protesters were killed. The massacre has never been fully investigated. Then Camara’s fellow officers turned on him and relieved him of his role. After promulgating a constitution without a national vote, the transitional government called elections. In the first round Condé came in second. In round two, he took 52.5 per cent of the vote, beating the favourite, Cellou Dalein Diallo, who had been a popular prime minister under Conté.

Diallo contests the result to this day. He yielded to pressure from the military, or so he told me when I interviewed him earlier this year. Despite losing again in 2015, Diallo is still seen as Condé’s main rival. He is Peul, the largest ethnic group in Guinea, accounting for roughly 40 per cent of the population. If elected, he would have been Guinea’s first Peul president. Many accuse him, just as they accuse Condé, of stoking ethnic tension. When I asked Condé about Diallo, he dismissed him as a ‘civil servant’.

After the referendum campaign – the new date of the vote still unconfirmed – I was given an interview with the president. The Palais Sékhoutouréya, built in the 1980s by the Chinese, stands on the site of the old colonial governor’s palace. The grass was overgrown; I was told the building wasn’t ‘fit for purpose’ but that whenever the president was urged to move somewhere better, he said it wasn’t a priority. I waited between tables full of gifts from foreign dignitaries. Condé came in and sat beneath his photograph. His clothes looked inexpensive. His nickname is still ‘Professor’, although the opposition now calls him ‘Papa Promesses’. I had thirty minutes, and I’d been warned about his temper. ‘It’s only when you don’t know him,’ one of his team tried to reassure me. In the end, I came away with very little. Condé was quick to defend his record: he inherited a country in 2010, not a state. When I asked if he would stand again for president, he deflected the question. ‘What could be more democratic than a referendum?’ he asked. ‘Do we not have a free press? Many European countries do not set limits on presidential terms. Why should an African country be any different?’

Not many people were reassured at the time and doubts remain, a week before the presidential election. Diallo is standing again, surprising those who thought he would refuse to accept the legitimacy of the process. The Front National pour la Défense de la Constitution (FNDC) was set up by politicians, including Diallo, and members of civil society in April last year. Before emergency measures to limit the transmission of Covid-19 were enacted in late March, it had been organising marches and strikes all over Guinea. Its supporters were protesting about lack of infrastructure as much as against the new constitution. I met two young community leaders in Ratoma, a largely Peul district of Conakry and an opposition heartland where protests often turn violent; the men referred to Ratoma as ‘Baghdad’. They were sceptical about the new constitution: ‘How many schools? How many health centres? How many miles of road?’ Like many, they believed that ethnic tensions had been engineered for political ends.

There are now more than ten thousand confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Guinea. The real total is probably higher, and no doubt increased as a result of the campaign. Both the head of the electoral commission and Condé’s own chief of staff have died of the virus. A recent Amnesty report found that in the last year at least fifty people have been killed by the security forces during protests; two hundred people have been injured and at least seventy held in arbitrary detention. Meanwhile, the opposition remains divided. The FNDC cannot decide whether to campaign for Diallo or to dismiss the election as a charade. Protests and road blockades are being organised in spite of security restrictions. Neighbouring Mali has just had a military coup. Côte d’Ivoire is also preparing for a difficult election: its president is running for a third term that most regard as illegitimate. Guineans, worried about the fallout to come, are telling themselves that, at least for now, Guinea is one of the few countries in the region never to have had a civil war.

9 October

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