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What’s happening in Guinea? Charlotte Christian discusses the latest upheaval in Guinea and the legacy of French colonialism in the country.

On the 5th of September, shooting echoed around the presidential palace of Guinea, a resource-rich coastal nation in West Africa. The military overthrew President Alpha Condé - a reaction to his government’s corruption, creeping authoritarianism and economic mismanagement for the past 11 years. Coup leader Colonel Malmady Doumbaya and Guinean special forces arrested the president, suspended the constitution, closed borders, and enacted a nationwide curfew. The uprising has been met by international condemnation with serious concerns over political backsliding in the region.  Western media coverage has been minimal and short-sighted, failing to acknowledge the part Guinea’s French-colonial past, ethnic tensions and resource burden have played in enabling the coup.

Draped in the country’s flag, Col. Doumbaya appeared on state TV to comment: “We are no longer going to entrust politics to one man, we are going to entrust politics to the people." Coup leaders have already released political prisoners and stated an intention to transition to civilian rule within 18 months. Doumbaya is honouring current mining contracts, the country’s main export, and has reopened borders. As of 14 September, talks have begun with political, religious, and business leaders discussing institutional reform, supported by former Condé opposition leader Cellou Dalien Diallo.

“We are no longer going to entrust politics to one man, we are going to entrust politics to the people."

There is widespread Guinean support for Col. Doumbaya and his new National Committee for Reconciliation and Development (CRND), many taking to the streets of capital Conakry to celebrate what they hope is the start of a fairer era. From the Malinké community, Condé had seen the development of an ethnic imbalance with a disproportionately Malinké government and special forces despite a Fulani majority in the country. Adding to pre-coup tensions, many Guineans survived on less than $2/day despite the country’s billion-dollar bauxite industry that has seen the global price of aluminium skyrocket since the putsch. For the people, the coup marks the end of Condé’s repressive rule, one characterised by eroding democratic norms, the imprisonment of dissenters and a controversial change to the constitution which enabled his third term victory last year. Guinean journalist Sidy Yansane said: “Condé was very unpopular, even though people still voted for him. With the third mandate, Condé went too far.”

"...the coup marks the end of Condé’s repressive rule, one characterised by eroding democratic norms, the imprisonment of dissenters and a controversial change to the constitution..."

However on the international stage, there is mass condemnation of the coup with the UN, African Union, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), France and Russia "opposing any attempt at unconstitutional change of leadership", and they have resultantly called for Condé’s release. The African Union and ECOWAS have suspended Guinea’s membership, froze the financial assets, and imposed travel bans on the new leaders. Criticism of the international community should be made as their recent action only highlights their earlier inaction towards a regime marked by endemic corruption and human rights infringements. Condé’s unconstitutional third term win and the following killings of protestors was met by mere murmurs of displeasure. His regime saw the arrest of opposition leaders, control of the press and a stacked judiciary system. The country was regularly cited as one of the world’s most corrupt nations and ranked 178th on the UN’s Human Development Index. Does this not beg the question as to whether criticism of the coup is merely a neo-colonial reaction to sky-rocketing aluminium prices rather than general concern over the state of democracy?

The media has largely neglected to examine the historical factors still at play in allowing a relapse of military rule in the country. Guinea is scarred by French colonialism and the slave trade. Gaining independence in 1958, it faced years of imperialist aggression with France cutting developmental aid and transferring money out of state. French allies including the UK, delayed recognition of Guinea and refused aid. The French flaunting of power went further through actions in continuing to destabilise the country via assassination attempts and economic isolation. A one-party state emerged under Prime Minister Touré's reign from 1958-1984 to "prevent ethnic fragmentation", promoting his own Malinké ethnic group to power. 

"The media has largely neglected to examine the historical factors still at play in allowing a relapse of military rule in the country."

What emerged was a pattern of military takeovers, the first in 1984 following Touré’s death with coup leader Colonel Conté violently quashing subsequent protests. The second, in 2008, saw Captain Camara stepping in to condemn Conte’s corruption and rights infringements. Unfortunately, democracy failed to appear and saw huge protests the following year. The junta shot 150, injuring many more, and women were raped by the security forces. When Camara stepped down, Condé’s decade quickly spiralled down like his predecessors. One of the world’s largest bauxite reserves were exploited by foreign companies and the Guinean elite, exacerbating wealth inequality, and driving tensions, all of which culminated in this month’s coup.

The same issues pervade as they did in the 60s with rich countries exploiting Guinean resources with little regard for the impoverished people and its unstable political climate. Arguably it is only now, with a resurgence of power-seeking juntas in a resource-rich region, that other countries are concerned. But conversely, Guinea is the third country in the region to face military overthrow this year, so recognition of the CNRD as a legitimate government may signal that a coup is an acceptable way to gain power. Furthermore, Col. Boumbaya is among 25 Guinean officials that the EU may sanction for human rights abuses under Condé so what’s to say the pattern of rights abuse will end with this latest coup?

"...rich countries [exploit] Guinean resources with little regard for the impoverished people..."

A legacy of violent military rule and economic mismanagement has been well-established in Guinea, and yet its wealth of resources represent huge potential to pull itself out of poverty and a cycle of corruption. Perhaps with ECOWAS and African Union pressure, the CNRD will keep its promise and decision-making will be returned to the people.


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