Cautious hope in Guinea

Elections are promised in Guinea, causing excitement among a people tired of military rule and a living standard of less than a dollar a day. But the country is not ready for elections and democratic rule. By Tom Rowe.

Guineans know what it means to wait. They spend a lot of their time sitting in the dark, waiting for the electricity to come back. It usually does, sometimes after five minutes, sometimes a few hours. In the suburbs they are lucky if they have power every second day. 

The 10 million inhabitants of this West African country are also waiting for democracy. They have been waiting for over 50 years. Since declaring independence from France in 1958, Guinea has suffered autocratic rule from three leaders, the last of whom was deposed in a botched attempted assassination in December after only a year in power. To much surprise, his second-in-command has handed over power from the military to the civilians and promised elections in six months, with the date set for June 27. The €20m needed to run the elections has been collected.

(Picture: Sékouba Konaté, defence minister of Guinea)

So now Guineans wait again, but this time with expectations.  

After decades of mismanagement, Guinea barely functions as a state, languishing amongst the world’s lowest 12 countries on the UN Human Development Index, which charts life expectancy, purchasing power and education. The majority of its adults cannot read or write and live on less than a dollar a day. A loaf of bread in the market costs almost half that amount. Nearly a quarter of the population do not survive to 40.

Jobs are scarce for those not connected to the army, and those who do work have few prospects for improving their situation. Meanwhile Guinea ranks 173rd out of 180 countries on the Transparency International Corruption Index.  

Moussa Dadis Camara, an army captain who was head of the junta that seized control of the government on the death of Conté in 2008, appeared to be sympathetic to the plight of ordinary people. The new leader was welcomed by many Guineans and neighbouring countries, as he promised elections in which neither he nor other military would feature, and also vowed to rid the country of corruption and improve living standards.  

Then he seemed to change his mind. Rumours spread that he was going to run for president, and Guineans feared another military leader clinging to power for decades. Over 50,000 people attended a protest on 28 September 2009 in a stadium in Conakry organised by the political opposition. The army arrived, barred the exits and fired into the crowd, killing 150; women were raped, and 1200 were wounded.   

The international community acted. Accusations of crimes against humanity were made, with threats to bring the junta leaders to The Hague. Travel bans and suspension of aid increased the heat. Military families were abused on the streets of the cities. The pressure became too much for the junta, which cracked under the strain. One of Dadis Camara's aides, implicated in the stadium massacre, shot the president in the head but failed to kill him. Dadis was flown to Morocco for treatment, while the vice-president and defence minister Sékouba Konaté took over.   

An agreement was reached, guided by President Campaore of Burkina Faso and ECOWAS, the West African version of the EU. Signed in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in January by Dadis and Konaté, it stated that Guinea would return to civilian rule within six months, the military would not contest the election, and Dadis would recover outside the country.  

In the latest turn in the Guinean saga, banners on the parliament railings proclaim that “Dadis has passed the baton to his brother Konaté”. Konaté's image is being worn on t-shirts around the capital, with the words “the President of Peace”. He is in control, but does not appear to want political power and has appointed a leader of the political opposition as interim prime minister. Jean-Marie Doré, a wily tactician who was beaten in the stadium in September, has been charged with creating a government and bringing the country to elections. 

Yet the mood here is cautious, with reason. People on the streets say they are sure the elections will happen, as the people have had enough of the military and their poor living standards: Guineans are well aware of the wealth beneath their feet.  

But the shine has quickly come off the new administration.

It took three weeks to appoint a government, possibly due to internal army squabbling over who would make the transition to civilian power: the agreement was that the interim government would consist of 10 members of the military, 10 from the opposition and 10 regional representatives.

When a government was finally decided, two of the military appointees were officers directly implicated in the September massacre, a fact that has drawn condemnation from the NGO Human Rights Watch. On a positive note, it has been decreed that no member of the transitional government can stand for election in June. This was expected, so most candidates with a chance of winning deliberately stayed out of the current administration. Political parties have been holding congress, publishing detailed programmes for government on their websites.

The trappings of modern democracy are coming to Guinea. 

Now, the civilians are in charge -- but at the whim of the military. The interim president, General Konaté, is the head of around 15,000 soldiers, but in some respects only nominally so. Some elements of the army have been acting with complete impunity, especially over the last year under Dadis -- and some continue to do so. Dadis' supporters within the military have not melted away and want him to return, as many of them will lose out if the country changes to civilian rule.

Most recently, Konaté felt it necessary to address the army at a well publicised meeting in the hope that ‘all rumours and dreams about an imminent military putch should be buried’, also claiming that ‘the present Guinean army is now one and indivisible’.

In a reference to the complicated rivalries at work beneath Guinean society and in the military, the General said he would not hesitate to wipe out anyone who would use ethnicity to disrupt Guineas’ democratisation process. Meanwhile a local inquiry into the massacre blamed only the soldier who shot Dadis – an obvious whitewash to independent observers – and the ICC is still investigating if it can try junta members.  

Entering the capital at night, it is not hard to see that you are in a military dictatorship. Checkpoints are still a fact of life for those who venture out after dark, with bribes demanded by aggressive soldiers, although last year things were worse, with soldiers hijacking cars and abusing the population constantly. 

Yet Ian Felton, the British ambassador to Guinea, speaking of the elections, said that such is the pace of change, “we could not have had this conversation a month ago”.

But Guinea is far from ready for elections and democracy. The position of prime minister doesn’t exist in the constitution. There are 101 council members to be appointed to a Transitional Council which is supposed to manage the move to civilian rule. There are an equal number of political parties with no experience of campaigning or elections, much less power, and an electorate with little experience of voting in fair polls.

The rainy season will begin in June, when it is normal for four metres of rain to fall on the capital. Felton notes that there are still no systems in place in Guinea, and that everything is down to personalities. But he is hopeful. In slightly un-diplomatic language, he says: “All is still to do, but the vibes are good”.