Why Guinea’s Election Crisis Matters by Peter Pham
The Guinean opposition has always enjoyed the support of the overwhelming majority of Guineans, as evidenced in this 2013 video.
The following article appeared in the April 23, 2015 issue of the US News and World Report. You will not find a better assessment of the dire political situation in Guinea today. The author, Peter Pham, is to be commended for his research and for parsing out the truth often masked by government disinformation campaigns.
Why Guinea’s Election Crisis Matters
The country is key to maintaining peace and stability in West Africa.
Guinea security forces and protesters on Monday, April 13, 2015.
By J. Peter Pham April 23, 2015 | 11:00 a.m. EDT + More
The international community breathed a collective sigh of relief following the recent presidential, parliamentary and gubernatorial elections in Nigeria. Although the competition was the fiercest Nigerians have ever seen and the polls were marred by some irregularities and a few regrettable episodes of violence, the graceful concession of the defeated incumbent president and the magnanimity of his challenger pave the way for next month’s historic peaceful, democratic handover of power in Africa’s most populous country. It is a significant milestone, not only for Nigeria, but for Africa as a whole.
But imagine what would have happened if President Goodluck Jonathan had rigged the election process or simply refused to accept President-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s win at the ballot box? That’s what President Alpha Conde is trying to do in nearby Guinea, a geopolitically sensitive nation in the same West African subregion, where the political upheaval and ethnic conflict being risked could easily spill over into neighboring countries, including Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, all of which are just themselves emerging from prolonged periods of civil strife. Consequently, there is an urgent need for the international community to engage more robustly in Guinea. The good news from Nigeria should not be an excuse for complacency about the prospects for democracy and stability elsewhere in the region.
Moreover, we should not view Guinea merely through the prism of Ebola, despite the efforts of the incumbent president to blame everything on the epidemic of which his country has been the unfortunate epicenter, as he shamelessly did this past week in Washington. Even before the outbreak of deadly disease wreaked havoc with the economy, both urban and rural poverty were increasing during the president’s tenure according to his own finance ministry’s report to the International Monetary Fund. Unable to run on his weak record, Conde, in office since a disputed election in 2010, is using every trick in the book to remain in power. Recently, the regime has been increasingly blatant in rigging the electoral process to ensure that it “wins” the elections scheduled for less than six months from now.
The political opposition realizes that it is being railroaded by the government, which controls the so-called Independent National Electoral Commission. That body has rejiggered the electoral calendar to give an insurmountable advantage to the incumbent president, who has refused to engage in a political dialogue with the opposition for almost a year.
Frustrated by both the government’s intransigence and the international community’s lack of attention, the coalition representing the major opposition parties has taken to the streets to demand free, fair and transparent elections. The peaceful demonstrations, including a massive one planned for this Thursday, have continued despite the regime’s attempts to violently repress them. On Monday, for example, several protesters, including a 15-year-old boy, were wounded when live rounds were fired at them by police.
As a result of these demonstrations, Conde’s government has finally offered to renew dialogue with the opposition. However, Cellou Dalein Diallo, a free-market economist and former prime minister, and other leaders of the opposition coalition have declined to participate in talks with the government until two conditions are met: the pro-government electoral commission must cease to function and be revamped; and the timetable for elections which the commission unilaterally announced must be dropped in favor of one which represents the consensus of all stakeholders. Speaking from Paris on Wednesday, Conde rejected any change to the election timetable.
The preconditions are necessary because opposition leaders do not trust Conde and think that the offer of negotiations is little more than a clever trap, just fruitless dialogue designed to waste time as the electoral clock continues to tick.
The opposition is confident that it has the support of the masses. Of course, it will have to prove that assertion at the polls. But for that to occur, the entire electoral process must be free, fair and transparent. And the process has to begin long before the Oct. 11 date chosen for the presidential vote. The opposition is demanding, quite reasonably, that local elections that Conde has postponed on one pretext or another for more than four years be held before the presidential poll, in accordance with Guinea’s laws as well as the repeated promises of the president himself.
Why is this so important? First, there is no basis in the Guinean constitution for the repeated postponements of these elections and, as a result of them, as both opposition politicians and civil society leaders have pointed out, none of those occupying local government offices – mayors, local council members, ward chiefs, etc. – has a legal mandate. Second, as many observers have noted, the criteria under which these officials have been retained without the consent of their constituents has been their allegiance to the president. Third, these same unelected local officials, dependent as they are upon the incumbent for their livelihood, will be the very people who, at the grassroots level, will not only be determining who can register to vote ahead of the polls and who casts ballots on election day, but will themselves be counting ballots and tabulating results.
Opposition candidates and pro-democracy advocates alike fear, justifiably, based on their experience in the controversial 2010 presidential election from which many reports emerged of fraud, that the process will be corrupted. Thus, these activists have called on the international community, especially the United Nations, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the European Union, France and the United States, to engage more energetically in Guinea to ensure a level playing field for the upcoming local and presidential elections. Deploying foreign observers to monitor polling sites on election day would be too little too late.
Why does Guinea matter? Why should the international community, with so many crises demanding attention, even care? Guinea matters because it constitutes a case of arrested development, a country which has never realized its ambitions despite extraordinary human and natural resources – among other things, it holds two-thirds of the world’s largest reserve of bauxite, and prodigious amounts of gold, diamonds, iron ore, graphite, manganese and other mineral resources – that could make Guinea potentially one of the richest nations in Africa. Alas, since independence in 1958, the country has been run by a series of authoritarian leaders who have ruled from the top down for the benefit of the fortunate few, not for the entire nation. Moreover, without credible elections, Guinea risks plunging into a profound political crisis and, indeed, outright conflict. Ethnic tensions are already being stoked and, in a region whose borders were very recently shown by the rapid spread of the Ebola virus to be all-too-porous, such conflicts will be impossible to contain.
To head off this very real threat, the international community needs to engage now to ensure free, fair and transparent elections yielding credible results acceptable to all Guineans. It not only matters for the people of Guinea, but is critical to maintaining peace, stability, and democratic gains of the entire region.
J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.