Guinea: We must turn this dangerous coup into a chance for renewal
A coup was never the solution to the nation’s problems. But with the right pressure, the Guinean people can turn this moment into an opportunity.
On 5 September, Guinea endured its third successful military coup since independence. This time, army officers – some of them trained by the US – stormed the presidential palace in Conakry and, following a shootout, detained President Alpha Condé. Soon after, the head of the special forces Colonel Mamady Doumbouya announced on state television that the government had been dissolved and the constitution annulled.
Like in similar recent events in nearby Mali (which had a coup in May), Chad (which experienced an “institutional coup” in April) and Niger (which thwarted an attempted coup in March), the international spotlight in Guinea has focused on the mutineers and the country’s natural resources. Guinea has the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, the ore used to produce aluminium, whose prices skyrocketed to a decade-high following news of the overthrow.
However, the biggest impact of a coup is on the ordinary people who are suffering. I know. I was a young child in the years of instability that followed Lansana Conté’s coup d’état in 1984. In the ensuing power struggle, security forces abducted and tortured my mother and burned our home to the ground. My siblings and I were forced to flee Conakry and endure five years of brutal poverty before we were finally granted refugee status in the US and our family could be reunited.
As was the case back then, last week’s military takeover in Guinea did not happen in a vacuum. The country’s fragile democratic order has been failing its citizens and many people are angry at rising poverty, rampant corruption, and government mismanagement. President Condé’s decision to change the constitution so he could run for a third term in 2020 and his violent response to mass protests to this move only added to popular discontent. Given this context, it is unsurprising that many in Guinea have celebrated the end of Condé’s rule.
A coup is, of course, not the solution. Doumbaya’s military overthrow is already creating havoc for many ordinary people and is likely to exacerbate Guinea’s problems while creating new ones. However, this uncertain moment does bring the country’s issues into sharp relief and provide an opportunity for Guineans and their international allies to re-think the nation’s priorities and demand better.
In doing so, three issues are paramount.
First, we must address Guinea’s chronically weak leadership. Ever since Guinea’s visionary first president Sekou Touré devolved into autocratic rule, this destructive pattern has been repeated over and over, first under Conté and then Condé. The current political transition provides a moment to reckon with this past and recommit to the deepening of people-centred governance with checks and balances that allow for the co-existence of competing interests.
A critical first step for Guinea’s new government should be to leverage the experience of veterans from previous administrations who served with integrity. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens ought to build on their recent experience of grassroots organising to demand the putschists deliver on their promise to transition promptly to civilian rule. Guineans must insist on a strict timeline and make clear that they will not tolerate endless meetings between the military junta and civilian leaders. They should apply the pressure necessary to demand regular updates, transparency, and a voice at the table negotiating the nation’s future.
Secondly, Guinea’s diaspora as a source of strength should be recognised. The country has many highly qualified citizens from different generations, genders and ethnic groups living abroad. Thousands of us in France, the US and elsewhere have acquired skills, social capital, and finances that can contribute to Guinea’s renewal. The bird’s-eye view our distance affords also allows us to more easily bridge the siloes that often divide our communities. The diaspora must do its part to support the efforts of compatriots in Guinea.
Finally, the international community must support the Guinean people too. Initial statements by the African Union, the West Africa bloc ECOWAS, the UN, and Western governments have rightly rejected the coup. But we now need to see actions to match this rhetoric. Guinea’s future will be driven by its people, but the outside world has a key role to play in supporting ordinary citizens’ demands, pushing for a meaningful civilian transition, and holding army leaders accountable through targeted sanctions.
Guinea is hardly the first country to birth political transformation through violence, and we must learn from this history as we seek to forge a new polity of and for our beleaguered people. We will not stand for today’s military coup nor for the mismanagement and corruption that preceded it. We must condemn the putsch, while using this moment to reflect on our shared past to build a new, more inclusive, and vibrant Guinea for the future. As Sekou Touré famously said, our task is nothing less than to “fashion the revolution with the people”.