Military Coups d’État and Guinea’s Rocky Road to Political Stability

While the fate of Guinea’s former President Alpha Condé remains unclear following a military coup on September 5, the ongoing political turmoil is most likely a beginning of a repetitive cycle of a semi-democratic military governance observed across West Africa.

Military parade following the coup in Guinea. Photo: Aboubacarkhoraa / Wikimedia Commons

Security Defection: Domestic vs. International Community Reactions

Guinea is, yet again, facing political uncertainty after elite security forces overthrew the president in a coup. The coup was led by the head of Guinea’s special forces, Lt. Col Mamady Doumbouyah, who is said to have served in the French legion and received military training from the United States, through US AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command). Following the coup, Col. Doumbouyah appeared on Guinean state television together with his armed soldiers. They announced that the president had been detained, the constitution dissolved, and that a nationwide curfew had been imposed.

The unfavorable political development of this impoverished, yet resource-rich nation comes as no surprise for many. This coup followed a year which saw numerous violent protests led by the main opposition party, headed by Cellou Dalein Diallo and his supporters, against a constitutional change and an election which was allegedly fraudulently won by Alpha Condé’s party. It should be noted that despite holding the world’s largest bauxite reserves, Guinea remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with most of its population living under less than 1 dollar per day.

Meanwhile, President Condé’s demise sparked a wave of celebrations across the Guinean capital Conakry and other large cities. However, around the world, the event was condemned by several regional actors and the international community as a whole, these include the United States, United Nations and African Union. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS has been specifically vocal about its disapproval of the violent takeover by the special forces. The bloc has not only demanded an immediate release of the former president, but it has also imposed sanctions on the junta regime. In order to understand the severe implications of this coup on Guinea’s political development, it is important to provide a brief insight into Guinea’s complex history of military interventions.

Historical Perspective: Analysis of Military Coup d’États in Guinea’s Political History

In West Africa, a military coup d’état is a pre-emptive strike on a, for the most part, considerably fragile and immature democratic system. In fact, military coups have become endemic on the African continent. For instance, since the years of independence, Africa has experienced more than 200 military coups, counting both successful and failed coup attempts.  It’s not only a sting to the democratic processes in the region, but also the economic development of these nations.

In the case of Guinea, its first major military coup was staged by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara and his military colleagues of The National Council for Democracy and Development (Conseil National pour la Démocratie et le Développement; CNDD), six hours after the death of President Lansana Conté was announced on the December 23, 2008. On September 28, 2008, 157 people were killed during one of the rallies at the sport stadium in Conakry by the coup leaders, and this tragedy was one of bloodiest moment in Guinea politics.

With the intensification of the international community’s involvement in the investigation process of this tragedy, in order to bring the perpetrators to justice, an internal conflict arose among the military, which intensified on December 3, 2009. With the murder of Captain Camara in December 2009, President Alpha Condé became the first-ever democratically elected president in Guinea’s history in 2010.

The popularity of President Alpha Condé, however, started to become problematic among ordinary Guineans and the international community when he, in 2020, announced a constitutional referendum to allow him to run for his third term in office. Although the new constitution contained improvements for human rights, such as raising the age of marriage to 18 years, a total ban on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) of Guinean girls, slavery and child labour, and equal rights to spouses in marriage and divorce, the concept of a new constitution meant a new republic. This was a political manipulation by Mr. Alpha Condé in order to further his political ambitions.

As a result, public discontent towards President Condé rapidly grew and metastasized, and also spread across all of Guinea in a short period of time due to various socio-political factors. Meanwhile, a week before the coup d’état and detention of President Alpha Condé, a new spending loophole was proposed for the National Assembly and the President’s Office. This move would have resulted in a massive cut in the budget of security forces, police and military officials, a shift which not only caused uproar among some key military generals, but eventually led to the coup on the September 5.

Constitutional and Military Coups: A Regional Trend on the Rise?

The coup observed in Guinea is an outcome of an upward trend of military coups observed across West Africa in recent years. In fact, Guinea is the third West African country to experience a violent transfer in a six-month period. In April, Chad president Idriss Déby was killed while visiting frontlines and was replaced by his son, and in May, Mali saw its second coup in nine months, following the arrest of the President and Prime Minister. During the same month, a failed military coup was crushed in Niger, days before the inauguration of the President.

While the number of coups is increasing in some parts of the region, other parts (e.g. Ghana and Senegal) continue to enjoy relative political stability and consolidated democracy. It is important to note that the unfavourable trend of military coups observed in Guinea and other parts of the West/Sahelian region is not a recent trend. However, two factors differentiate these new military coups from the older ones.

Democratic Coup d’État: A Symptom of Constitutional Coups?

Many of the West African governments have not only failed to attain sustainable economic development, but have in the recent years moved gradually towards undermining constitutional democracy. The so-called constitutional crisis, which has seen many African incumbent leaders, including Alpha Condé and Alassane Ouattara, altering constitutions to allow them to stay in power, has not only resulted in lack of confidence in the general electoral system, but it has also provided the military segment more room to manoeuvre and claim their role in this political game.

To frame it another way, the international community and regional actors’ inability to effectively deal with and hold various African leaders accountable for power abuse and manipulation of the electoral procedures, combined with the military being too close to power in the countries, means that violent transfers such as military coups against established democracies are not inevitable in this region. In many of these instances, as the case of Guinea has demonstrated, these coups can even be categorized under what scholar Ozan Varol (2012) describes as a “democratic coup d’état”. This refers to coups that respond to “popular opposition against authoritarian or totalitarian regimes”, and by overthrowing these regimes thereby claim to promote a more inclusive political approach and facilitate free and fair elections.

In hindsight, despite expressing some sense of anti-democratic features, the military coup undertaken in Guinea had some democracy-promoting tendencies. Specifically, the mutinous junta, which has vowed to not only eradicate endemic corruption and restore democracy, but also economic progress (which the country has been lacking since the independence from France in 1958). The junta claims to be acting in the best interests of the nation’s 12.7 million population. Meanwhile, it is important to note that the role played by the international community in mitigating or increasing these trends will be crucial in the years to come.

What’s Next for Guinea?

Many challenges appear to be ahead of the so-called interim government, which is governed by the military and meant to provide a transitional period. Despite viewing themselves as the vanguards of a better future, the lack of a coherent blueprint, so far, for how to achieve a so-called democratic reform may lead to failure of living up to their promises of a peaceful democratic transition, inclusive political approach and implementation of reforms to tackle corruption. Furthermore, acts of self-serving behaviour, through institutional and constitutional entrenchment by the military, may result in abuse of power and public trust with no structural changes brought about. Consequently, while seeking public consent, legitimacy and stability, the political system may remain unaltered with power concentrated in the hands of few, similar to the former regime.

Another reasonable fear is that, in the case where an election is held, this may be done solely to provide legitimacy to the interim military government and reassure the international community about its limited political role in this short span of time. Internal power struggle is also another factor that most likely is not inevitable within the army, which is currently trying hard to unify various military branches under one leadership. This development could see a disruption in the bauxite mining and send more shock waves to the international bauxite market. This in return can have economic implications for foreign powers such as China, which is currently Guinea’s largest importer of the mineral that makes aluminium.

Moving forward, it will also be interesting to see the role played by the regional and international community in guiding Guinea’s military regime to democracy. In this process, it is important for regional blocs such as ECOWAS and AU to not isolate the coup leaders and the rest of the Guinean security and political segments, but instead include them in open dialogues to find a suitable solution for the country. At the same time, these organizations should not neglect using various political instruments to ensure that the coup leaders are held accountable for potential ill-fated behaviours. What happens in Guinea the coming years will dictate the real image and intention of Col. Mamady Doumbouya’s for the future of Guinea and its people. Till then, hope is what remains for the Guinean population.

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