Guinea: The secret story behind the fall of President Alpha Condé

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Guinea Coup – the Fall of Alpha Condé

By François Soudan

Posted on Thursday, 9 September 2021 17:51
Alpha Conde during a campaign meeting in Kissidougou, 12 October 2020 © CAROL VALADE/AFP

Following Guinea's coup d'etat on 5 September led by Mamady Doumbouya, the regional bloc ECOWAS has just announced its suspension. A high-level mission will be sent over to evaluate the situation before any further decisions are made. But in the aftermath of the coup, there are questions that stand out: Why was it so easy to capture President Alpha Condé? Why did he ignore everyone’s warnings about Doumbouya? And where does Conakry’s new master really come from?

Why was Alpha Condé so easily captured?

In principle, the presidential palace of Sékhoutouréya – located on the peninsula of Kaloum, in Conakry – was surrounded by a triple security cordon consisting of soldiers from the Bataillon Autonome de Sécurité Présidentiel (BASP), which was based at Camp Makambo, in the Boulbinet district, only a few kilometres away. But in the early morning of 5 September, the small detachments, who were sporting red berets and managing the three checkpoints along the avenue leading to the palace’s entrance gate, were still sleeping.

The BASP soldiers were loyal to the President – some of them came from within the ranks of the ruling Rassemblement du Peuple de Guinée (RPG) – but were neither properly trained nor armed. French General Bruno Clément-Bollée, who worked hard to restructure the Guinean army as per Condé’s request, said that Sékhoutouréya was “one of the worst guarded palaces in West Africa.” Compared to how well protected the Plateau Palace in Abidjan is, “it’s night and day,” he adds.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mamady Doumbouya came down from his base at Kaleya in Forécariah, in Lower Guinea, which is about 85km away. He headed a column made up of about 50 trucks and pick-ups armed with 12.7mm machine guns and went straight to Kaloum, where he made his entrance at around 8am.

The lieutenant-colonel deployed almost the entire Groupement des Forces Spéciales (GFS), around 500 men, to the mission. Some of these soldiers, who were heavily armed, took up positions in front of the Makambo camp to prevent the Presidential Guard reinforcements from leaving. Meanwhile, the others – including special unit 8602, who were trained by the French and Israelis – headed for Sékhoutouréya, along with an armoured vehicle and several mortars.

Condé, a notorious insomniac, had finally fallen asleep at the first light of dawn. He had just returned a few days earlier from Sardinia (a stay which, it should be noted, was not a medical one). While there, the President had visited his friend, the Italian-Eritrean entrepreneur Makonnen Asmaron, with whom he was preparing for President Isaias Afwerki’s official visit to Conakry, scheduled for 9 September.

83-year-old Condé lives alone in an icy palace that was built by the Chinese during the time of Lansana Conté. Djene Kaba, the first lady, resides elsewhere and his only child, Mohamed, lives in San José, Costa Rica. At most, five or six plainclothes bodyguards are stationed on the ground floor and in front of the bay window that serves as the front door. Upstairs is his office and bedroom, where Lieutenant-Colonel Mamadou Alpha Kaloko – head of the BASP, who had rushed to Sékhoutouréya with a handful of men as soon as the first shots were fired – came to inform him of the situation. He was also captured there.

Outside, the confrontation was brief but deadly. According to our information, about 20 presidential guards were killed, including Colonel Yemoiba Camara, commander of the head of state’s bodyguards, and at least two members of the GFS. Guided by a BASP defector who was a regular visitor, the coup plotters blew up the glass window and rushed up the stairs to the first floor.

 READ MORE Guinea Coup – the Fall of Alpha Condé

They tackled Kaloko to the ground, seized the President, handcuffed him after threatening him (“If you move, we’ll shoot!”), and then took him down to a ground-floor lounge where they filmed and photographed him, stunned, distraught and full of contained anger. These images, reminiscent of those of the haggard Gbagbo couple when he was captured in April 2011, were shared around the world, along with the rather degrading pictures of Condé being paraded by his captors in the back of a 4×4 with all the windows open through the streets of Conakry.

During this time, if we are to believe a witness’s account who looked in on the scene, Doumbouya’s men “visited” the whole palace and no doubt took the bags of cash that, like most of his counterparts on the continent, Condé had kept in his room and office.

All over the capital, but particularly in the districts that favour the opposition, scenes of jubilation followed after the first photos appeared on mobile phones. As predicted, the Ministry of Communication, the headquarters of Radio Rurale, the government newspaper Horoya and the former ruling party, the RPG, as well as those of the electoral commission were attacked and vandalised.

This mixture of certainty and leniency is directly responsible for Condé’s error of judgement, and even his near blindness towards Doumbouya.

For a few hours on 5 September, defence minister Mohamed Diané, who is very close to Condé, believed that it would be possible to launch a counter-attack and return to power with help from the regiments – presumably loyal – of the army, paratroopers and gendarmerie. But the President’s arrest and immediate dissemination of the images on social media, a 3.0 strategy obviously thought out in advance, took the high military hierarchy by surprise and left it paralysed.

One after the other, the camps in Conakry and then in the interior of the country rallied to the coup – all the more easily because Doumbouya is a Malinke from Kankan, thus of the same ethnicity as the President, his defence minister and most of the senior army officers. Therefore, the sectarian divide played no role.

Why did Condé trust Doumbouya to the end?

Even though he has always distrusted the Guinean military – despite fighting for them for 25 years, risking his life and in the name of democracy – Condé was convinced that his army, which had reformed and professionalised during his first two terms, had essentially become republican, in the strict sense of the term. “I can be killed by the army, but it cannot overthrow me,” he repeated.

He always avoided confronting the senior officers whose problematic behaviour was pointed by his faithful Diané, as he preferred to stay clear of them. Considered potential putschists, Generals Edouard Théa and especially Aboubacar Sidiki Camara (aka “Idi Amin”) were sent as ambassadors, the first to Angola and the second to Cuba in January 2019.

This mixture of certainty and leniency is directly responsible for Condé’s error of judgement, and even his near blindness towards Doumbouya. Gendarmerie general “Idi Amin” appears to have been Doumbouya’s mentor (although no one knows how long they had known each other). As such, “Idi Amin”, who at the time was the defence minister’s cabinet director, introduced Doumbouya to Amara Camara, Guinea’s ambassador to Paris, in 2012. Doumbouya informed the ambassador that he wanted to serve his country. The former was then assigned to a post as an instructor within the BASP and then received by the President himself in Conakry.

This 37-year-old man with an impeccable operational CV: French Foreign Legion, external operations in Afghanistan and Côte d’Ivoire, commando training in Israel, Gabon and Senegal – immediately won over the President, who enjoys new talent. Even if it means doing everything possible to seduce him, even if he ends up hurting himself because he refused to change his mind. Furthermore, this sociable and respectful non-commissioned officer, who is married to a French woman, is a Malinke, a child of Kankan, just like himself. What’s not to trust?

Entirely happy with his find, Condé quickly decided to send Doumbouya to Paris’ École de Guerre. The former’s plan was to entrust this special force, who was being set up to secure Guinea’s northern borders against jihadist incursions, to Doumbouya.

Back in Conakry, the former legionary enjoyed a meteoric rise, going from captain, then commander to lieutenant-colonel within the space of two years. On 2 October 2018, the men of the GFS paraded around the 28 September stadium to mark the 60th anniversary of independence. During the ultra-slow march by the special forces (28 steps per minute), Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, a former parachute officer, leaned in and whispered in Condé’s ear: “You have all this?” This question filled both the President and Guineans with a lot of pride.

Condé immediately shared the images taken on this occasion with his friends, who were spread across four or five mobile phones. A few days later, in a Guinean TV studio, he asked: “Did you see them? All the women have fallen in love with Doumbouya. Unfortunately for them, he is already married!”

It is therefore not surprising that for months the President decided to ignore the worrisome notes from his intelligence services, which reported the alleged remarks of this officer, who had become very popular among his troops. Some of these notes were anecdotal. For example, he was heard complaining in a supermarket about the poor quality of imported wines.

However, others were more concerning. For instance, the person concerned made critical statements about governance while in an establishment in Conakry that is usually frequented by members of the Guinean contingent of Minusma in Mali while they are on leave.

The head of the special forces also showed disdain for the operational capabilities of the “ordinary” army. All these incidents point to his affiliation with General “Idi Amin”, who is in diplomatic exile in Cuba and held in high suspicion, and to the risk of the GFS becoming the defence forces’ best-armed unit.

From April 2020 onwards, Doumbouya and Diané’s disagreements fuelled rumours in the press. In the particularly tense run-up to the presidential election, the former refused to relocate the Special Forces base from Conakry to Kaleya, not far from Forécariah, as planned.

He demanded that his unit remain in the capital, so that it would be able to prevent any trouble related to the election. Diané, who found this insistence suspicious, asked the President to decide. Condé said that the relocation should take place, but allowed Doumbouya to keep a branch of the special forces in Kaloum, close to the 12 October garden and Palais du Peuple. Ironically, this is where he is now being held, according to our information.

The head of state also felt that he needed to strengthen his personal guard. At the beginning of 2021, 100 young people were sent for training to the Soronkoni camp near Kankan, under the guidance of Turkish instructors sent by his friend President Erdogan. But he still refused to dismiss Doumbouya, as he couldn’t imagine that the latter would try anything against the man to whom the Legion’s former master corporal owes his five lieutenant-colonel stripes.

While in Conakry less than two months ago, Clément-Bollée spoke of the strange atmosphere that reigned there: “I had never seen the political climate so calm, so atonic. But at the same time, all the insiders were wondering about the special forces and their leader’s intentions.”

Why has Condé’s fall left heads of state feeling (almost) indifferent? 

Apart from the international community’s principled condemnations and the concern about his fate expressed by the presidents of Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Republic of Congo, as well as by UN secretary-general Antonio Gutteres, no one explicitly demanded that Condé be reinstated or the immediate return of constitutional order.

Although the French-speaking media “covered” the event, their English-speaking counterparts were primarily interested in the subsequent tenfold increase in the price of bauxite, of which Guinea is the world’s leading producer.

In the region and elsewhere, this complex pan-African with a difficult personality has few friends – or at least ones too far away to intervene. What could Angola’s Lourenço, South Africa’s Ramaphosa or Eritrea’s Afwerki have done for him? How could Turkey’s Erdogan, China’s Xi Jinping or Russia’s Putin have opposed the coup? Not to mention France’s Emmanuel Macron, with whom he has been on the outs ever since the latter criticised his third term in office.

To this relative isolation come all the problems relating to solitary governance. This fan of micro-management ended up concentrating all his powers, listening little and controlling everything, trusting only himself, obsessed with the future of Guinea, which was close to his heart and whose soil he carried on the soles of his shoes whenever he travelled outside his country.

Under the still waters described by Clément-Bollée, currents were stirring and tension was high, even within the camp in power. Thus, the rupture between Condé and his prime minister, the very ambitious Kassory Fofana, was said to be imminent. As for the army chiefs and gendarmerie, Generals Namory Traoré and Ibrahima Baldé, whose silence and inaction during the coup d’état raised questions, expressed their discontent about the budgetary austerity measures affecting the general staff, demanding in particular that their official vehicles be renewed.

It remains to be seen what will happen next. However, we all know that it tends to end in political and economic disaster, as it is obvious that the Guinean military in power has always served themselves rather than others.

Condé, who was aware of this discontent, promised to remedy it. On the evening of 4 September, the day before the putsch, a dinner – with some foreign guests in attendance – took place at Sékhoutouréya.

In between explaining his housing programme for all and his vision for Guinea, “the second-largest economy in West Africa by 2030”, the President had said: “I’m going to reduce the army’s budget, there’s no point in creating problems.” What he did not know was that at that exact moment, Doumbouya’s precursors had already positioned themselves around and within the Kaloum hotel, a vast four-star complex built by the Chinese and inaugurated in October 2018, located just a few hundred metres from the palace.

Did Lieutenant Colonel Doumbouya act because he felt the noose tightening around him? And above all, did he act alone or with support? In a country still strongly marked by community allegiances, the fact that he is Malinke, like 90% of his men, partly explains the lack of reaction from Condé’s supporters and that of his party. This is Guinea’s third successful coup, after those led by Conté and Moussa Dadis Camara. As always, the prisons opened and the crowd applauded.

It remains to be seen what will happen next. However, we all know that it tends to end in political and economic disaster, as it is obvious that the Guinean military in power has always served themselves rather than others. As for Condé – whom the army had previously arrested in 1998, which led to him spending two and a half years in prison – his future is uncertain.

If Conakry’s new strongman is expected to at least guarantee his physical well-being, then exile is not yet an option. Moreover, where would this old wrestler go, given that the only property he has abroad is a small flat in Paris’ Place d’Italie, which he acquired when he was still a member of the opposition? One can imagine, wherever he is being held today, that his pride has been deeply wounded, shattered by betrayals, and that he is determined to maintain the brittle and authoritarian form of dignity that has always served as his compass, even when it leads him to a dead end. The time for self-criticism will come later.

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