Guinea – Mali: Are special forces threatening democracy?

By Oswald Padonou

Posted on September 13, 2021 07:46

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-09-10T10-04-37.793Z © Members of the Guinean armed forces celebrate President Alpha Conde’s arrest during a coup in Conakry on 5 September 2021. CELLOU BINANI/AFP
Members of the Guinean armed forces celebrate President Alpha Conde’s arrest during a coup in Conakry on 5 September 2021. CELLOU BINANI/AFP

Be it Assimi Goïta in Mali or Mamady Doumbouya in Guinea, in both cases the incumbent president was overthrown by the head of the special forces. This raises questions about the role of these elite military units and their relationship with politics.

After the recent coup d’état by Lieutenant-Colonel Mamady Doumbouya in Guinea on 5 September 2021, it has not escaped anyone’s notice that this officer at the head of the Groupement des Forces Spéciales (GFS) commanded the same type of military unit as Colonel Assimi Goïta, who became the leader of Mali’s transition government after a double coup d’état in August 2020 and May 2021. More specifically, the latter headed the Bataillon Autonome des Forces Spéciales (BAFS).

If the similarities stopped there, then nothing would appear to be out of the ordinary. After all, they are both in charge of the best equipped and trained units of their respective armies. Therefore, initiating a coup d’état would not be seen as a risky venture, but rather, one that promises success.

However, comments from Internet users, and even those from certain ‘specialists’, sometimes tend to be stigmatising. They call for either dismantling of these units or, in countries where they do not exist, maintaning the status quo, on conflicting grounds that they may lead to political destabilisation.

If this were to occur, we would once again be treating the consequence of a purely political problem, rather than its root cause.

Guinean defence reform

Since 2010, Guinea, with the support of international technical and financial partners, has vastly reformed its security sectors. The country has done so in the hopes of professionalising the defence and security forces, so as to improve their ability to carry out missions, and above all, depoliticise them.

This last objective has undoubtedly not been achieved, and the latest coup d’état is proof of the army’s inability to contain its putschist tendencies and govern legitimately in the interest of the general public.

However, the reform cannot be considered an overall failure. The country has been able to satisfy UN requirements by deploying 712 personnel, including a battalion of 650 peacekeepers from the Minusma in Kidal, which is already considered a great success. This is particularly because some of the personnel are armed by the GFS, as is the case in Côte d’Ivoire and other African countries deploying contingents in UN peace operations.

The political situation, turmoil and uncertainties caused by excessive ambitions of arrogant politicians and their disregard for democratic rules must not obscure the security imperatives that are supposed to be addressed by units such as the special forces, who are capable of acting autonomously and decisively in a hostile environment.

Special forces, an indispensable bulwark

In the face of terrorism, organised crime, complex hostage-taking and other large-scale criminal acts, special forces – that possess rapid and robust intervention capabilities – remain a bulwark that no state or army would reasonably choose to do without.

Even if the only military feat by the Malian and Guinean Special Forces was capturing presidents of questionable legitimacy, dismantling these units would be a waste of time because danger can come from anywhere; for example, from armies as well as insurgents who, just like the population, are against corrupt regimes that are disconnected from the aspirations of the young, who are in the majority and sufficiently marginalised.

For similar reasons, Benin’s armoured cavalry have remained under-equipped for a long time because many from within their ranks led the 1960 and 1970 coups. In Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré’s Régiment de Sécurité Présidentiel (RSP) was disbanded after he was ousted in 2014, even though it could have been restructured to capitalise on the know-how it had acquired and reinvested in counter-terrorism.

Do not act in the spur of the moment

Constitutional and military coups have certainly hindered the march towards political stability and economic progress for francophone sub-Saharan Africa. Since the region possesses relatively precarious defence tools, it is important that it does not act in the spur of the moment by making hasty decisions, thereby possibly preventing its armies from properly carrying out their missions.

No one knows where this umpteenth transition government will lead Guinea. The promises of military personnel, who are not sufficiently prepared to exercise state power, always come up against the harsh realities of political power. As long as the defence apparatus can be preserved, despite the country’s shortcomings, it is important to limit the damage as much as possible so that we don’t return to square one.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.