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Guinea: Alpha Condé succeeded in creating a ‘Republican army’

By Fatoumata Diallo
Posted on Thursday, 23 September 2021 08:49

After Guinea’s President Alpha Condé’s arrest. CELLOU BINANI/AFP

Although the Guinean military ousted Alpha Condé from power on 5 September, the former president had taken pains to professionalise Guinea's army and had even obtained results, says researcher Anna Dessertine.

Alpha Condé had long been suspicious of the army. As soon as he came to power in 2010, he made its reform his number one priority. With the support of donors, he launched a major Reform of the Security Sector (RSS), aimed at professionalising the army and restoring its image.

As the former oppositionist had been elected to take over from a transitional regime led by the military, he knew that, in order to effectively govern, he would have to keep an eye on them and, if necessary, meet some of their demands. He knew what was at stake, but did he ever think that the army would turn against him?

On 5 September, he was finally overthrown by a coup d’état perpetrated by Mamady Doumbouya, a lieutenant-colonel whom he had trusted, despite several warnings, and whom he had appointed to head the special forces group that was his pride and joy.

Researcher and anthropologist Anna Dessertine, who wrote an article entitled L’État, ce n’est Personne? Les Relations de Pouvoir dans l’Armée Guinéenne (The State, is nobody? Power relations int he Guinean army) visited the Soundiata Keita camp in Kankan, in Upper Guinea, the region where Condé and Doumbouya come from.

She sat down with us to look back at the way in which the former President tried to take the troops in hand and highlights the specifics regarding the 5 September coup, which differs greatly from the one led by Moussa Dadis Camara in 2010.

Since Condé was overthrown by the military, is it fair to say that he failed to reform the army?

Anna Dessertine: This reform has had contrasting effects, but we cannot consider it a failure. Its objective was to structure the security sector as a whole and professionalise it. But it also had an operational aim, as the army was only deployed at the borders and the soldiers had to return to the barracks – this was referred to as “encasement.”

Under Lansana Conté’s presidency, soldiers were too present in the public space and their actions often proved dangerous. Through his reform, Condé succeeded in reducing their presence in cities.

The RSS’ aim was also to offer better training to the military, either in Guinea or abroad, via UN training in particular, to enable them to rise in rank. But this sometimes created inter-generational tension.

The older generation, which was recruited in the 2000s after having served voluntarily during rebel attacks along the borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia, were often frustrated that their cadets rose in rank and were treated better than they had ever been.

The latest RSS evaluation report, which was conducted for the UN, highlights how real progress had been made but also points to some shortcomings. What are they? 

The Guinean army’s chain of command often functions on the basis of a redistribution that is both financial and material. In some camps, we observed that the supplies did not arrive, particularly those intended for equipment.

In many camps far from the capital, junior officers face a certain precariousness. Some are forced to live outside and pay rent while others may have to buy their own military uniforms, which can fuel feelings of discontent towards the hierarchy.

In recent years, we have sometimes read that the Guinean army has become “republican.” What does this mean?

A republican army is a non-politicised army, which is unlikely to destabilise the civil power and which is capable, at the same time, of putting itself at its service.

And yet the special forces burst onto the political scene and overthrew Condé on 5 September…

Yes, but this coup d’état had nothing to do with the reforms that the Guinean authorities have undertaken in recent years. This particular unit took part in the coup because it was feeling frustrated about their precarious conditions and the persistent nepotism going on within their ranks. Other army units were suffering from different injustices.

When the special forces were created in 2018, Condé gave them a lot of power and placed great trust in Doumbouya. We are talking about an elite unit, one that was completely separate from the rest of the corps and which the other corps distrusted. This unit decided to act when it felt sidelined.

Moreover, I believe this putsch is particularly unique because it is kind of like a palace revolution. Doumbouya, just like Condé and many of the top brass, is a Malinke. Camara’s coup was different because it occurred after the army had split.

Why did Condé place so much hope in this unit, to the detriment of other army corps?

Initially, Condé decided to create the special forces to fight against terrorism. What makes this unit special is that it is a vast network. For example, Assimi Goïta and Doumbouya know each other because they met during joint training. Furthermore, many of this unit’s members were trained abroad. This is the case of Lieutenant-Colonel Doumbouya, who was trained outside Guinea with the international community’s support, including France and the US.

Over time, however, it became a second presidential guard that was responsible for suppressing Guinea’s opposition. Condé did not implicitly trust his political opponents, but in light of recent events, he was probably not suspicious of the right people.

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