Guinea: Alpha Condé, one year on – the last secrets of an exile

By François Soudan
Posted on Friday, 2 September 2022 12:03

Alpha Condé (white suit) getting ready to board a plane to Istanbul, in Conakry, on 21 May 2022.
Alpha Condé (white suit) getting ready to board a plane to Istanbul, in Conakry, on 21 May 2022. © Presidency of the Republic of Guinea

Overthrown on 5 September 2021, installed in Istanbul since 21 May, the former Guinean head of state has used the past year to indulge in introspection. A new pastime for him.

Installed in Istanbul since 21 May, first in a suite of the Conrad Hilton, then in a villa set aside for his disposal by Turkish friends with the blessing of President Erdogan, who placed him under discreet police protection, Alpha Condé is in exactly the same frame of mind as the day of his fall.

Mr President, this is not good. That is why we [carried out] the coup.

What do you mean, it’s not going well?

Mr Professor, if we leave immediately, the population will support us. Nobody will hurt you because you have been dignified, but you have to accept that you are no longer the president of this country.

I want to address my people. It is the people who elected me!

And if [these] very people suffer[..]?

Are the people not also suffering in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire?

Yes, but not in the same conditions as us.

Do you know where this country was when I arrived? Do you know the effort I made to move the country forward?

That was a year ago, on the morning of 5 September 2021. Condé, who had gone up to his room to retrieve the keys to the underground bunker of his palace in Sékhoutouréya before coming face to face with a detachment of Special Forces, is talking to Commander Alya Camara, who has come to arrest him.

He is barefoot, in jeans and an open shirt, sitting on a sofa. At this point in the day, the military coup plotters around him have already raided his room, taking with them the bags of cash that were there. Camara was arrested for this two months later on the orders of Colonel Doumbouya, then released and re-arrested in early June 2022, before being held incommunicado.

As for the coffers of the presidential office, stuffed with currency and jewels, they went to the Mohammed-V palace, where the new strong man resides, obviously reluctant to let others manage such precious spoils of war.

That was a year ago, and nothing has changed in substance since then. Mamadi Doumbouya has still not set clear limits to his exceptional power, and Condé has still not signed his letter of resignation.

The letter was presented to him shortly after he refused to endorse his own abdication on television on the afternoon of 5 September.

However, he threw it in the bin without even reading it, contenting himself with replying to his jailers with a Malinke proverb that says: “Never hesitate, never be afraid, never betray your word, never betray your ancestors.”

Under Erdogan’s protection

It is true that he is still convalescing, the two operations he underwent in early 2022 in Abu Dhabi having left their mark on his octogenarian frame. However, his physical condition clearly has little to do with the alarmist statements of his former personal physician, Dr Kaba, who gave him six months to live, persuading Colonel Doumbouya to allow him to leave. At least fit enough for an hour’s daily walk on the beach, the ex-president spends his days reading, polishing up his balance sheet and talking on the phone to friends, a circle which has inevitably narrowed.

I have a very high appreciation of him, he is someone of whom Africa can be proud.

If we do not know the details of the ‘deal’ agreed between Mamadi Doumbouya and the Turkish authorities concerning him, the most likely hypothesis being that it is an exile with no prospect of return, it is clear that Condé is doing everything to avoid embarrassing them: no statement, no contact with the media and no visit that could be misinterpreted. This does not prevent him from keeping himself keenly informed of everything, and everything related to Guinea in particular.

Regularly, heads of state with whom he has remained close – Denis Sassou Nguesso, João Lourenço, Yoweri Museveni, Faure Gnassingbé… – ask for news, directly or not, as do others with whom he has worked closely, such as Paulo Gomes, Carlos Lopes, Vera Songwe, Don Mello, and some others.

Like the president of the AfDB, Akinwumi Adesina, who paid him a remarkable tribute on the sidelines of the Bank’s Assemblies in May: “I have a very high appreciation of him, he is someone of whom Africa can be proud”, Alpha Condé’s foreign friends use the same word to describe the forced departure from power of a man who, in their eyes, was very close to making the Guinean economy take off: “a waste”.

Three mistakes

It remains to be seen what the Guineans themselves think. None of them took to the streets the day after 5 September to protest against the putsch, not even the militants of his own party, as if they were petrified.

Not very inclined to self-criticism, “the professor” has nevertheless taken advantage of the past year to engage in introspection, which is new for him: what mistakes has he made to bring us to this point?

He admits to three of them: the first is that he has always behaved more like the president of the FEANF, the famous student union of the 1960s and 1970s, than like a head of state: A “cash” attitude, whose apparent casualness has offended some of his peers.

The second is to have abruptly changed, a few months before the putsch his mobile phone numbers to which a good half of Guineans had ended up having access.

This cut him off from valuable sources of information that he is convinced would have warned him of what was being planned against him. Aware of this shortcoming, the head of the DGSE branch at the French embassy in Conakry had advised him to repatriate the services of the Directorate General of Internal Intelligence to the presidency and place it under his direct authority. He regrets, in retrospect, not having listened to him.

The third and most serious mistake is to have never really concerned himself with his own security. Condé believed that the army, which was reformed under the leadership of the French general Bruno Clément-Bollée, was now republican and free of its coup demons, to the point of considering the hypothesis of a coup d’état impossible.

The only senior officer he really distrusted at the end of his second term was Aboubacar Sidiki Camara, alias ‘Idi Amin’, whom he made a four-star general shortly after coming to power, attracting in the process the reproaches of some of his peers who are experts in the field (Blaise Compaoré and Denis Sassou Nguesso, in particular), for whom a gendarme cannot be the most starred leader of an army.

Condé had finally perceived the ambition of this Saint-Cyrien, director of cabinet of the minister of defence, Mohamed Diané, and when one day in 2019 the military attaché at the French embassy came to tell him that ‘Idi Amin’ was doing everything to block the reforms launched by Clément-Bollée, his decision was not long in coming: He sent him as ambassador as far away as possible, to Cuba, without even receiving him before his departure, deaf to the general’s request to be posted to a less anecdotal country.

Bringing the wolf into the Conakry fold

This is at least the account that Condé gave me at the time, which differs from the one that Aboubacar Sidiki Camara, who became minister of defence after the 5 September putsch, recently gave to us. According to him, it was following a conversation with the president during which he advised him against running for a third term that the latter dismissed him from his post – a version denied by Conde himself and his close circle, according to whom this interview never took place.

If I had known that Doumbouya was a former French legionnaire…

It is true that no one, unless they were openly in the opposition, dared to contradict ‘the professor’ on this point. This did not prevent some generals from judging the third mandate operation unmanageable.

Was the chief of staff, General Namory Traoré, whom Condé now considers a traitor for having rallied to Colonel Doumbouya on 5 September, one of them? It is likely.

The most controversial episode in the relationship between the former president and his army concerns his alleged relationship with his future ouster, Mamadi Doumbouya. If the colonel has claimed to have been received by Condé twice, between 2012 and 2020, which in itself would not be surprising given the habit that the latter had taken to contact officers directly without notifying their hierarchy, the former head of state has said to his relatives that he has not retained any memory of these audiences.

Better still, according to him, it was not he who appointed him to head the Special Forces, an elite unit supposedly deployed to the border with Mali to protect Guinea from infiltration by jihadist elements, but which, in reality, has never left its Kaleya cantonment, 130 kilometres from Conakry.

“The CV of Doumbouya was never submitted to me; if I had known he was a former French legionnaire, I would never have chosen him,” he recently told a visitor.

It would not be him either, but a pressure group composed of Prime Minister Kassory Fofana, Defence Minister Mohamed Diané, his special adviser Tibou Kamara and General Namory Traoré, who would be behind the use of the Special Forces in 2019 to quell the Kindia mutiny and suppress the Ratoma uprising – bringing the wolf into the Conakry fold. On each occasion, Condé was presented with a fait accompli: A thesis that, if true, does not exonerate him from the sin of naivety.

In his exile in Istanbul, Condé no longer insists on justifying his past mistakes. After all, a successful coup d’état is always the flashpoint of a hidden reality. On 5 September 2021, Guineans suddenly realised not that the king was naked and that his power was in need of picking up, but that the appearances that gave him the semblance of authority and strength were only shadows undermined by multiple betrayals.

Shot down in the middle of the take-off phase

He only regrets that having decided not to stand for re-election in 2026 and (to the great displeasure of Kassory Fofana) to hand over to the generation of Guineans born after independence, he was somehow shot down in the middle of the take-off phase. Between 2010 and 2020, GDP per capita tripled in local currency, and electricity access rose from 27% to 44%. Five more years and his dream of seeing Guinea overtake Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal would have been fulfilled, he is convinced.

Condé knows that his actions are scrutinised from Conakry by an increasingly unpopular junta, which is hanging over his head the sword of Damocles of the legal proceedings for ‘blood crimes’ launched against him in early May.

He is thus doing nothing to fuel the prevailing paranoia, especially since, at the heart of the resistance front that is rising up against Mamadi Doumbouya’s supposed ambitions to stay in power, no war drums are sounding to demand his return to the helm of Guinea – at least for the moment.

Does he even want this revenge? His age – 84 – and the state of health that goes with it, the distance, the lack of interest of his ex-pairs in this prospect and the tenacious resentment that those Guineans who fought him in recent years still hold for him, all this makes the hypothesis of a ‘comeback’ at least uncertain.

This must have been clear to him, even if no one would believe that as long as he has a breath of life left in him, ‘the professor’ will continue to do what he has always done: politics. Wherever he goes, to Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, the North Pole or a lost island in the Pacific, it is the land of Guinea that Condé takes with him on the soles of his shoes: A land that apparently has not forgotten him.

If we rely on the applause metre […] we could conclude that Alpha Conde is on the road to rehabilitation.

On 24 August, during the ceremony to hand over the report of the National Conferences at the Mohamed V Palace in Conakry, his name and portrait were given a standing ovation, while those of his four predecessors at the head of the state since independence were only politely applauded.

Obviously upset, Colonel Doumbouya immediately left the room, flanked as usual by about 50 red berets from the special forces armed to the teeth.

“If we rely on the applause metre,” says the website, “we could conclude that Alpha Conde is on the road to rehabilitation. After the fall, the improbable rebound?”

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