The countdown to one of Africa’s most politically sensitive public referendums in 2020 has begun. Two weeks from now, on 1 March, Guinea’s voters will go to the polls to cast their ballot on two matters.
The first is perfectly ordinary – parliamentary elections – while the second is extraordinary – a constitutional referendum.
While electing National Assembly members whose terms expired months ago is (practically) like a routine public clean-up operation, approving (or rejecting) a new constitution by way of direct democracy is much less common, not to mention a lot more likely to arouse controversy when the person who initiated the referendum “from the top” (as Charles de Gaulle used to say) is suspected of having thinly veiled personal designs.
Under normal circumstances, all the opposition would have to do to get Alpha Condé to forgo his constitutional reform proposal is campaign for a “no” vote and for it to win at the polls.
Getting his opponents to debate and vote is exactly what Condé tried to do, but the strategy has failed. The opposition’s distrust of an electoral process it considers to be “flawed” (unless the opposition has little to no confidence in its ability to convince voters to vote against the reform) is such that this very same opposition has decided to use all possible means to ensure that neither of the two elections scheduled for 1 March take place, or that at least voter turnout will be so low that they won’t even matter.
We unpack this high-risk power struggle.
• What’s at stake in the parliamentary elections?
Given that Guinea’s National Assembly has been operating under a one-time extension for a year now, elections need to be carried out and no one disputes this fact. Candidates from some 30 political parties are running for 114 parliamentary seats under a mixed member system (one-third are elected by first-past-the-post voting, while the rest are elected by proportional representation), organised by an Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) which, until the radical opposition pulled out from the commission in late 2019, was composed on a parity basis.
In addition to the president’s party, the Rally of the Guinean People (RPG-Arc-En-Ciel), other smaller parties will participate in the election on 1 March. These parties are clustered around personalities who chiefly come from major political groups and fall within the moderate wing of the opposition.
Innovatrics, a Slovakian company contracted through a tender process, is overseeing a series of initiatives (updating of the electoral register, biometric registration kits, facial recognition software to eliminate fraudulently registered minors, etc.) to improve the reliability of the electoral process by comparison with the 2013 parliamentary elections.
The radical opposition has explained that it refuses to participate in the election because of the botched and biased manner in which they claim it has been organised. Involved in a power struggle with President Condé, radical opposition leaders can’t, it’s true, take the liberty of calling on their partisans to vote in the parliamentary elections while also urging them to boycott the referendum on the new constitution, with both votes taking place the same day.
If they did take such a position and the move were to fail, the three former prime ministers of the military regime, i.e., Cellou Dalein Diallo, Sidya Touré and Lansana Kouyaté, could end up paying a steep price.
Diallo, whose party has won every election in the past ten years in Middle Guinea and Ratoma (a sub-prefecture of Conakry) and is gaining traction in Lower Guinea, could lose at least 37 seats and his status as a salaried leader of the opposition, while Touré could end up leaving his ten parliamentary members in the lurch. Kouyaté’s party, whose representation was reduced to its most basic form (himself) when his protégé defected to RPG-Arc-en-ciel, risks disappearing from the political map altogether.
Although the riskiness of such a move is based on a certain amount of incongruity – after all, the radical opposition parties, represented by the CENI, monitored and approved of the technical and administrative process right to the end, including reassessing the electoral register and setting the election date, before withdrawing their participation – it’s part of an attempt to delegitimise the results of the election from the outset.
Indeed, how can these opposition parties’ polling agents be reliably replaced on such short notice to count ballots and verify election returns at the CENI’s some 5,000 local sections?
The opposition has thus left the door wide open for the election results to be disputed, especially now that the smaller parties, such as that of Faya Millimono or Bah Oury, have pulled out, as they could have helped balance out the situation.
• What is the purpose of the referendum?
No one really disagrees with the idea that the constitution is in need of a thorough overhaul. Dated 7 May 2010, it was hastily drafted and passed by a transitional National Assembly whose members were not elected.
No one really disapproves of the decision to adopt a new constitution via public referendum, as it is infinitely more democratic than just a parliamentary vote. Lastly, no one really condemns the new provisions of the text that will be put to voters on 1 March.
After all, who is against making school compulsory until the age of 16, raising the required legal age for marriage to 18, prohibiting genital mutilation along with slavery and child labour, granting spouses equal rights in divorce, decreasing the age of candidacy from 25 to 18, making it mandatory for at least one-third of members of government and parliament to be women, abolishing the death penalty, etc.?
If the proposed constitution were to be adopted, Guinea would have one of the most progressive constitutions in French-speaking Africa, especially since the article limiting the presidential mandate to two terms would stay intact.
Why, then, has the text sparked so much controversy?
The problem isn’t its content, but a simple equation: a new constitution means a new republic, effectively hitting the reset button on the presidential term limit and thereby making it possible for the president currently in office to run for the top post in the October 2020 election.
Certainly, Condé never explicitly said that he was planning on taking advantage of this opening if the “yes” vote prevails in the referendum on 1 March. Nevertheless, the opposition, which views Condé’s ambiguity as a red line, is convinced that he will run again, and it’s hard to say that they are wrong on that point.
• What is the FNDC?
With tens of thousands of activists in red t-shirts taking to the streets of Conakry, the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC) continues to be a force to be reckoned with, even though the movement’s turnout has somewhat dwindled as the weeks have gone by.
Launched in April 2019 in response to the announcement of the proposed constitutional referendum, the movement brings together civil society organisations, labour unions and opposition political parties. Its leader, 61-year-old Abdourahmane “Doura” Sano, a businessman from Kindia and former director of the Conakry International Fair, briefly served as a minister under Captain Dadis Camara.
The FNDC is supported by media personalities such as music artists Elie Kamano and Bill de Sam, the organiser of civil society organisation Balai citoyen Guinée, Sekou Koundouno, and teacher and unionist Aboubacar Soumah, as well as garnered the sympathy of Ivorian reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly.
Although the FNDC seeks to cast a wide net, the fact remains that it is largely a tool of radical opposition political parties, especially that of Diallo’s party, the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), which accounts for most of the movement’s activists and has claimed a majority of the victims of the demonstrations.
This type of horizontal structure prevents the protest movement from being interpreted as emanating from the radical opposition. Also members of the FNDC, the parties of Touré and Ousmane Kaba, a former minister under Lansana Conté and then Alpha Condé, are far from having as extensive a reach as the UDFG.
• How likely is violence to occur?
There clearly is a chance of violence given that the death toll from prior demonstrations has stood at around 20 since mid-October 2019. In a country that has less than 100 police officers per 10,000 residents, security during the two votes on 1 March will be ensured by the Special Force for a Safe Electoral Process (FOSSEPEL), as the army has been excluded from policing ever since Condé entered office.
Spurred by political leaders for whom the 2020 presidential election likely represents their last chance to seize power (Diallo is 68 and Touré, 75) and faced with an 81-year-old president who obviously doesn’t plan on stepping aside for them, the FNDC is going much further than a call for boycott.
Promoting “active resistance” with the Susu-language slogan amoulanfe (“It will not happen”), the FNDC asserts that it is “taking all necessary measures” to have the 1 March election called off. “Even if it must kill you, just let it go ahead and kill you,” said one of the UFDG’s vice presidents in an effort to encourage adults to demonstrate alongside young marchers.
Clashes with the police and gendarmes, who are still unfamiliar with democratic policing techniques (although they generally respect the ban on firing live ammunition), are therefore on the agenda, so to speak, and the chance of them resulting in new casualties is high.
The hotspots are the same as four months ago: a portion of the capital, particularly the Ratoma sub-prefecture and area along Le Prince road, towns in the Fouta Djallon region (a UFDG stronghold where a number of public buildings were attacked and, in some cases, looted in early 2020), Télimélé Prefecture (north of Conakry), and Boké and Kindia in Lower Guinea.
Upper Guinea, a stronghold of the ruling party, and Forested Guinea, where a significant share of the country’s mining operations is located, are largely unaffected by demonstrations. For the time being, no internal mediation efforts are currently being undertaken between the two sides. Imams and bishops did attempt such efforts, but the Guinean Catholic Church’s public denouncement of the proposed constitutional reform forced it to abandon its role as referee.
That leaves the army.
It’s highly unlikely that it will intervene to defuse the crisis, as the Forces of Defence and Security (FDS) have been extensively overhauled and reorganised in a democratic direction since 2011 with the help of French General Bruno Clément-Bollée. This achievement under Condé’s watch, indisputable for those who lived through Guinea’s era of military-civilian regimes – to which the current opposition leaders belonged – isn’t expected to be challenged.
Even if, according to our information, a small group of ten or so soldiers, led by a commander who was discovered in possession of a rather quaint declaration of a coup d’état, was arrested in mid-October 2019 in Conakry, the army is expected to stay in its barracks.
• Who do the former presidents work for?
There are two of them, Sékouba Konaté and Dadis Camara, both former military men living in partial exile outside Guinea. Both work first and foremost for themselves, blowing hot and cold according to their interests.
Konaté, who recently renewed his Guinean diplomatic passport, is likely the most sceptical of Condé (and vice versa), but he has little influence over the elections. Camara remains popular in Forested Guinea, a region he has virtually led since the death of former Prime Minister Jean-Marie Doré in 2016.
Condé has spared no effort for the former captain, whether financially or legally – the trial for the massacre of 28 September 2009 has yet to be held – and Camara returned the favour by supporting him in the last presidential election, in 2015. Will Condé keep this up? It’s possible. In the meantime, keen to ensure he has the votes of the “forest dwellers,” a key voting bloc, the president reintroduced one of the region’s other leading figures into his government, Papa Koly Kourouma.
• Which side are foreign allies taking?
China, Russia and Turkey have rather overtly positioned themselves on the side of Condé and their respective ambassadors to Conakry hardly try to hide it, while Western governments have taken a cautious non-interventionist stance and seem satisfied with making appeals for peace and transparency.
Nevertheless, Europeans and Americans are keeping an anxious watch over the death toll of the demonstrations and wrangling over the critical threshold for tolerance of casualties which, if crossed, would force them to take a firm position.
The Guinean government has been surprised by the West’s reaction to the proposed constitutional reform given that similar reforms in Côte d’Ivoire and Togo “went unnoticed” despite objections from the opposition. On the other end of the spectrum, the FNDC is demanding that the current leaders be punished, similarly to how Joseph Kabila’s entourage was when he tried to change the constitution in 2016.
In a February 6 interview, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has known Condé since they were active in the Socialist International, condemned “all forms of violence as well as hate speech” before announcing “the organisation of an intercommunity forum to consolidate social cohesion” in Guinea.
READ Exclusive interview with UN Sec-Gen António Guterres
This is wishful thinking for the time being, in a country that is much less responsive to outside influence than its Francophone neighbours and where all eyes are fixed on the inevitable arrival of 1 March.
A solid economy in the face of a crisis
Although it is too early to measure the crisis’s impact on growth, which is projected to reach 6% in 2020, it has had an immediate effect on foreign exchange markets. In early October, one US dollar was equivalent to 825 Guinean francs, but two months later it became worth 11 times as much.
The local currency seems to have stabilised at just over 10,000 Guinean francs for one US dollar following the slowdown in trade with China. Accordingly, the trade balance has been given a slight boost: while the value of imports has fallen these past weeks, the value of exports (80% of which are iron ore) has remained stable.
The situation will remain unchanged as long as Forested Guinea, which contains the bulk of the country’s main mineral deposits, stays out of the conflict. The Guinean franc’s devaluation, coupled with a decrease in imports, has pushed up inflation, which is once again in the double digits.
Conakry is the first to feel the impact, but the entire country is expected to be affected as trade with neighbouring countries dwindles due to border closures.
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