Guinea’s nascent democracy hangs in the balance as current President Alpha Condé’s resolve to defy the constitution and stand for a third term in office threatens to plunge the country into violence.
Under the current constitution, President Conde is only allowed to serve two five-year terms. The only way he can change the presidential limit is through a new constitution, which requires a referendum.
Since October 2019 civil society groups and the political opposition have lead protests against the president’s attempts to stand for a third term, and more than 30 people have been killed as security forces increasingly use violent measures to crush dissenting voices.
There are fears that if President Condé forges ahead with plans to hold a referendum, there will be more bloodshed on the streets. Guinea stands at a precipice and risks sliding back into its dictatorial past.
Can the AU afford to stand by as another African leader threatens to trample on his country’s constitution? The election of President Ramaphosa as Chair of the AU provides an opportunity for the AU to intervene and support Guinea’s democratic advancement.
By coordinating a series of dialogues between the President and his political opponents, the AU has the chance to mediate a peaceful exit strategy for him and propel the country towards fresh elections.
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Yet President Ramaphosa takes over as Chair of the AU at a time when Africa faces a myriad of challenges. As Chair, he is tasked with the huge responsibility of delivering on the AU’s objective for 2020 which focuses on “silencing the guns” on the continent, an aspiration set by African leaders in 2013 to stop war and prevent genocide by 2020.
President Ramaphosa’s job is made more difficult by the fact that the AU has a mixed track record when it comes to resolving conflict. It has had some successes, for example last year in Sudan, when it intervened and got the leadership and political opposition to agree on a transitional agreement following the ousting of President Omar al Bashir after months of protests.
The AU also oversaw a peace deal between the government in the Central African Republic (CAR) and fourteen rebel groups. However, it has been accused of not doing enough to avert the unrest in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions and has taken a back seat with the conflict in South Sudan.
The immediate priority for Ramaphosa is to make it clear to President Condé that he needs to respect the African Charter on Democracy Governance and Elections. President Ramaphosa must issue strong calls for him to step aside and oversee dialogue with the political opposition and civil society.
The AU should also collaborate with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and exert pressure on President Condé to step aside and pave the way for elections to be organized.
If the AU fails to act, it will throw away a major opportunity for Guineans to experience their first ever democratic transition.
Should the AU intervene and avert further political instability, it will prevent Guinea from following the paths of other African leaders including those in Burundi, Cameroon, and Uganda who have changed the constitution and extended their term in office. The African Union has been accused of standing by in the past as these leaders prolonged their stay, using violence in some cases.
CIVICUS’ research shows that when authoritarian leaders are allowed to extend their time in power, the space for democratic and political freedoms has become severely constrained. Guinea is currently on the Watch List of countries on the CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that tracks civic space in countries around the world.
If the AU, under the chairmanship of President Ramaphosa, manages to take decisive steps to negotiate an exit for President Condé, it will bolster his reputation on the continent.
It will also send a resounding message to other authoritarian leaders that the AU will not tolerate their attempts to usurp the will of their people and amend constitutions to hang on to power.
For President Condé, a dignified exit will earn him a revered place in the hearts of millions of Guineans and secure his legacy as the “father of democracy”. If nothing is done, the AU will have to face a Guinea that descends into violence, and as it attempts to “silence the guns” in countries affected by conflict, it may be in its best interests to prevent the guns from going off in Guinea in the first place.
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