President Alpha Condé of Guinea has been overthrown by a coup that has been condemned by the international community but welcomed by the leader of the country’s opposition as a victory of the people over a dictatorial regime. Paule Fax and Charles Dietz report.
Early in the morning of Sunday 5 September, heavy gunfire from automatic weapons rang out in the centre of Conakry, the capital of Guinea, around the presidential palace where the head of state, President Alpha Condé, was located.
In the afternoon, Lieutenant-Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, the head of the country’s special forces and now leader of the junta calling itself the National Rally and Development Committee (CNRD), appeared on a video circulating on social media. He said his men had detained the president and decided to dissolve the government and current constitution. Land and air borders were temporarily closed.
Speaking the following day, Doumbouya said the coup was justified because of corruption, economic mismanagement and disregard of citizens’ rights under Condé. “The Guinean personalisation of political life is over. We will no longer entrust politics to one man, we will entrust it to the people,” he said.
He also quoted from the late Jerry Rawlings, who led two military takeovers in Ghana: “If the people are crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom.”
He said that the government had been disbanded but that a new government of national unity would be formed within weeks and promised there would be no “witch-hunt” against former officials. Military governors were placed in charge of the country’s regions.
Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo welcomed the coup, saying the it was a “victory of our people and the failure of the dictatorial regime” and a historic act that completed the work begun by pro-democracy groups. News of the coup was greeted by widespread celebration in the streets of the capital.
However, writing in The Conversation, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Bryn Mawr, cautions: “Guineans have experienced military rule before, and they know the consequences can be dangerous.”
Fioratta also warns that new leaders might try to exploit Guinea’s linguistic and ethnic divisions. In the period after independence, she says, the government emphasised national unity and Guineans were “hesitant to prioritise ethnic identity over national identity”. However, the 2010 election pitted Condé, a Malinké, against Diallo, a Peul, and their parties have relied on ethnically cultivated bases in subsequent elections.
Although Doumbouya has justified the coup as being “the will of the people” and not emphasised ethnic divisions, she suggests that “as events unfold, he and other figures in the military … may try to play on ethnic loyalties and differences to consolidate their power”.
Crucial role of mineral sector
Guinea is a West African country with a population of around 13m. Mining accounts for over a third of its GDP, which was estimated at $26.5bn in 2020. The country has important deposits of bauxite, diamonds, iron ore and gold, but development of projects with the potential to transform the country’s economy such as Simandou have been stymied for decades by alleged corruption, lack of infrastructure and legal disputes.
Twenty percent of global aluminium production uses bauxite from Guinea – China imported 47% of its bauxite from Guinea last year – and prices spiked to their highest level in a decade on the London Mineral Exchange on the day after the coup. However, Doumbouya was quick to make assurances that supplies would not be interrupted and that existing mining contracts would be honoured.
Fioratta notes that most Guineans have not benefited from exploitation of the country’s mineral wealth – “Instead, many have experienced its impacts on land and water as actively harmful to their agrarian livelihoods.”
Why was Condé overthrown?
Guinea declared independence from France in 1958 under under the leadership of Ahmed Sékou Touré, rejecting the former colonial power’s plans for it to gain more autonomy in a new association of French colonies. The manner of French withdrawal has been described as brutal, with departing colonists taking with them everything they could, even removing lightbulbs.
Unlike France’s other former West African colonies, the country abandoned the CFA franc, and over the following decades under Touré’s rule pursued socialist and pan-Africanist policies. Relations with France improved under his successor, Lansana Conté, who moved the country away from socialism, but Guinea underwent periods of military rule, dissent was often repressed and there was no truly democratic election until 2010.
Condé was first elected President in 2010 after spending decades in opposition – he had been imprisoned under Touré for his activities. A professor of human rights, he came into office with promises of democratic reform, but his rule soon became associated with corruption and economic mismanagement.
“Alpha Conde is one of the politicians who worked over 40 years for democracy in Guinea. Once in power, he totally destroyed it,” human rights expert Alioune Tine told Reuters. “He put people in prison. He killed and he completely refused any political dialogue with the opposition.”
The country suffered mass civil unrest in 2019-20 in protest against Condé’s rule and his wish to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office.
Condé was elected for a third time in October 2020, following acceptance of the proposal in a March 2020 referendum, but the opposition rejected the result alleging fraud and protests broke out again all over the country. The pan-African research institution Afrobarometer has reported that Guineans strongly prefer democracy to any other regime but want the presidency to be limited to two terms.
Who is Doumbouya?
According to Radio France Internationale (RFI), Doumbouya first came to public attention in 2018, when he took part in the independence day parade at the head of his new special forces unit, in red beret and sunglasses. His hooded men made a strong impression.
The official mission of the Special Forces Group (GFS) is to fight terrorism. But according to Aliou Barry, a specialist in military issues in Guinea, the head of state wanted to make these better armed and equipped soldiers “a unit in his pay to suppress protests” in the country.
Doumbouya, a Malinké from the Kankan region, was serving in the French Foreign Legion when he was recalled to Guinea to command the GFS. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence described him at the time as “a colossus with an impressive physique”.
He has undertaken elite military training in France, Israel, Senegal and Gabon, and has served in Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic.
A man of ambition, he aroused the suspicion of the authorities. For several months, rumours had circulated about his possible arrest. Barry says that he was suspected of having contact with Colonel Assimi Goïta, who carried out the coup d’état in Mali last year.
Some Twitter users have drawn attention to Doumbouya’s connections with the US Africa Command, while others have stressed his connections to France as a former member of the Foreign Legion. A video purporting to be of US soldiers in combat gear alongside members of Guinea’s special forces in Conakry have also circulated on social media, but allegations of outside involvement in the coup remain speculative.
Writing on the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) blog, Judd Devermont, Director of the Africa Program at the CSIS, suggests that Doumbaya guessed that regional and international actors would probably do little to oppose the coup “judging from their ham-fisted responses to recent unconstitutional moves in Mali and Chad” (see below).
On Sunday, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, also current President of the African Union (AU), and Moussa Faki Mahamat, President of the AU Commission, condemned “any seizure of power by force” and demanded the immediate release of President Condé”, calling for an emergency meeting of the AU.
For his part, the Ghanaian head of state President Nana Akufo-Addo, current President of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), demanded “respect for physical integrity” of President Alpha Condé, his immediate release and “a return to constitutional order under penalty of sanctions”.
This was followed by a virtual meeting of ECOWAS Heads of State on 8 September which called for a return to the constitutional order in Guinea. It announced the suspension of Guinea, called for the release of Alpha Condé and agreed to send a high-level delegation to the country.
Washington, Brussels and Paris have also condemned the coup. France has said it is joining the call for “the immediate and unconditional release of President Condé”. The same goes for the EU’s head of diplomacy, Josep Borrell, who called on all actors to “act with respect for the rule of law, the interests of peace and for the well-being of Guinean population ”. In a statement, the US State Department said the violence and extra-constitutional measures would only erode Guinea’s prospects for peace, stability and prosperity.
Former US special envoy to the Sahel, J. Peter Pham, said “Whatever the justification given, an extra-constitutional regime change is always destabilising for a country, and bad for the economy”.
In an interview with France24’s Marc Perelmann, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda condemned the coup as a “step backwards”. He agreed that the coup leaders should face sanctions and said that they should “get out”.
“We don’t accept the idea of coups, they are not a solution,” said the President.
Military takeovers on the increase in West Africa
Speaking to the Financial Times, Idayat Hassan, head of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, said that the coup is part of “a pattern fast emerging in the region . . . linked to elections . . . and a ruling class who rules without the interest of her citizens at heart . . . It is telling that citizens [would] support a coup d’état.”
Writing on the blog of the Institute for Security Studies in the wake of the 2020 coup in Mali, Paul-Simon Handy, Fonteh Akum and Félicité Djilo argued that “censuring coups isn’t enough – African and international actors should tackle the poor quality of democracy and governance”.
They pointed out that “in 2014, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) noted that unconstitutional changes of government originated from ‘deficiencies in governance. Greed, selfishness, mismanagement of diversity, failure to seize opportunities, marginalisation, human rights violations, unwillingness to accept electoral defeat, manipulation of constitutions and their revision through unconstitutional means to serve narrow interests, and corruption are all major contributors to unconstitutional changes of Governments and popular uprisings.’”
But despite the PSC’s call for “a zero tolerance for government policies and actions that may lead to a resort to unconstitutional means to overthrow oppressive systems” they found that “in practice the AU and regional organisations have reduced democracy to the holding of elections and selective respect for term limits”, leading to a posture that looked like a protection of sitting presidents who want to stay in power in the face of dubious legitimacy and corruption.
They concluded that “the challenge for the AU and regional organisations is to build bridges with civil society and develop effective capacity to prevent political crises”.
Judd Devermont of the CSIS expresses the fear that the CNRD will use the same “coup playbook” perfected by putschists in Mali and Chad to stay in power, and that this “will serve as a signal to ambitious soldiers in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Niger—to name just a few potential candidates—that there are limited consequences for seizing power”.
To counter this risk he calls on African regional bodies and international partners to confront democratic backsliding, apply lasting penalties to coup leaders, shape the transition back to democracy by helping to set milestones and timelines, and prioritise collective action by developing a “new repertoire of responses to antidemocratic actions and coups d’état in the region”.