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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Guinea > Guinea: The Transition Has Only Just Begun

Guinea: The Transition Has Only Just Begun

Africa Briefing N°58 5 Mar 2009


The military junta that took control of the country just hours after President Conté’s death on 23 December 2008 has tightened its grip on power. The self-proclaimed president, Moussa Dadis Camara, and his group of mid-ranking officers calling itself the National Council for Democracy and Development (Conseil national pour la démocratie et le développement, CNDD), have shown few signs of moving towards elections by the end of 2009 as promised. As Guinea’s dire economic prospects erode popular support, the junta, unpracticed in governing, is also in danger of resorting to authoritarian measures. With the risk of a counter-coup from dissatisfied army elements still present, a democratic transition at best faces a long and difficult road. Concerted national and international pressure is urgently needed to produce a return to civilian rule, even before elections if the junta begins to stall on preparations for a vote.

Conté left a legacy of abusive security forces, a collapsed economy and lack of trust among a divided civil society and quarrelsome political parties. Despite their troubled relationship with the military, many Guineans have welcomed the junta as the least worst option. Political parties and civil society groups have argued that the constitution was so manipulated under Conté that it could not provide a way out of the crisis he left behind.

The junta’s leaders are unacquainted with the exercise of state power. While some are undoubtedly sincere in their declared intention of cleaning up the corruption of the Conté years, serious allegations of human rights abuses have been levelled against others. Although the junta has said it is willing to hand over to a civilian president, it has spent more than two months consolidating its grip on power by replacing dozens of administrators with its own supporters. Most of the key posts in the government named on 14 January are held by the military. The junta’s governance style is unlikely to be sustainable, but the exercise and sinecures of power may prove too attractive for the soldiers to give it up voluntarily.

The principal risks to the transition are fractures within the junta and subsequently among the wider security forces as they fight over the spoils of power and perhaps fragment on ethnic lines as well. A violent counter-coup is a distinct possibility and likely to become more so the longer the junta stays in power. Other risks include a spillover into the streets of public dissatisfaction with the junta’s record and the continuing decline in living standards; divisions emerging between newly formed youth groups and political parties competing for junta patronage; intractable disagreements over the transition; or a combination of any of these.

High expectations have led to a proliferation of uncoordinated demands and proposals for reform, but if civil society groups and political parties are to play a constructive role in the transition, they need to overcome their historical differences and concentrate on the priorities of the next ten months. A clear transition timetable needs to be agreed upon. If a National Transitional Council (Conseil national de transition, CNT), as proposed by both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and civil society groups and now endorsed by the junta, is to be put in place, its terms of reference and precise powers must be agreed upon with no further delay.

Preparations for elections still have a long way to go, and potentially controversial issues are yet to be resolved. The longer elections are delayed, the greater is the junta’s ability to create further obstacles from which a dangerous impasse could result. This should not be allowed. The 16–17 February meeting of the International Contact Group on Guinea helpfully pressed the CNDD to stick to a short transition timetable, but it did not go far enough. There is no reason why civil society, political parties and the international community should accept the CNDD remaining in power beyond the end of 2009 if elections are delayed. The military needs to be edged out, to prevent it becoming rooted in the country’s public administration. Although the nomination of a civilian transitional head of state might pose problems, other scenarios could be much worse. The debate over alternative governance arrangements should start now.

The CNDD is in a similar position to the reformist governments Guinea has known over the last ten years. Initial popular support will be put to the test by a deteriorating economy. The international community will then, once again, be asked to bail out the government. It is vital to use donor leverage effectively this time, so as to minimise the risks that military rule presents to Guinea and the region. The following steps are urgent:

  • The CNDD should rein in security force abuse, stop centralising state functions in its hands and instead allow the newly formed government to work unhindered. CNDD leaders should clarify their position on the transition, accepting unanimously the principle of leaving power by the end of 2009, regardless of the electoral timetable, and making clear plans for a return to barracks.
  • Political parties and civil society must put the euphoria of late December aside, urgently build a working consensus on the rules for democratic transition that includes alternative transitional governance arrangements as necessary and demand a clear timetable for the CNDD’s departure by the end of 2009, independent of the electoral timetable.
  • The international community must significantly support democratic transition by pressing the junta on elections, assisting their preparation and providing early observation, as well as emphasising that the apparent legitimacy of the bloodless coup will fade rapidly if the transition drags on. It should press the junta to allow the government to work free of military influence and desist from appointing military personnel to posts in public administration. With Guineans, it should decide on an end-of-year deadline for return of civilian rule even if elections have not yet been held. International organisation (AU, ECOWAS) and bilateral (U.S.) measures put in place after the coup, including suspension of Guinea’s membership and limitations on aid, should be maintained until there is firm progress on transition, and it should be made clear that violence within the junta or against civilians will be met with targeted sanctions.

Dakar/Brussels, 5 March 2009

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