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Guinea’s Military Coup Was Both Predictable and Avoidable

The world turned a blind eye to former President Alpha Condé’s abuses.

By , the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa, and , a director at SABI Strategy Group, an international strategic communications firm.
People celebrate in the streets in Guinea.
People celebrate in the streets with members of Guinea’s armed forces after the arrest of Guinean President Alpha Condé in a coup in Conakry, Guinea, on Sept. 5. Cellou Binani/AFP via Getty Images

On the evening of Sept. 5, Guineans watched 41-year-old Colonel Mamady Doumbouya—a member of the country’s elite special forces and a former French legionnaire—declare on state television that forces loyal to him had deposed 83-year-old President Alpha Condé. A new military junta was in charge of the West African nation, one that intended to establish a “government of national union” and promised to transition away from the “personalization of political life” that had plagued the country under Condé’s increasingly autocratic and corrupt rule.

Regionally and internationally, the military putsch was greeted by scorn; the African Union initiated its standard suspension of post-coup nations. But notably, a different reaction was underway on the streets of Guinea’s major urban centers, including the capitol Conakry, as thousands of euphoric Guineans took to the streets to celebrate the ouster of an oppressive regime.

This optimism will likely be short-lived. Military power grabs almost inevitably result in more brutal systems of governance than the ones they replaced, as Guinea’s two other coups since achieving independence in 1958 have shown. According to academic research on the topic, new authoritarian regimes often emerge after coups, along with higher levels of state-sanctioned violence. The current rule of Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa—who, like Doumbouya, cloaked his military takeover in late 2017 as his patriotic duty on behalf of the people—is a glaring case in point.

On the evening of Sept. 5, Guineans watched 41-year-old Colonel Mamady Doumbouya—a member of the country’s elite special forces and a former French legionnaire—declare on state television that forces loyal to him had deposed 83-year-old President Alpha Condé. A new military junta was in charge of the West African nation, one that intended to establish a “government of national union” and promised to transition away from the “personalization of political life” that had plagued the country under Condé’s increasingly autocratic and corrupt rule.

Regionally and internationally, the military putsch was greeted by scorn; the African Union initiated its standard suspension of post-coup nations. But notably, a different reaction was underway on the streets of Guinea’s major urban centers, including the capitol Conakry, as thousands of euphoric Guineans took to the streets to celebrate the ouster of an oppressive regime.

This optimism will likely be short-lived. Military power grabs almost inevitably result in more brutal systems of governance than the ones they replaced, as Guinea’s two other coups since achieving independence in 1958 have shown. According to academic research on the topic, new authoritarian regimes often emerge after coups, along with higher levels of state-sanctioned violence. The current rule of Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa—who, like Doumbouya, cloaked his military takeover in late 2017 as his patriotic duty on behalf of the people—is a glaring case in point.

Even if Doumbouya’s hostile takeover may have dealt with the immediate danger of the Condé regime, it will generate longer-term consequences. Doumbouya himself has been previously threatened with sanctions for alleged human rights abuses committed during Condé’s reign. And while the junta has made some popular decisions thus far—ordering the release of political prisoners, for example—these moves should be seen more as attempts to placate the frayed nerves of regional leaders and Guinea’s international partners than a concerted program toward political freedom.

This broader international dimension leads to another crucial point: Guinea’s bleak outlook should force regional and international bodies—as well as concerned individual governments—to take a long-overdue look in the mirror after years of turning a blind eye to Condé’s abuses. The coup was both foreseeable and preventable—and steps can be taken to prevent similar crises in the future.

At its core, the ouster of Condé was the inevitable outcome of his autocratic overreach and eroding democratic norms in Guinea, which included brazenly amending the constitution to allow him to run for a third term (in the process, firing anyone who attempted to stand in his way, including the head of the country’s Constitutional Court in September 2018). The ensuing protests were met by state violence and the loss of civilian life, as the Guinean military repeatedly clashed with peaceful demonstrators on the streets.

These tragic events were then followed by an election in October 2020 that was plainly neither free nor fair. Yet, under the dubious guise of ensuring “stability”—and despite the opposition presenting credible evidence of fraud and electoral malfeasance—the regional and international communities turned a collective blind eye, permitting Condé to run roughshod over Guinea’s nascent democracy and violently retain power.

Both the African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—a regional union that includes Guinea and 14 other West African countries—declared the election was free and fair, while the protests and valid grievances of the Guinean people registered barely a mention in the international press. The world casually went on with its business, secure in the apparent long-term stability, and continued access to the country’s vast mineral reserves, that a third Condé term would deliver.

At the time, had the international community taken note of the express wishes of the Guinean people, who have overwhelmingly and consistently supported presidential term limits and worked to protect democracy, active observer missions could have deployed with a clear mandate to call out electoral irregularities and the vote rigging that ultimately took place.

A more active policy could also have created diplomatic engagement to lay down clear red lines to counter the nefarious role of Russia, Condé’s biggest international backer. In line with African Union and ECOWAS guidelines, that might have meant a rejection of the October 2020 election results and calls for a rerun. At the very least, it would have produced targeted sanctions on Condé, his inner circle, and his family members, as well as those involved in serious human rights abuses, possibly including Doumbouya.

Instead, what Guinean citizens received were hollow, often farcical statements calling for peace and stability. They saw the results of a patently rigged election legitimized, as well as what many perceived to be a wholly illegitimate government shored up by repression and violence. They bore personal witness to an international community willing to ignore evidence of a continued assault on basic freedoms and a worsening economic outlook.

No wonder, then, that Guineans have been quick to embrace their new leaders, albeit those clad in military fatigues, instead of placing their hopes in regional and international communities whose leaders often espouse democratic principles but rarely stand up to help defend them.

Ironically, Guinea’s global partners are now faced with the very instability they were ostensibly seeking to prevent. More to the point: Inaction and apathy in the context of Guinea have resulted in a toxic situation that will be far more destabilizing than any genuine attempt to stand up for democracy would have been. Guinean citizens will now pay the price.

This current predicament could have been avoided had the right lessons been learned from other coups that afflicted the region more recently, in Mali (twice) and in Chad—successive events that registered as only a blip on the international radar and failed to elicit meaningful action. Doumbaya and his military regime were surely encouraged by this collective failure, as well as the lack of requisite sanctions, and began greasing the wheels of the military tanks and assault vehicles that now patrol Guinea’s streets. As a result, there is now an unquestionable regional trend of massive democratic setbacks. What was once the most democratic region in Africa is now seeing democracy erode faster than anywhere else on the continent.

The events in Guinea should serve as a stark notice considering the potentially tense elections coming up in The Gambia (scheduled for December) and Mali, Kenya, and Zimbabwe (two years from now). The inability, and seeming unwillingness, of international bodies to actively support citizens yearning for democracy and freedom in authoritarian contexts only swings open the door for more coups and greater instability down the line. It is time for regional leaders and the international community alike to wake up and protect the sort of democratic aspirations that Guineans have long been demanding. Significant damage has already been done, but it is never too late to reverse course and do the right thing.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

Jonathan Moakes is a director at SABI Strategy Group, an international strategic communications firm.

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