December 31, 2008 | World Defense Review

Guinea Avoids the Deluge — At Least for Now

More than two years ago, I devoted a column in this series to the relatively obscure West African nation of Guinea which holds more than half of the world's reserves of bauxite (bauxite ore is the source of alumina, the primary ingredient for aluminum smelting). At that time I observed that:

Guinea is … both the most ignored country and, potentially, the most critical one in the West African subregion as it faces the end of the long tenure at the helm of President Lansana Conté … While the situation should be relatively contained as long as President Conté lives, all bets are off for the power vacuum that is expected to follow his eventual demise. Analysts are divided on whether having the largest standing military in its neighborhood will exacerbate or mitigate the coming chaos. Guinea is, after all, a prime target for one or another insurgency group because of long-simmering ethnic tensions … [especially as some of those groups] cut off from sources of power since independence, have in recent years become increasingly radicalized by Islamist clerics imported from the Middle East courtesy of the same Muslim “charities” that have sown the seeds of conflict across the globe. Part of the problem is that General Conté's personal political strategy has consisted primarily of a Machiavellian balance between ethnic favoritism and cynical manipulation of competing forces within his privileged inner circle. In all likelihood, this delicate balance will come undone when he dies or becomes permanently incapacitated and the country will face … concentric waves of conflict … Given cross-border ethnic solidarity … once the post-Conté conflicts begin, they could quickly spiral into a national and regional conflagration, threatening progress in other countries in the subregion, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, and exacerbating ongoing conflicts in others like Côte d'Ivoire.

I warned that while “there are no easy solutions to problems which run as deep as those of Guinea” and “grappling with this little-known, but very complex, situation cannot be done on the cheap,” the United States and its international partners “will find that the costs of having to deal with another massive humanitarian crisis will require far greater resources than a modest amount of preventive engagement today – not just in terms of human costs, but also in terms of shocks to the global economy of even greater increases in spot prices for a commodity vital to modern industry like alumina.” As I likewise reported in this column space, I barely had to wait two months before a strike to protest the country's stagnant political conditions and even worse economic straits turned into a large-scale, nationwide protest which shook the Conté regime's rickety foundations and drove the spot price for alumina on the London Metals Exchange to an all-time record high at nearly $3,000 per metric ton.

Nonetheless, despite the calls for his ouster and the ravages of the half dozen or so maladies from which he suffered, the wily old general managed to cling on to the power he had first seized in a 1984 coup d'état. So things continued pretty much as they had for the preceding two decades – earlier this year, after slowly whittling away at his authority, Conté finally dismissed Lansana Kouyaté, the reform-minded diplomat forced upon him as prime minister after the early 2007 protests – until the evening of December 22 when the septuagenarian general finally expired.

According to the Guinean constitution, last amended in a farcical referendum which I had the opportunity to witness in December 2001, upon a vacancy in the presidential office, the president of the National Assembly is supposed to assume the role of acting head of state until elections for a new chief executive are organized within sixty days. The problem, however, was that constitutional order was such a low priority under the iron-fisted Conté regime that the last legislative poll, which resulted in the ruling Parti de l'unité et du progress (PUP, “Party of Unity and Progress”) “winning” 85 of the 114 seats in the National Assembly, was held in June 2002. Since the constitution stipulates that the term of the legislature is four years and contains no provisions for extensions, there was no legal parliament at the time of the old dictator's death, notwithstanding the December 23 appearance of National Assembly president El Hadj Aboubacar Somparé on state television to announce the passing.

Aside from the juridical question of whether there was even a legal parliament for him to be the presiding officer of, Somparé was and is a nonentity who enjoys little support within the PUP, much less political legitimacy in wider Guinean society. A functionary who served as head of “information services” and latter envoy to France in the final years of the despotic rule of Guinea's founding president, the Marxist Ahmed Sékou Touré, Somparé later served Conté as his palace majordomo and subsequently ascended the ladder of power on the strength of his patron's backing. However, not even Conté's imprimatur could get Somparé elected president of a National Assembly overwhelmingly controlled by the old man's stooges. In fact, the opening of the 2002 parliament had to be delayed for nearly three months while the general coerced his own deputies into voting in his designee to be their presiding officer.

Not surprisingly, others sensed Somparé's weakness and acted quickly, perhaps either anticipating the possible chaos which could ensue from a prolonged power vacuum (the head of the Supreme Court, Lamine Sidimé, whom I knew when he was prime minister earlier in the decade, failed to act on Somparé's petition to certify the vacancy in the presidency) or fearing a continuation of the notoriously corrupt hegemony of the clique that had surrounded General Conté. Within hours of the announcement of Conté's death, a little-known army officer, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, appeared on television to announce that a Conseil national pour la démocratie et le développement (CNDD, “National Council for Democracy and Development”) had assumed power and suspended the constitution. The twenty-six officers and six civilians on the CNDD promised to organize elections and otherwise assure the progress of the country.

While the putsch was widely condemned abroad – the African Union which, as I have documented here earlier this year, has proven utterly incapable of dealing with the violence and blatant electoral theft perpetrated by Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, rushed suspend Guinea from the continent-wide organization and demand the restoration of civilian rule (never mind the dubious legal status of any civilian officials under the terms of the Guinean constitution) – the Guinean people actually turned out in their thousands to cheer Captain Camara and his soldiers as they marched through the capital of Conakry on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, Conté's last prime minister, Ahmed Tidiane Souaré, and other ministers surrendered to the putschists and were released.

This week, the CNDD nominated a civilian prime minister, Kabine Komara, a senior director at the Cairo, Egypt-based African Export-Import Bank. The appointment was viewed as an effort to reach out to the Guinean labor movement which had, at the time of the 2007 protests, unsuccessfully sought the appointment of Komara to that same office.

Even as they were placating some of the old regime's critics, the new rulers were quick to target those closest to the late Conté. On Sunday, an announcement was read out on state radio demoting some twenty generals, including the erstwhile chiefs of the country's army, navy, and air force. A day later, armed soldiers loyal to the new government stormed into the personal compound of one of Conté's close confidants, businessman Mamadou Sylla, to seize SUVs belonging to the state that were, inexplicably, in the plutocrat's possession. As the Associated Press's Rukmini Callimachi, one of the few international journalists reporting from Conakry, noted in one dispatch, this was not Sylla's first brush with a corruption charge: “[I]n late 2006 he was jailed along with an official of the Central Bank on charges of stealing $3 million by inflating the price of cars supplied to government officials and pocketing the difference. Conte personally went to the jail to free the men, setting off deadly demonstrations that nearly brought down the regime.”

What is one to make of all this? In an email to colleagues last week, I wrote:

While it is uncertain at this time what level of support is enjoyed by the coup announced yesterday, what is less ambiguous is the farcical nature of National Assembly president Aboubacar Somparé … invoking ‘democratic process' to maintain his position as interim head of state. Moreover, it is hardly realistic to expect a country that has been repressed for so long, first under the communist tyranny of Ahmed Sékou Touré and then under General Conté's corrupt rule, to turn into a Jeffersonian democracy overnight. Thus the prospects for free and fair presidential within sixty days, as called for by the charter, are rather dim.

Having lived for two years in Guinea, I can attest that what that country, its neighbors who are just recovering from conflicts of their own (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire), and the international community (which relies on the country as the largest source of bauxite, used in the production of aluminum) need most is a “soft landing” strategy that prevents the current crisis from metastasizing into a broader conflict. Hence the need for a measured and prudent approach that protects the interests of all domestic and international stakeholders, the subregional balance, and Guinea's progress towards a more open and responsive system of government – the last goal hardly being assured if the ancient régime is allowed to perpetuate itself by dint of the legalistic constitutionalism that its members are now lately invoking.

For now, CNDD chief Moussa Camara, a technocrat who formerly managed the army's fuel supply, has sounded all the right notes, telling France 24's Franck Berruyer in a Christmas Day interview that “we are patriots, not hungry for power. We don't intend to stay in power forever.” The promise of elections within eighteen months is a reasonable enough timetable – certainly far more realistic, given Guinea's historical circumstances, than the shorter time frames demanded by the African Union and the European Union. Moreover, Camara's personal profile – a Christian (in an overwhelming Muslim country), a native of the restive forest region in Guinea's far east more than 1,000 kilometers from the capital (close to the sensitive frontiers with Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire), a polyglot (I am told he speaks Kpelle, Sousou, Malinké, French, and German), and unusually well-educated for an officer of the Guinean military (he is a graduate of the Conakry's Gamal Abdel Nasser University with a master's degree in law and economics and also had a business internship in Germany) – makes him an almost ideal candidate to transcend the many divisions in Guinean society and steer the country towards a democratic transition, if such is indeed his true intention.

He will, of course, face a number of challenges, not the least of them within the ranks of the military from which he rose. While the CNDD is clearly in control of the capital, it remains to be seen whether units in other parts of the Oregon-sized country acknowledge its authority. The two most effective military units in the country, the approximately 800-strong “ranger” battalions, one trained and equipped by U.S. Special Forces between 2000 and 2002 and based in N'Zérékoré, and one trained by mainland China's People's Liberation Army in 2003 and based in Kankan, played almost no discernable role in the events of the last ten days. Moreover, despite the country's extraordinary natural bounty – in addition to the bauxite, Guinea is rich in diamonds, gold, and hardwoods, as well as having fertile lands well-watered by a number of rivers – Guinea ranks a miserable 160th out of 177 countries surveyed in terms of the Human Development Index, according to the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report for 2008. A not-insignificant cause for the lack of development is the runaway corruption which characterized the Conté regime. According to Transparency International 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, Guinea shares the dubious distinction of being in 173rd place out of 180 countries with Chad and Sudan; in all of Africa, only anarchic Somalia “enjoys” more corrupt governance.

Recognizing perhaps better than most what is stake, Guinea's immediate neighbors in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have begun to cautiously engage with the new regime. The deputy head of the CNDD, General Mamadouba Bah Camara, has been making the rounds this week, conferring so far with the democratically-elected leaders of Guinea-Bissau (President João Bernardo Vieira), Mali (President Amadou Toumani Touré), Liberia (President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf), and Sierra Leone (President Ernest Bai Koroma). (Mali's Touré might be both a sympathetic interlocutor with and a good example to Guinea's new rulers. In 1991, as a he led a bloodless coup which overthrew the dictatorship of General Moussa Traoré, who had ruled Mali since seizing power in 1968. After organizing a national conference to draft a new constitution and overseeing democratic polls, Touré relinquished power to the elected civilian president and retired to his barracks, earning himself the moniker “The Soldier of Democracy.” After serving as a special envoy for then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and then retiring from the military, Touré was elected president of Mali in 2002 with 64 percent of the vote in the second round of voting. He has subsequently ruled as a non-partisan leader, including representatives all political parties in his cabinet. Last year, he was reelected to a second five-year term, winning 71 percent of the vote in the first round.)

The United States, the European Union, and other responsible stakeholders in the international community would do well to follow the West Africans' lead, responding constructively to the appeal made by Captain Camara this past Tuesday in a meeting with the diplomatic corps and other international representatives in Conakry: “We made a coup d'état without bloodshed. We made it to avoid a civil war because of the dissension that followed the death of the head of state. We ask you then to accompany us in this transition to end in elections as soon as possible.” Guinea may have indeed just avoided a deluge; it is in the interests of the international community to help keep it that way.

J. Peter Pham is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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