In Guinea, a chance to avoid repeating Europe’s past mistakes
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In Guinea, a chance to avoid repeating Europe’s past mistakes

Wednesday, 14 October 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
President Alpha Condé of Guinea will run again in the upcoming elections, despite widespread opposition to his interference with the country's constitution.

On 18 October, the West African country of Guinea will hold a presidential election that will determine whether 82-year-old president Alpha Condé will succeed in his gambit to parlay changes in the country’s constitution into a third term that, up until a matters of months ago, would have been patently illegal.

The campaign leading up to the vote has already sparked international alarm, as the United Nations warns of spiralling ethnic tensions and human rights organisations including Amnesty International chronicle the brutal crackdowns on demonstrators perpetrated by Condé’s earlier forces this year.

In terms of Guinea’s democratic progress, Condé’s candidacy represents a fall from grace for the lifelong dissident who pursued an academic career in France before returning home and prevailing in historic democratic elections a decade ago. In terms of the European Union’s ability to push for good governance in sub-Saharan Africa, these elections constitute yet another test of Europe’s capacity to recognise that stability and progress on the other side of the Mediterranean lies not in strongmen, but in democratic accountability.

High hopes and disappointments

As they go to the polls next Sunday, Guinean voters will be asked in large part to voice their views on the results of Condé’s two terms as his country’s first democratically elected president. Among his supporters, the chief arguments for Condé’s continued rule are the country’s economic performance and the government’s relatively successful handling of major crises like the West African Ebola epidemic.

For the swelling ranks of the Guinean opposition, however, Condé perpetrated a “constitutional coup d’état” this past March, when he pushed through a controversial new constitution in a contested referendum and reset the clock on his own time in office. Guinea’s security forces used extreme force to crush the protests which erupted around these constitutional changes, killing at least 50 people according to the latest findings from Amnesty; the rights group also found that 200 people had been injured and over 70 had been arbitrarily detained.

Just a few days after these findings were made finding, Condé appeared on French television – looking haggard and worse for wear – and leaned on his past to paper over his government’s recent actions, claiming: “it’s extraordinary that I am considered an antidemocratic dictator! I am a democrat.” The events of the past year, however, make it clear that claim is no longer true.

Europe’s lacklustre role of African democratisation

The question of democratisation is one that has consistently plagued the ECOWAS countries (of which Guinea is a member), a regional bloc closely tied to the European Union by history, diplomacy, and even a shared currency among eight of its members (the CFA franc) which is pegged to the Euro. Unfortunately, Europe – and especially France, the former colonial power in much of the region – has played a haphazard role in the democratic aspirations of countries in West Africa, with the French government maintaining a close and secretive network of relationships with Francophone governments popularly known as “Françafrique” through the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.

Times have changed, and some of the most recent European interventions in the region – including Operation Licorne, a French-backed UN operation to force Ivoirian president Laurent Gbagbo to accept defeat in Côte d’Ivoire’s 2010 presidential election, and Operation Serval, in which France (supported by the rest of the European Union) responded to a call for help from the Malian government to turn back an alliance of jihadist and separatist forces which had taken over the northern half of the country – have helped avert humanitarian catastrophes. These same operations, however, underscore the failures of the European approach to state-building in a pivotal region to which Europe, to paraphrase former French president François Hollande, owes a considerable debt.

While the European Union and its member states constitute by far the largest source of development aid directed towards Africa as a whole, they have consistently neglected the political variables within their partner countries, contenting themselves to see their partner governments hold elections and avoiding further involvement in the development of civic institutions. As such, years of European assistance and training for the Malian military has not made that force any more democratically accountable, as evidenced by that country’s most recent coup. France’s current president, Emmanuel Macron, responded simply by demanding Mali “organise rapid elections” or risk losing French support.

Alpha Condé’s democratic legitimacy from electoral wins in 2010 and 2015 has masked the violent episodes of ethnic strife and the corruption which have also become hallmarks of his tenure. Condé’s main rival in this and previous elections, former prime minister and opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, has pointed to the overall failure of Western engagement in his country and the wider region in as many words, telling supporters in Senegal’s Guinean diaspora that “the Europeans are less attentive, and the Americans, with the arrival of Trump, are less demanding when it comes to democracy and human rights.”

Rethinking Europe’s role, and its responsibilities

If European leaders are truly committed to the establishment of stable democratic systems in countries like Guinea, they need to take concrete steps in order to prevent the current battles for political power from veering towards ethnic strife or authoritarian retrenchment.

Concerned diplomatic and economic pressure from Europe, for example, could push Alpha Condé’s government to reverse its overtly antidemocratic move to shut the country’s borders and keep diaspora voters from participating. Active European support for the efforts of the UN, and of human rights organisations like Amnesty International, to hold Guinea’s political establishment and security forces to account could have considerable impact on the course of events in the coming days. Based on their history in the region, Brussels, Paris, and the other European capitals must acknowledge that an ounce of prevention now is worth well more than a pound of cure down the road.