Thursday, September 19, 2013

Africa: Guineans finally go to the polls to end the political impasse

Source: ISS

Guineans finally go to the polls to end the political impasse

The road to democracy was never going to be easy. But as Guineans prepare to vote in legislative elections next Tuesday, there are fears that the fragile political stability in place since December 2010 is unravelling. Bitter ethnic rivalry, accusations of vote-rigging and economic stagnation have dashed the hopes of many who wanted to see a smooth transition to peace and economic growth, spearheaded by the country’s long-time opposition leader and current President, Alpha Condé.

Guinea has suffered decades of authoritarian rule, as well as a coup d’état in December 2008. While its mineral wealth is unrivalled in the region, it has been the black sheep of West Africa ever since its post-independence rulers cut ties with France. The upcoming election on 24 September will be the first legislative poll in Guinea since 2002 and has been postponed several times. This was mainly due to accusations by the opposition that the government was trying to rig the elections through South African company Waymark-Infotech – an accusation both the company and Condé strongly denied. The opposition also questioned the independence and capacity of the National Electoral Commission.

In July this year, United Nations (UN) Special Representative for West Africa Saïd Djinnit managed to broker a deal to allow the elections to go ahead, with the provision that Waymark would not be in charge of counting the votes, which would be done manually instead. It would also not be involved in the 2015 presidential elections. Experts from the UN Development Programme and the International Francophone Organisation (OIF) were also mandated to double-check the voters’ roll. However, this week some opposition leaders said they were still unhappy about the roll and threatened to boycott the election if the problems weren’t fixed.

For the polls to go smoothly, it is crucial that all actors, including civil society groups, participate and contribute to the process. The international community has been playing an important role in the run-up to the vote, but the removal of the international contact group to deal with the run-up is regrettable. This has left a vacuum that may have contributed to the accumulation of problems besetting these elections.

The fact that Guineans living abroad are now allowed to vote, thanks to the UN-mediated agreement, is a positive development. Through the decades of political and economic decline, the Guinean diaspora in the rest of Africa, France and the US have become increasingly important. The authorities should now make sure everything is in place for the voting outside the country to run smoothly.

As has been the case with many countries in the region going through a political crisis, the media in Guinea play an important role in mitigating the extreme tension accompanying the election. Inflammatory statements and hate speech, like the idea mooted by one newspaper that ‘the road to democracy passes through war’, are the opposite of what is required. This is why it is essential for all media and politicians to observe a code of conduct during the elections.

In the crisis that has engulfed the country these last few years, the security forces have, at times, played a very negative role and the violent reaction of the police at opposition rallies has exacerbated an already tense situation. Despite important steps to reform the army and demilitarise Conakry, it still remains an unknown factor and could, as in the past, get involved in the power struggle if the political crisis persists.

The list of challenges for the new parliament will be long, especially if the opposition dominates the National Assembly, as might well be the case. Since Condé’s win in a controversial second round of voting on 7 November 2010 over his rival Cellou Dalein Diallo – who obtained 47,48% of the vote against Condé’s 52,5% – a number of Condé’s former allies have withdrawn their support.

The 2010 presidential elections resulted in two major problems that are now dogging the run-up to the legislative polls. Firstly, while Condé was seen to represent a radical change from what Guinea had known before, he was obliged to re-appoint old-timers from the previous regimes just because they had supported him in the second round. Secondly, the poll aggravated existing ethnic tensions primarily between the Malinké (supporting Condé) and the Peul (supporting Diallo). The Peul, who represent around 40% of the population, have never been in power in Guinea and believe they are the victims of an organised campaign, not only against their politicians but also against their economic interests. In mid-July serious ethnic violence also occurred in N’Zérékoré in the south-east of the country that saw 58 people killed. This was between the local Konianke people and the Guerze – a conflict that also had a religious dimension, since the Konianke are mainly Muslim and the Guerze are Christian and animist.

However, those in power deny that they are targeting the opposition or the Peul community, saying their work is deliberately being sabotaged by the opposition ahead of the 2015 presidential election. They also allege that those opposition members who had been in powerful positions before (Diallo was Prime Minister) are trying to prevent retribution over possibly corrupt deals. Some also say the cancellation of all mining contracts by the new government has caused bitterness, which is now ‘dressed up as ethnic victimisation’.

However, the perception among ordinary Guineans is that both those in power and opposition politicians stand accused of shady economic deals. Impunity for past crimes is in fact an issue that should be dealt with carefully to prevent the impression of a witch-hunt against certain political groups. In this context, there seems to be a real fear among the opposition and those in the ruling coalition that a new National Assembly might pass laws that target key individuals for economic and political crimes committed in the past.

Sadly, these disputes have kept Guinea from jumpstarting much-needed economic reforms. Poverty remains a huge problem and often those masses seen at opposition rallies are there in protest at the rising cost of living, joblessness or power cuts, rather than because they are inspired by the ideological stance of their political leaders. What has been referred to as ‘the instrumentalisation of poverty’ and the personalisation of politics in Guinea is in fact what is preventing the country from making a necessary and urgent transition to peace and political stability.

For the full report on political developments in Guinea, in English and French, see the ISS ECOWAS Peace and Security report.

David Zounmenou, Senior Research Fellow, ISS Pretoria and Paulin Maurice Toupane, Junior Fellow, ISS Dakar