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Fights over military organisation and President Condé's tumbling legitimacy set the stage for Colonel Doumbouya's putsch
A decade after being sworn into office by judges in vermilion and ermine, President Alpha Condé of Guinea became the prisoner of an elite military unit that stormed the presidential palace in the small hours of 5 September. A remarkable image framed his fall: soldiers armed with assault rifles posing in front of a Condé in half-unbuttoned shirt and vest, immediately after his capture. As he was driven to an unknown destination, jammed between two soldiers, crowds celebrated in the streets of the capital, Conakry, shouting 'Liberté! Liberté!'
Hailed as a new democratic hope for Guinea, ending 50 years of civil and military dictatorship, Condé promised from the outset of his presidency to fight corruption, winning international plaudits. Now, the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) – which was meeting as Africa Confidential went to press – have to decide how to react (AC Dispatches 7/9/21, Regional summit due to meet Thursday on post-coup crisis). They, along with France, the UN and the EU, have condemned the coup and called for Conde's release, but none of these bodies have called for his reinstatement. The regional blocks are increasingly on the back foot as coups become more frequent in West and Central Africa. In Guinea, Ecowas and the AU have lost much credibility by their failure to condemn Condé's changing the constitution ahead of presidential elections last year, allowing him to stay in power for a third term.
While Condé's manipulation of the electoral rules and brutal crackdowns on opposition demonstrations laid the ground for Sunday's coup, these were not the only factors behind his sudden fall at the hands of Colonel Mamady Doumbouya's 300-strong special forces unit.
The background to the putsch is rivalry between elite military units and a tussle for influence among senior figures in Condé's Malinké community that local elders in Kankan, the capital of the north-eastern Haute Guinée region, were unable to resolve.
Defence Minister Mohamed Diané, considered to be Condé's preferred heir, was steadily marginalising Doumbouya's 300-strong Groupement des Forces Spéciales (GPS) – a unit the future putschist had been hand-picked by Condé to create in 2018. Fears over the GPS's loyalties led Diané to arrange its transfer out of downtown Conakry to a south-western provincial base, close to the Sierra Leone border.
A former soldier in the French foreign legion, Doumbouya only returned home in 2011, meaning his career was untainted by any connection to the brutalities associated with the final years of authoritarian and military rule. These included a 2009 massacre of over 100 opposition supporters at a rally protesting against former military ruler Moussa Dadis Camara's plan to stand in 2010 presidential elections, abuses for which Camara and others have been indicted but still not tried.
Pursuing a career back in the Guinean army, he was sent for staff officer training at the École de Guerre in France and then picked by Condé to establish the new GPS to provide an elite unit trained to deal with the terrorist threats that have become a growing concern for governments across West Africa. It was therefore based in central Conakry, in part of the Palais du Peuple congress centre.
But when Doumbouya bluntly told a French military conference about the struggles he faced in trying to secure government resources for his new force, word got back to an infuriated Diané. Relations between the two men steadily deteriorated.
The Defence Minister brushed aside efforts by Kankan community elders to mediate between the two men, both of whom are Malinké. He opted instead to marginalise Doumbouya by creating a rival unit, the Bataillon d'Intervention Rapide (BIR) – for which the establishment decree, seen by Africa Confidential, was issued on 1 June this year.
The decree, signed by Condé, says the BIR was set up to 'intervene quickly to back up other border units in the fight against all kinds of threats'. It says the BIR is 'the main means of dissuasion, reaction and coercion of the Army. Robust, supple, reactive, it constitutes a genuine rapid reaction force.'
The enforced transfer of the GPS base was further intended to demotivate the unit, with its soldiers stuck in sleepy Forecariah, away from the temptations of Conakry, even though this distanced them from the capital city installations they had been created to protect.
But there are indications in Conakry that the roots of the coup may stretch back earlier than these ructions and that significant elements of the military had been mulling a putsch for some time.
The depth of popular resentment against Condé had been evident for many months, and it gradually spread beyond the normal sources of support for the opposition to substantial sections of the Malinké population and even some members of the ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Guinéen (RPG). It was also widely known that many West African leaders had been exasperated by Condé's determination to prolong his stay in power, even at the risk of fuelling instability.
But senior military, including the gendarmerie, had another concern. As Condé's repressive stance hardened, the security forces increasingly found themselves called upon to crush protest and, with the long history of confrontation on Conakry's streets, such situations all too often have seen troops resort to live rounds.
As the deaths piled up, military commanders became concerned about the risk of pursuit by international human rights campaigns and, potentially, institutions such as the International Criminal Court.
When the moment came to act, Doumbouya had the endorsement of other senior figures – in his immediate post-coup appearance he was flanked by Colonel Balla Samoura, regional director of the gendarmerie in Conakry, and the gendarmerie chief of staff, General Ibrahima Baldé.
But ethnic sensitivities still weigh heavily. Officers from the Peuhl (or Fulani) – Guinea's largest ethnic group at 40% of the population, and largely supportive of the opposition – judged it wisest to leave their Malinké colleagues to take the front roles, to avoid any risk of the putsch being perceived as motivated by ethnic factors.
The soldiers now at the helm in Guinea have manoeuvred to establish themselves in a position of strength before the inevitable hard bargaining with Ecowas begins. Doumbouya's first appearance before the cameras – in standard putschist military fatigues and sunglasses – delivered stentorian condemnation of the abuse of power and human rights under the ousted head of state, to justify the army's intervention.
Constitutional rights campaigners celebrated the release of dozens of political detainees on Tuesday, and the coup secured the public endorsement of perennial presidential challenger Cellou Dalein Diallo, leader of the Alliance Nationale pour l'Alternance et la Démocratie and an ethnic Peuhl, who commands widespread support in the Fouta Djalon region of western Guinea.
Senior figures in Condé's RPG seem to be divided. But the party's activists have quickly adjusted to the new political environment, sticking up posters in support of Doumbouya's Comité national du rassemblement et du développement junta.
The real challenge for Ecowas, backed up by the AU and the wider international community, will be to secure the putschists' commitment to a clear, time-tabled transition back to constitutional democratic structures and to ensure they stick to that. Reports have suggested Doumbouya may have got to know Assimi Goïta, the 2020 Mali putschist now suspected of hoping to prolong his transitional rule until 2023, while both were on a United States-organised Flintlock regional training exercise.
Guinea's new military masters briefly shut external borders on 5 September, but reopened them for trade the next day, inviting mining companies to resume normal operations and ordering civil servants back to work.
Members of the old government and other senior constitutional figures were summoned to a meeting with Doumbouya in a marquee outside Conakry's congress centre on 6 September and then sent home after being told to surrender their travel documents. At this same meeting, Doumbouya declared his intention to form a national unity government to run the transition. The supportive comments from Diallo and the Front National pour la Défense de la Constitution rights campaign suggest that he may well manage to draw senior figures from across the political spectrum and civil society into such a united front.
The warm welcome for Condé's overthrow among so many in Guinea is no surprise.
A veteran opposition campaigner who had served jail time for challenging the authoritarian President Lansana Conté in the 1998 election, he finally secured office in the country's first democratic election 12 years later. Condé gradually consolidated civilian institutions during his first years in power, but proved deeply wary of sharing authority, postponing legislative elections until EU financial pressure forced him to organise polls in 2013.
Once re-elected for a second term, he increasingly focused on preparing the ground for a constitutional referendum in March 2020, to scrap term limits so he could stand for a third stint in office (AC Vol 61 No 22, Condé shrugs off poll doubts). The referendum, a heavily manipulated affair, cleared the way for his predictable victory in October's tightly managed presidential contest, boycotted by many opponents.
Human rights deteriorated steadily during Condé's second term, with regular intimidation of opponents, a growing number of political detentions and often lethal clashes between the security forces and youthful protesters. Last year proved particularly brutal, with scores of protesters shot by the security forces, while numerous civil society and opposition figures, particularly Diallo's supporters, were jailed.
New ruler moves to pre-empt Ecowas
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has been reflecting on the regional response to events in Conakry, with Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said to have spoken with the new military ruler Colonel Mamady Doumbouya on Monday, while Ghana's Nana Addo Akufo-Addo organised an 8 September emergency regional summit.
Meanwhile, the ruling Comité national du rassemblement et du développement (CNRD) has been consolidating its base of support, securing a pledge of allegiance from the armed forces high command, and ordering the release of political detainees.
The junta has offered to free former President Alpha Condé if he makes a public resignation speech. But late on Wednesday he was still refusing to do so.
Hopes that prisoners would emerge from the Maison Centrale jail on Monday were disappointed, but late the next day a trickle of prominent figures emerged, including: Abdoulaye Bah and Kéamou Bogolan Haba, both in the camp of main opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo; and Étienne Soropogui, of Nos valeurs communes.
The CNRD has also been dismantling the Postes Avancées military checkpoints set up in army tents around Conakry, particularly in areas of opposition support. And it has freed the headquarters of Diallo's Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée, which had been seized from the party by the Condé regime.
A day after seizing power, Doumbouya announced he would form a national unity government, pre-empting any such call from Ecowas.
That would put pressure on Ecowas to limit its demands to the essentials – respect for human rights, the well-being of Condé and any other detained senior figures, and a timetable of 12-18 months for the transition to elections. While Doumbouya hasn't provided any details to back up his pledge for a unity government, supportive statements from Condé's political opponents – and even from some of his former supporters – suggest he may find willing allies.
In theory, Guinea is vulnerable to coordinated international pressure to honour the reformist transition agenda implied by Doumbouya's rhetoric, economically as well as politically. This year's government deficit is projected at 3.54 billion Guinean francs – a hefty €305 million.
Yet there are limits to Ecowas's leverage, given Guinea's importance in raw materials supply to countries including China and Russia. Under Condé, Guinea's production of bauxite increased massively and the country is now the world's second largest producer of the aluminium ore. It is the top supplier to China's aluminium sector, as well as being crucial to Russian company Rusal, the third largest aluminium producer in the world.
In 2017 Guinea took a $20 billion loan from China in return for bauxite rights, and two years later a consortium backed by China took control of blocks 1 and 2 of the vast Simandou iron ore concession, considered to be largest undeveloped iron ore mine in the world (AC Vol 62 No 3, Steinmetz gets five years for bribery & Steinmetz's empire unravels & Vol 62 No 8, Human rights, export rights).
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