(How) can new leaders effect change from within? The case of Guinea-Conakry
Alpha Condé became president of the Republic of Guinea almost a year ago, after a tense and difficult – at times violent – election. As such he is the first president in Guinea’s history who can claim to have won office in a more or less fairly contested open ballot. A man who had been imprisoned in earlier times for his opposition to government, he perhaps had more reasons than most for wanting to implement major changes in the governance of a country from which he’d lived in exile for years.
Ambitions and progress
President Condé’s election manifesto included a number of major ambitions. He campaigned on the promise of a national truth and reconciliation commission along the lines of the South African model. He campaigned to eliminate corruption and renegotiate poorly drawn government contracts, including those with mining companies which he said were not beneficial to Guinea. He campaigned on the basis that he would keep the army in its barracks, and implement security sector reform. And he would take urgent measures to improve the ailing economy, and thus people’s income and standard of living.
At the heart of his populist campaign was the idea that he would restore the republican institutions of a state which had been hollowed out by previous increasingly kleptocratic administrations. This restoration of the state is presumably what was behind the claim he made during his investiture that “Guinea is back!”. And he must also have had in mind the constitutional requirement that he organise legislative elections within six months of taking office, i.e. by May 2011.
President Condé has made progress. A forensic review of government contracts has led to many being annulled or renegotiated. Mining company Rio Tinto has agreed to pay $700m as part of a renegotiated agreement regarding its vast Simandou iron ore project. A number of civil servants and others have agreed to refund monies to which audits have shown they were not entitled. A large number of opposition militants recently arrested in connection with street protests are being dealt with through judicial process, rather than arbitrarily as under previous regimes. He has managed to keep the army in its barracks – partly by doubling their salaries as one of his first acts in office. (In evidence of the army’s loyalty, at least for now, an attack on his residence by a number of soldiers in July this year was repulsed by the military.) For the first time in years, the government has managed to bring the budget more or less under central control, doing away with the previous system in which separate ministries operated as fiefdoms, raising and spending funds each in its own way.
A difficult impasse
But the situation in Guinea is now tense, and outcomes uncertain. After almost a year in office, the government has lost momentum. The parliamentary elections have not yet been held as required. The electoral commission has announced they will be held by the end of the year, but this seems virtually impossible given the lack of preparation. In any case the government and opposition are engaged in a Mexican stand-off over some of the technical details of the election, and neither seems ready to make the first move towards compromise – even though the government needs to hold the election to turn aid taps back on and reinforce its legitimacy, while the opposition needs the election to provide political space within which to hold the executive to account, modify proposed legislation and contribute to policy dialogue. According to the constitution, the National Transitional Council (CNT) fulfils the role of parliament until the elections are held, but the CNT has lost its voice, is quite easy – as a transitional body nearing the end of its life – for the government to ignore, and its members have grown weary of pushing against an immovable force.
While the task of bringing its budget under control is impressive, according to International Crisis Group it has had the unintended impact of depressing the economy; which has in any case been chronically underperforming for years. The government has tried to counter this by intervening in the market for rice, but this throwback to an earlier era of state intervention has not surprisingly failed to work; meanwhile prices continue to rise – for example a 20% or higher increase in petrol is reportedly pending. So Guineans are feeling less well-disposed towards the government than the latter would like as it heads towards a parliamentary election.
The absence so far of parliament is indicative of the absence of the institutions of state in general. These institutions – such as they existed – have been hollowed out over the years. Previous governments have ruled through patronage networks, top-down commands and repression, rather than formal state institutions and the rule of law. Meanwhile civil society – while ever-present in terms of the plethora of NGOs – has not conspicuously acted as a counterweight, instead too frequently serving as a launch platform for political opportunism by individuals leading and working in NGOs.
In the absence of state institutions and a vibrant civil society, ethnicity has come to play an increasingly important role in political discourse. Guinea is often described as being made up of four ethnic blocs: Peul, Soussou, Malinke, and the various smaller groups in and from the Forestière Region taken together. Whatever else one might wish to say in criticism of the Sékou Touré (1958-1984) and Conté (1984 – 2008) regimes, both their strident Guinean nationalism and widespread systems of patronage militated against the tendency to pit one ethnic group against the other. While each played the ethnic card at times for tactical reasons, it was not a core component of their systems of rule; meanwhile French has genuinely been seen and used as the national language, thus avoiding the dominance of any one of the local languages in public life. (This is ironic, given the bitterness and anger with which Guineans rejected France’s offer of continued tutelage at independence).
Over the past few years, as an ailing President Conté lost his grip and – after his death – a succession of military governments held power while promising to hand it over to an elected civilian government, ethnicity has come to play an increasingly important role in the political discourse. This can be ascribed to at least four factors. First, Guineans have little experience of how to “do multiparty politics”, which have been to all intents and purposes disallowed since independence. Second, the country is in such dire straits economically that there is little room for the kind of nuanced policy differences which in other circumstances might differentiate rival political parties and create an ideological attraction to party members or voters. Three, in the absence of other institutions, people naturally fall back on those that do exist, within their ethnic or language communities. And finally, the years of repression have undermined trust between and among Guineans. The end result is that people have tended to fall back on their ethnic identity and networks, and the presidential election showed this very clearly, with the “Soussou vote” switching en masse to join Apha Condé’s “Malinke vote” in the second round, narrowly beating Cellou Dalein Diallo who had polled most votes in the first round and whose overwhelmingly Peul supporters expecting “their turn in power” felt robbed by the (to them) unexpected result.
Ethnicity has rather swiftly become the lens through which practically everything is being viewed and interpreted, whether accurately or not. Thus every political appointment or government contract is being described by commentators – both intellectuals and the man in the street – in terms of the beneficiary’s ethnic identity. In an infamous recent incident, the National Mediator – a constitutionally mandated position – has stated publicly that the Peuls should stick to commerce and stay out of politics. In this situation, even the President’s protestations of being ethnically blind – indeed, he claimed when he came to office that he would appoint on the basis of merit alone – make it seem to some as though “he doth protest too much”.
Room for manoeuvre
So has the man who came to office claiming to change the face of Guinean politics been captured by the very politics he wants to change? It seems he has, and what other scenario could one have expected?
It is widely believed that he has been unable to organise parliamentary elections on time most likely because he knows he has little chance of winning an outright majority in parliament for his RPG party, thus he needs to play for time in order to court additional parties to his standard. The longer the delay, the worse the economy becomes, and thus the less votes he can probably expect to win. Thus the obvious way to court additional votes is to woo the “Soussou vote” again; and the obvious way the system offers him to do this is through patronage. In other words, a return to the politics he avowedly wants to change.
Meanwhile he still faces the challenge of what to do about the army, which has been in and around power for so long that its role is deeply entrenched in the political economy. Meanwhile military costs are thought to represent an unsustainable 35% of the government budget, which seems way too high in a country not massively exposed to external threats. The July assassination attempt was presumably an indicator of how difficult it will be to maintain control of an unwilling military. Keeping the army onside while piloting a major reform of the security sector will be hard – and thus can only be pushed through by a strong governing coaliton. In the likely absence of such a coalition built through democratic means, the government will once again be forced to rely on patronage – and in current circumstances that may well mean a patronage linked to ethnicity.
Meanwhile the patronage machine is what kept previous governments from having tight budgets, and from providing reliable services to the Guinean people. So there is a real risk that if the president does fall back on patronage as a political tactic, it will undermine his ability to meet his own goals.
Key amongst those goals at the time of his election was national reconciliation, to heal the harms done over the past half-century, and especially those done by or on behalf of the state. But since Condé came to office he appears to have distanced himself progressively from the idea of a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission on which he campaigned. Perhaps this is to avoid upsetting the relationships he needs with those who were involved in previous regimes. Again, tactics seem to be undermining his ability to achieve the changes he had in mind when elected.
The point of this blog post is not to claim the inevitability of failure. Guineans currently have before them the best window of opportunity for progressive change in many a long year; and they must continue to try and seize it with both hands. Any government anywhere needs to row back on some of the promises it made to get elected. But a realist looking at Guinea surely cannot do so without noting the irony of a situation in which the new and apparently progressive president is so hampered in the implementation of reforms which he has longed for – during several decades in opposition, in prison and in exile – by the very system he wishes to improve. He seems compelled to use the very same levers of power which he was wont to denounce in previous times; and in so doing may end up contributing to a deepening of the pernicious and dangerous tendency to the ethnicisation of Guinea’s political economy. On this last point, the political risk is exacerbated even further by the danger that manipulation of ethnicity and the narrative of exclusion can so easily slip across international borders and destabilise neighbouring states.
I guess the conclusion of this over-long blog post is that changes will probably come more slowly in Guinea than some would like; that whoever is leading and promoting those changes has to do so within the political economy in which he came to office; and that Guineans should take care to avoid using ethnicity for tactical political reasons, lest it blow up in their faces.