This is the third and final installment of a series that analyzes Guinea’s transition to democracy. For more background, read part I and part II.
Sunday November 7 will be remembered as a historical day for Guinea. This vote, though, will have been marked by turmoil. The events leading up to this election – the take-over by the military junta in late 2008; the junta leader’s failure at governing the country; ongoing violence and political wrangling have made this transition to democracy a complicated, precarious one.
Guineans will vote for one of two candidates: Cellou Dallein Diallo, the 58-year-old leader of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea who was the country’s prime minister from 2004 to 2006, and veteran opposition leader and president of the Rally of the Guinean People party, Alpha Conde. Both candidates belong to two majority ethnic groups with a history of animosity: Diallo is Peul (sometimes known as Fulani, who make up about 40% of the country’s population), and Conde a Malinke (about 35% of the population is Malinke.) The tensions between these groups stretch back to the time when Guinea’s first post-independence leader, Sekou Toure – a Malinke – feared a Peul plot against him: thousands were arrested, jailed in a gulag in Conakry, or assassinated.
This history of antagonism has played a role in this election, with supporters of Conde and Diallo clashing along ethnic lines. Violence has flared repeatedly over the last few months, and both candidates have alternated between calls for their supporters to exercise restraint, and blaming their opponent for fueling tension. As noted in part II of this series, the situation has been further inflamed by the destabilizing role of security forces.
During the first round of voting in June, with more than 20 candidates on the ballot, Diallo took a little over 43% of the vote, while Conde received slightly over 18%. In spite of this large gap between the two, over the last few months, analysts agree that tides are shifting. Interestingly, the delays in the electoral process could be benefiting Conde, who has had the opportunity to campaign more widely across the country, as well as foster political alliances with former presidential candidates who lost in the first round of the election.
In terms of platform and electoral promises, both candidates have been saying that they will be the leader of all Guineans, and promise a unified country. Whoever becomes president will have to address the dismal economic situation, rein in the military and security sector, and deliver social services. Both candidates have highlighted the importance of investing in women and youth, as well as repairing all-but-broken international relations and partnerships with institutional donors. In addition, reforming the natural resources sector in order for the country to benefit from massive exports (70% of Guinea’s exports are minerals) will be critical. Deals with foreign companies will have to be reviewed, and a better redistribution of revenues generated through taxation will have to be priorities for the newly minted president.
Before these reforms can take place, though, the electoral process must be able to take its course unhindered. Recent months have seen an upsurge of politically and ethnically motivated violence. The campaign had to be suspended in September following demonstrations in the capital, and, in late October, supporters of the two contenders clashed violently again, following the announcement of another delay. This lead to a heavy-handed security response, which the UN’s human rights office described as “serious human rights violations.” In the past week, nearly 3,000 Peul in the north of the country were displaced due to these ethnic tensions, according to the Red Cross. In order to diffuse tension in this unstable atmosphere, the two candidates signed a peace agreement on Friday, agreeing to accept the outcome of the vote and not challenge the results.
What’s most important in this election is not who gets elected. Both candidates have been active in the politics of their country for decades, and have been leading opposition leaders. While Diallo was a powerful figure in Conte’s government before the military junta take over, Conde has more former ministers in his coalition than Diallo does. Neither truly represents a clean break from the past, perhaps because younger Guineans are too disenfranchised, too disenchanted to step into the political realm.
What is most significant about this election is whether it will be considered free and fair, and whether the losing candidate and his supporters will be able to rally behind the newly elected president to ensure that the country does not descend into more violence.
As the joint US-France statement released on the eve of the election notes, “it is time for Guinea’s dream of democracy, a dream that has been deferred for more than 50 years, to become a reality.”