Military coups and the threat to democracy in Africa

Flag of Guinea Conakry
Flag of Guinea Conakry (Photo credit: File photo)

On 5 September 2021, Alpha Condé, the president of the West African nation of Guinea, was arrested by a group of coup plotters led by Lieutenant Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, a member of the French Foreign Legion, the commander of the Special Forces of the Guinean army, and the elite troops in charge of President Condé’s security. Characteristically, the United Nations, the African Union, ECOWAS and the international community condemned the coup.  However, similar to what happened in neighbouring Mali in August 2020, ordinary citizens took to the streets, applauding and chanting their support for the soldiers. A coup d’état is an aberration to democracy and rule of law, according to international conventions. Africa witnessed a spate of military rule from the 1960s-1990s, after which many countries adopted democratic rule. Today, Chad, Mali and Guinea are under military rule. This unfolding phenomenon calls for scrutiny: Are we witnessing a collapse of democracy in Africa? Do we have true democracies in Africa? Are African populations thriving under democracy?

A nation of poverty in the midst of wealth

Guinea’s situation is a “blessing curse”, an expression used in Ghanaian local parlance to describe the extraction of oil where only an extremely tiny fraction of the profit trickles into the country’s coffers. Guinea is one of the richest nations in Africa in terms of natural resources. It has an immense hydrographic reserve that earned it the alias “the water tower of West Africa”. The mineral potential of Guinea is simply amazing. It is one of the largest producers of bauxite, and home to the world’s largest reserve deposit, at 7.4 billion tons. The country has one of the largest untapped iron ore deposits in the world. Guinea has the proven reserves to be one of the top gold producers in Africa. Guinea’s mineral resources also include cement, salt, diamonds, graphite, limestone, manganese, nickel and uranium. Many of these reserves are dormant, untapped in the belly of its earth. The case of the isolated Simandou Mountain is the most heartbreaking. The mountain is said to hold the largest reserve of iron in the world. The value of its exploitation alone is estimated at billions of dollars. Despite its resources, Guinea is one of the world’s poorest countries.  According to the most recent World Bank Report (2018), 43.7 per cent of Guineans live below the national poverty line. This is equivalent to 5.8 million of the country’s 12.77 million people living below the poverty line. This dipped in 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Some antecedents that shed more light on Condé’s overthrow

In 2010, Alpha Condé, won Guinea’s first presidential election since independence from France in 1958.  It was an election, reportedly, marred by irregularities and political violence. Condé easily won a second term in 2015 after the opposition parties boycotted the elections. In 2020, Condé’s government tinkered with the constitution and cleared the way for a third term, which he won in October 2020. The aftermath of this election was marred by violence and arrest of opposition figures. It also led to street protests in which hundreds of protesters were killed.  In the midst of this unrest and the economic downturn, Condé reduced the budgetary allocation for the military and increased his own salary, arbitrarily. This was not his only sin. Condé was also accused of nepotism, favouring his minority Malinké ethnic group over the majority Fulani. These seemed to aggravate the anger of the ordinary people already coping with harsh economic conditions, poor infrastructure and political repression. Consequently, when the coup plotters seized power, promising to scrap the constitution which allowed Condé to run a third term, some opposition supporters and activists came out to express their joy over what they call the “end of suffering under Condé”.

Tribalism and nepotism

Reports following the ousting of Condé reveal that the coup leader, Lieutenant Colonel Mamady Doumbouya is a man who was ‘made’ by President Condé.  They belong to the same ethnic group, the Malinké. Alpha Condé was said to have expressly selected Doumbouya for special training and military courses in Paris, Afghanistan, Israel, Gabon and Sénégal. It is also reported that he enjoyed rapid promotion above his pairs and ultimately, this ‘protegé’ led the coup in a few minutes of shock, surprise and humiliation of his erstwhile godfather.

Doumbouya and his men overpowered the president’s guards and captured him. He was handcuffed and threatened to be shot if he resists. Condé was then paraded on the streets of Conakry, in a 4X4 vehicle, to an undisclosed location, while they addressed the nation amid jubilation on the streets of Conakry.

The events in Guinea are similar to those in Mali when Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew Ibrahim Boubakar Keita (IBK). Like Guinea, the opposition figures and a section of the population welcomed the soldiers. This ‘embrace’ of military rule over democracy calls into question the democratic process in Africa. Why is Africa caught up in this oscillation between military and civilian rule? What is apparent is that Africa is yet to find its rhythm. Elections are always characterized by corruption and violence. Politicians are living in opulence while citizens are impoverished more and more by the day. Is the Western democratic model working for Africa? Or is there a need to re-work our own process in a manner that fits our peculiarities? My next entry will address these issues.

Dr Moussa Traoré is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English, University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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