Yet another nation — this time in West Africa — is experiencing violence related to elections. In Guinea, protests have been flaring as demonstrators rally against the delay of local elections in the country. Violence erupted in the capital, Conakry, earlier in May, with supporters of the opposition calling for President Alpha Condé’s resignation.
As citizens react strongly to government maneuvering in Burundi in central Africa, where violent protests, deaths and a failed coup have surrounded pending elections, in Guinea, pre-election jitters involve tribal factions and possible attempts to distract the government from reforming the mining industry.
Guinea has the added burden of being one of the West African trio of nations that endured the worst of the Ebola outbreak last year, and the opposition contends the disease could be potentially used by officials to postpone elections. The other two countries hit hard by Ebola were Liberia and Sierra Leone. Liberia has been declared free of the disease, while new cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea had stabilized until recently, when the numbers jumped alarmingly.
And as with Burundi, Guinea is being mentored by the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission, a bureaucracy devised to steer post-conflict or otherwise shaky countries away from violent relapses by using customized approaches. Guinea, which never had a civil war but got involved in neighbors’ wars, landed on the commission’s agenda in 2011 to ease tensions in future elections. The usefulness of the UN Commission, which is undergoing an evaluation of its own work, will be tested in the months ahead in Guinea.
The protests began in April in Guinea after the publication of the electoral calendar, a controversial topic in a country where the rule of law is weak. The local elections, delayed since 2010, have been set for early 2016, taking place after the presidential elections, to be held in October, when Condé’s mandate ends. (He is running for re-election.)
Unrest has centered mostly in Conakry but is also happening in the Moyen Guinea region, a stronghold for the country’s opposition. Mohamed Tall, a member of one opposition party, UFR (in French, Union des Forces Républicaines), told PassBlue that the capital has been largely paralyzed because of an economic slowdown. The International Monetary Fund reported, for example, that Ebola “inflicted a heavy social and economic toll” in Guinea, where the outbreak is not fully controlled, it noted, portending a difficult year for Guineans before the elections.
The country’s main opposition party, the UFDG (Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée), and its allies argue that the decision by Condé to set the local elections in 2016 has broken an agreement to hold them as long ago as 2014. The opposition is demanding that the local elections go first, before the presidential poll, because it hopes to replace some of the local officials, whom they consider subservient to the regime and ready to unlawfully influence the presidential vote.
Condé, who is 77 and was educated in Paris, is the country’s first democratically elected leader. He was voted into office in 2010, after years of exile. In the 1950s, he led the campaign for Guinea’s independence from France, which occurred in 1958, and has been close with François Hollande, the current French president, as well as George Soros, the philanthropist/financier, who, reports say, views Condé as a viable reformer of the country’s potentially lucrative mining industry. One license of a prominent mine connected to Beny Steinmetz, an Israeli, has been rescinded.
In early 2014, when Ebola first broke out in West Africa in a remote area of Guinea, the government claimed that elections could not be held that year because of the health crisis. Now, a year later, the opposition thinks that the government will use that and any other excuse to delay and rig the elections, even though the Ebola crisis was by all accounts severe enough to pose logistical challenges in carrying out voting (2,405 people have died from the disease in Guinea as of mid-May).
The United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, or Unmeer, told PassBlue that “Ebola has not stopped elections in any of the three most-affected countries, although Liberia had to delay some local elections at some point last year, but they were held.”
In Guinea, an Unmeer spokesman added, “there are political issues . . . but we do not anticipate any delays because of Ebola.”
In April, the opposition contended that government security forces had fired on protestors in Conakry, while the authorities insisted that protestors were using hunting guns and had wounded some police officers. Sixty-five people in Conakry alone had gunshot wounds. Translated from French, Tall of the UFR party, said in an email, “Security forces have certainly shot civilians during the protests organized by the opposition.”
Vincent Foucher, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said: “It’s quite likely that, despite the authorities’ official instructions, some in the security forces use guns, and it is possible that protestors do too. It’s not unusual to own a firearm in Conakry.”
Ethnic tensions could increase violence as well. “It’s true that voting in Guinea is to a very substantial extent guided by ethnicity,” Foucher said. The results of the legislative elections in 2013 indicated that the political split is to a strong degree ethnic, too. The ruling party, which is primarily identified with the Malinke community, won most of the votes in the prefectures of Upper Guinea, a predominantly Malinke region. Condé is a Malinke.
Foucher said the leading opposition party, which has a base among the Fulani, thinks that it should rule because it represents the largest ethnic group in the country.
Political statements about ethnicity, however, have “become a lot more discreet because people have learnt that you can’t say these things out loud,” Foucher added. “At the same time, ethnicity remains very much part of the subtext in Guinea.”
The Guinea portfolio of the UN Peacebuilding Commission cited concern about “the acts of violence committed in the context of the demonstrations on 13 and 14 April 2015.” It appealed to all parties to remain calm and called for dialogue on the elections.
“The Guinea configuration stands with the people of Guinea to accompany the country on that path,” the statement read. “Guinea can also count on the continued support of the international community in its fight against the Ebola epidemic and for a sustainable recovery and development of the country.”
But the commission does not have a field presence, and works instead with the UN system already operating in Conakry. Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, an Argentine and a top UN peace-building official, told PassBlue in an email that the commission’s attempts to prevent conflict include a $15 million fund for “projects/activities to support dialogue processes, reconciliation, Security Sector Reform and Youth and Women employment.”
As to the upcoming elections, the Peacebuilding Fund, he added, referring to the source of financing for peace-building programs, will pay for more projects to help defuse tensions. Fernandez-Taranco said that these projects were tested during previous elections and “proved to be successful.”
One project involves the use of the Women Situation Center, which sends female election observers across the country and raises the profile of women in the “public sphere,” said Alessandra Pellizzeri, a program officer in UN peace-building.
Fernandez-Taranco said the project has decreased the possibility of fraud. In previous elections, these observers were also sent to certain areas to allay emotions and prevent violence, underscoring that “women in Guinea have been traditionally active in playing constructive mediation roles in internal politics,” Pellizzeri added.
This work may not be enough. Guinea’s opposition leader, Cellou Dalein Diallo of the UFDG party, pulled out from talks with Condé in May, after more violence swept Conakry. The opposition said that the government has failed to carry out promises it made during previous dialogues, but the opposition may be acting tough to impress its constituents. Diallo lost the 2010 presidential election to Condé.
The International Crisis Group published a report in December 2014 outlining the main political issues in the country. In Guinea, Foucher said, the group has been striving to describe and explain what is happening in the country to encourage a peaceful resolution of conflicts.
“Electoral regulations and institutions in Guinea are deeply flawed,” Rinaldo Depagne, the Crisis Group’s West Africa project director, wrote in the report. “Even where clear rules exist, they are often not enforced. Key institutions, such as a Constitutional Court, are lacking, making a constructive dialogue between the government and opposition all the more urgent.”
Trishula Patel is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe, who contributes to ZimboJam, a digital website focused on arts and culture; and Sava360, a site on the South Asian community. Patel also worked as a freelance writer for Philadelphia Weekly and as an intern for The Washington Post’s city desk and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s health and science desk. She has a master’s degree in world history and a B.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania as well as a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.