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Why is history repeating itself with the coup d’etat in Guinea? An explainer

Soldiers patrolling near Guinea's presidential office
Soldiers patrol near Guinea’s presidential office in the country’s capital, Conakry, on Sunday.
(Associated Press)

Many had hoped that Guinea’s landmark 2010 election would finally bring the West African country a democratic leader after decades of corrupt dictatorship. Instead, President Alpha Conde decided to stick around for a third term, modifying the constitution so that term limits no longer applied to him.

His plan to extend his rule prompted violent street protests in the capital, Conakry, last year — and ultimately made him vulnerable to a military coup. He was taken into military custody Sunday.

Now, soldiers in fatigues have once again crowded around a table this week to broadcast a statement — just as others have done so many times before in West Africa — decrying a corrupt president who they say wouldn’t have left office any other way.

Here’s a look at how the region has confronted military coups like this in the past, and what scenarios could unfold in the coming weeks.

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How did history repeat itself in Guinea?

It started with a burst of gunfire near Guinea’s presidential palace just like earlier coups. Guineans who had lived through two other takeovers and just as many assassination attempts stayed inside and waited to see who was really in control of the country.

Mali’s coup leader solidifies his grip on power in the West African nation after carrying out his second coup d’etat in nine months.

After hours of uncertainty, a group of little-known soldiers appeared on state television speaking of reconciliation but making no promises of when they would hand power back to civilians. Then came the video of the deposed Conde, disheveled in a half-buttoned shirt and blue jeans, in the custody of mutinous soldiers.

If it feels familiar, it’s because a similar regime change unfolded in neighboring Mali just a little over a year ago. There, too, the junta decided that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had overstayed his welcome, even though his elected term was not yet completed. The junta eventually promised to organize elections in 18 months’ time to return the country to civilian rule, but it increasingly looks like that target will be missed.

Are people going to accept this coup d’etat?

State television — now under the control of the junta — has carried images of jubilant Guineans taking to the streets to greet the military convoy. But the real test could be whether forces loyal to the ousted president ultimately accept the coup or instead potentially stage a countercoup.

The West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS already has condemned the power grab, and everyone from the United States to Russia has expressed concern in varying degrees about where this all could head.

What can be done to return Guinea to democratic rule?

The African Union typically suspends the membership of a country after a coup d’etat. And in West Africa, former colonizer France still carries a lot of economic clout and can also impose targeted sanctions.

But in Mali’s case, it ultimately took the regional threat of economic sanctions to get the coup leaders to agree to transitional governments in both 2012 and 2020.

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It began in a village deep in the forests of southeastern Guinea, when a 2-year-old boy named Emile developed a mysterious illness.

The West African regional bloc, though, has its own credibility problems. It allowed not only Conde but also Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara to seek third terms last year despite the constitutional wrangling needed.

And despite early threats, ECOWAS ultimately gave in to the Mali junta’s timeline for holding new elections, accepting an 18-month delay after earlier saying that democracy had to be restored within a year.

Will this end badly for Guinea and West Africa?

Guinea’s mining industry has already taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, and concerns about political stability could cause foreign companies to reconsider their presence. Guinea’s junta leaders went to great lengths Monday to reassure the international community that they would honor all existing agreements, a gesture aimed at keeping the country’s essential mining revenues flowing.

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The junta purports to be acting on behalf of the Guinean people, but already there are concerns about whether military rule could lead to human rights violations.

Security forces in Guinea come with a deeply tarnished record: In 2009 they opened fire on a group of demonstrators protesting then-coup leader Moussa “Dadis” Camara’s plans to run for president and stay in power. More than 150 people died and at least 100 women were raped in a soccer stadium, crimes that more than a decade later have yet to be tried in court.

The bigger concern could be what message this week’s coup will send to other West African leaders seeking to stay in power, analysts say. There are fears that the recent coups in Mali and Guinea could lead to more political instability in the region.

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Even if the ruling juntas in both countries do eventually hold elections, will military leaders simply rebrand themselves as civilian candidates? For now, there’s a more immediate concern in Guinea: Do others in the military think they should be steering the country’s fate?


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