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Guinea’s Transition to Democracy

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In its 52-year history since independence, the Republic of Guinea has been ruled mostly by dictators, coup leaders, and often very bloody military regimes.  However this summer the country is conducting its first fair and free democratic election, with the first round completed on June 27 and the second round approaching shortly, representing one of the most notable and (so far) successful African transitions to democracy in recent years.

Voter turnout was very high and each of the 24 registered presidential candidates (all civilians) honored their commitment to maintain calm and discipline amongst their ranks, despite some isolated complaints about the process. This commitment held throughout the entire week as the country and the international community anxiously awaited the final vote tally, placing into the second round former PM Cellou Dalein Diallo, with close to 40% of the vote, and long-time opposition leader Alpha Condé with 20%.

The atmosphere inside Guinea has been electric.  An election observer from the Carter Center has described the public participation in the process as “a potent mix of anticipation and excitement.”  He continued, “Our first stop out of Conakry was Mamou, which was buzzing with excitement because of an impending visit by one of the main presidential contenders.  On our initial drive around the city, the streets were packed with supporters – old, young, male, and female – all singing and dancing and holding placards for their candidate of choice.  The encounters that have left me overwhelmingly positive about Guinea’s future are those that involve its civil society leaders.

While much of this election coverage may seem overwhelmingly positive, there is still significant political risk as the young democracy faces an uphill battle for survival, mainly underscored by profound poverty and inequality, bountiful but conflict-producing mineral wealth, and high expectations on behalf of the voting public.


The road to elections has been long and arduous for Guinea, made possible thanks to a progressive minded military leader, Sékouba Konaté, who unexpectedly inherited power following an assassination attempt against the coup leader Moussa Dadis Camara.  The Camara regime was infamous for its violence and cruelty, notably with a massacre carried out against pro-democracy protesters in September 2009, killing hundreds and gravely injuring several thousand people – including current candidate Diallo.  Camara, who had usurped power following the death of long ruling Lansana Conté, had also raised hopes about a “new beginning” for Guinea and elections, but shortly decided to hold onto power.

There is a long established history in Africa of military leaders promising free and fair elections, while later the goods fail to be delivered.  In just the past two years, Guinea, Niger, Madagascar and Mauritania have all experienced coups, followed by promises of democracy.  Other African countries once considered as examples of successful transitions (i.e. Rwanda), are retreating away from competitive elections.  But so far, Guinea has fought against these odds, and appears to be on the cusp of a peaceful and democratic transition of power from a military government to civilian leadership.

The election is being closely watched by several multinational mining groups, whose significant investments in Guinea are the lifeblood of the economy.  Faced with bitter disputes with the Camara regime (and possible threats of expropriation) and unchanged circumstances with the interim leadership, the Russian metals group Rusal arranged to fly Konaté to Moscow to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev – however the meeting was canceled at the last minute, mostly likely because Konaté should not make settlements with mining companies right before the transition.  Other investors facing harassment and intervention from Camara’s corrupt bureaucracy have breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of these elections, with China’s Chinalco and Brazilian mining titan Vale SA committing $6.9 billion to the country in the first quarter following the departure of Camara.

The challenge for the first democratically elected president of Guinea will be to manage the delicate balance between fair and lawful fulfillment of mining concessions (there are, naturally, a number of problematic licensing arrangements to fix – an urgent matter in a country with 53% of the population living in poverty), and the maintenance of a stable and predictable business environment to entice foreign investors.  Leading candidate Diallo has said in an interview that if elected his government would review and renegotiate certain deals, but that the state would not undergo a full-scale audit of the sector, which could scare off capital.

The mining sector is vital to our country and if handled properly asthe Guinean people expect, it could turn Guinea into an emerging countryvery quickly,” Diallo said.  “We shall to try to modify them (the contracts) if necessary toensure Guinea’s interests are taken into account. Only if talks breakdown would we take measures such as annulling them — we’ll annul nothingfrom the start.

A political risk analyst from Eurasia Group has also said that the transition to a civilian government bodes well for the business environment:  Whether the winner is Diallo or Conde, they willprobably stop the practice of “arbitrary and erratic presidentialdecrees enacting and annulling contracts,” seek to normalize relationswith mining investors, institutionalize mining laws and scrutinizeexisting deals

Whether or not these re-negotiations will impact the interests of the Russian and Chinese governments (who are not very used to this kind of treatment) remains to be seen, but both the leading candidates for president are highly credible and experienced, and looking to get the transition started on good footing.  The last thing Guinea needs is a dog fight with international investors and emerging power governments in Moscow, Beijing, and Brasilia.

It is important that the international community continue tomonitor and support the next round of voting. All allegations ofelectoral fraud should be adjudicated expeditiously by the Supreme Courtof Guinea (in accordance with the national constitution) ahead of therunoff election in order to address the specter of illegitimacy whichcan give rise to violence and obfuscation. Specific attention must begiven to greater Conakry, where the greates likelihood of voter fraudmay occur. Above all, Guinea’s historic experiment with democracy mustnot be undermined by those who refuse to accept the responsibility oflosing an election.

For Guinea, the rest of Africa and theinternational community, a successful outcome of this election bodes well for the future ofdemocratic governance and economic recovery in the region.  It is a process deserving of our attention and support now and long after election day.