The resurgence of power-seeking militaries in West Africa poses a serious threat to the hard-earned democratic progress made in the region since the early 1990s. The recent military coup in Guinea was the third in the region in a year.
Just a few years ago, 14 of the 15 members of the Economic Community of West Africa States (Ecowas) were democratic leaning, according to data from Freedom House and the Center for Systemic Peace. Today, only 11 qualify, with others teetering on the precipice of democratic backsliding.
The recent string of coups—Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, and Chad in April 2021—has sobering implications for instability in a region already beset by growing security threats. Once the precedent for a coup as a viable means to gain power takes hold, what’s to stop others?
Recognising military coups normalises these extralegal seizures of power. It simultaneously dissolves in one fell swoop the basic rights and protections of citizens. Government decision-making is reduced to the capriciousness of the coup leader and the people in uniform who made his ascent to power possible. He has the power to do as he pleases. The demand by the Guinean junta for the Central Bank to freeze all state accounts to “secure the state’s assets” is a prime example.
Military coups in Africa have a terrible track record for the well-being of citizens. Guinea is a case in point. Colonel Lansana Conté took power in a 1984 military coup. He then oversaw more than two decades of repressive rule characterised by human rights abuses and misgovernance.
Following Conté’s death in 2008, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara led a military coup that plunged Guinea into further instability. Notoriously, during a protest against Camara’s rule in 2009, security forces killed at least 150 protestors and raped dozens of women at the national stadium in the capital city, Conakry.
These experiences of military rule have left Guineans traumatised, impoverished and economically isolated.
The need to walk back the coup in Guinea is therefore clear. The question is how best to do so. Any recognition of the coup could incentivise future military interventions.
This is a good start. But it must be followed by further concrete actions that deprive the junta of any recognition. The Ecowas delegation sent to Conakry needs to demand a swift return to constitutional order and a civilian political transition that can restore democratic governance.
Yet, simply restoring President Alpha Condé to office would fail to accomplish this. It would sweep under the carpet the dubious basis on which he has retained power.
Condé’s Creeping Authoritarianism
As president, Alpha Condé used increasingly authoritarian tactics. They included the arrest of opposition leaders, limiting press freedoms, banning protests and stacking the judiciary and national electoral commission. Most controversial was his manoeuvring to secure a third term by amending the constitution. The country’s 2010 constitution explicitly forbade presidents from serving more than two.
The October 2020 presidential campaign exhibited the usual authoritarian strategies: violence against opposition supporters, blocking of rival candidate rallies, and suppression of the media. The official results gave Condé majorities in opposition strongholds and 59% of the total vote.
The results ignited protests, arrests and a crackdown on the opposition leaving more than 20 people dead. The opposition filed an appeal to the Constitutional Court which, packed with Condé appointees, validated the official results. The flagrant electoral violations led some to equate Condé’s actions to a “creeping coup”.
But Ecowas, the African Union and the international community offered only muted criticism, citing the need to abide by the amended 2020 constitution.
Condé’s claims to the presidency and legitimacy, accordingly, are highly tenuous. Simply reinstating him would be insufficient to restore Guinea to a democratic track and would risk fostering further instability.
Pathways Back to Democratic Rule
Several possible paths could be followed to return Guinea to constitutional order. These options move beyond treating Condé’s ouster as a fait accompli and enhance prospects for legitimate democratic governance in Guinea by calling for new elections.
The first option would be the reinstatement of Condé with the stipulation that the United Nations administer new elections within six months. This approach would result in the military stepping down while recognising the contested nature of Condé’s presidential claim.
This option would build on recent examples in Malawi and Kenya where courts nullified the results of fraudulent elections and ordered new presidential contests. Given the politicised and now suspended courts in Guinea, such an invalidation may need to come from the Ecowas Court of Justice, drawing on the parallel vote count evidence gathered by the opposition.
A second possibility would be for Ecowas to declare Guinea’s 2020 constitutional referendum invalid. Adopting this stance would negate Condé’s basis for a third term and align with the commitments laid out in the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, has strongly advocated for invoking the provisions of Article 45 of the protocol consistent with such an approach.
Lacking any recognition from the international community or financial institutions, the military would be forced to step away from power in lieu of an interim civilian government. This interim government would organise new elections without Condé’s participation and be held under the 2010 constitution’s provisions.
A third option would have Condé restored as president. However, in the interest of stability and peace in Guinea, he would then resign. This would allow Condé to save face and restore the constitution. In exchange for his release, he would be spared subsequent prosecution. Per Article 55 of the 2020 constitution, executive authority would then pass to the president of the National Assembly with new elections organised within 90 days.
Absent from any of these scenarios would be an ongoing role for the military. Any recognition of the coup will simply encourage further coups. So-called military-led transitions in Mali and Chad, furthermore, are moving at a snail’s pace, revealing the disincentives for recognised military leaders to relinquish power.
Prioritising Constitutional Order
The failure of both Ecowas and the international community to support democratic processes when Condé was seeking a third term is what led to the existing predicament. It means, ironically, that Ecowas is in the difficult position of having to negotiate with coup leaders to restore Guinea to a democratic path.
The regional body should keep this lesson in mind when future incumbents attempt to circumvent term limits or oversee fraudulent elections. Acting to prevent unconstitutional seizures of power in any form, whether military coups or creeping coups, must be a priority for Ecowas.
Going along with such schemes, justified at the time as in the interest of maintaining stability, only sows the seeds of future instability.