Guinea: the end of the democratic transition?

With a two years delay, this Saturday more than five million Guineans were finally called to participate in a legislative election that officially certified the completion of the path to democracy –a process that begun in November 2010 with the first transparent and open presidential election in Guinea since its independence from France in 1958.

Yet, do these long overdue elections really mark the final of the transition?

 Technically, yes. Despite flaws –some voting stations opened up to an hour late and in many there was no indelible ink—plurality and openness have been observed, with more than 1.700 candidates vying for the 114 parliamentary seats. Also, the resulting new National Assembly will replace the transitional council in place since 2010 and will give voice to all political parties.

However, the continuous delays (elections were meant to be held within six months of the presidential election of 2010, and during the last year have been postponed several times) and, above all, the violent and even deadly protests prior to the electoral contest raise questions as whether the country is already fully prepared to embrace a full-fledged stable democratic rule.

It is obvious that Guinea is immersed in a difficult process, and one must acknowledge that steps have been taken to get rid the country out of its worst traps.

After decades of dictatorship, financial misrule, ingrained corruption and a military coup in 2008, the country was in shackles when Alpha Condé --a democratic activist who had even suffer imprisonment for his political activities-- was sworn in as President in 2010.

Even now, the reality is grim: with a per capita GDP of $450 in 2012, and more than half of the population living in poverty, Guinea has one of the lowest scores at the Human Development Index, being ranked 178 out of 186 countries.

Literacy rates are among the worst in the world, and a massive young population –70% of Guineans are under 25—see little prospects for the future as the youth unemployment hovers at 60%.

Critical infrastructures are also lacking, and in the humid capital of Conackry, power cuts are frequent and the most basic services are obsolete and inadequate.

Condé has put in place important measures to overhaul the economy, especially to boost the agricultural sector and to tap the country’s mining resources to alleviate poverty.  

With the world’s largest reserves of bauxite (the main source of aluminum), huge iron ore deposits as well as diamonds and gold, Guinea accounts for the second biggest mining reserves in Africa and the fifth in the world –resources potentially worth $222bn. An efficient, legal and transparent use of them could transform the country into the richest of Africa and that is why the government is reviewing mining contracts awarded by the dictatorship. A code to reduce corruption and increase the government’s stake from 15% to 35% was also introduced in 2011.

So, the economy is in the right track and results are already evident: Guinea’s real GDP jumped from 1,9% in 2010 to 4,8% in 2012, and the external debt has shrunk from 65,9% of the GDP in 2011 to 19% in 2012.

Yet, in the political arena advances are much slowly. The Constitution enacted in 2010 established democratic rights, such as freedom of worship and press liberties and, according to Human Rights Watch, the Guinean government has taken in the last year “some steps to address the serious governance and human rights problems that had characterized Guinea from more than five decades”. For instance, while there are still many cases of disproportionate use of force by the police and the army, the military have now adopted some measures to ensuring a less excessive response to demonstrations and civil unrest.

Violent clashes among ethnic groups are a different story. In a country were politics are drawn among ethnic lines –with the Malinke supporting the government and the Peuhls the opposition – the continuous delays in the celebration of legislative elections have led to confrontations in the streets and violent demonstrations. The most recent was in the preceding week to the elections, and resulted in a police killed and 50 people wounded.

The Peuhls –the largest ethnic group in the country encompassing 40% of the population—have often complained for their lack of representation in the government and have continuously accused the government for trying to steal the legislative election held in Saturday. 

A further major problem is the ubiquitous corruption. Guinea is ranked 154 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index. The indomitable Treasury Director Aissatou Boiro, who was tasked with curving illicit practices and was achieving an impressive performance record, was shot dead in November 2012.

Overall, advances are visible but instability persists and threatens to thwart the prospects for the future in a country marred by its past.

By a coincidence of destiny, the recent legislative elections took place in the four-year anniversary of the harrowing Conackry stadium massacre in which 160 people were killed, more than 1.200 injured and many women raped in broad daylight during a demonstration against the then-ruling military junta.

It was a terrible reminder of all the atrocities Guinea has endured for decades, and of the long way the country has already come. Democracy building may not be already finished, but Guineans deserve to keep on advancing.

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Tags: Africa, Guinea, democracy, development, elections, human, poverty, rights

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Comment by Ana Polo Alonso on October 2, 2013 at 12:48pm

I agree with you Valentine that we must distinguish between "formal" and "substantive" democracy. Actually, this is in fact what I wanted to reflect on the post: that "formally" the transition has been concluded, but that Guinea still has to overcome many challenges. Anyway, I really hope that the process goes on well. It is a country with tones of possibilities and a great potential for the future.

By the way, I really appreciate your comment --very insightful. I hope we can keep on talking on this and other issues. Thanks again!

Comment by Valentine Olushola Oyedipe on October 2, 2013 at 11:22am

Perhaps technically yes to mark the final of the transition as you have rightly underscored. But, the democratic transition in Guinea is never an end in itself but rather a means to an end. However, we must bear in mind that, there is a colossal divide between procedural democracy and substantive democracy with the former being a precursor to the latter and the latter the ideal situation. Thus, using procedures to evaluate the level of democracy in Guinea may be too early for now. In any case, evidences abound that democracy is on the inclination in Guinea side by side with relatively poor socio economic indicators, conspicuous inequalities and social divisions along ethnic lines that are negation to substantive democracy. The democratic  transition in Guinea could make significant impacts only if, it is pursued with utmost integrity of heart and purpose by the leadership and followership, healing themselves (citizenry) of their pasts and embracing a new reality that is hinge on tolerance and forgiveness .That is our hope!

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