Guinea’s authoritarian afterlives

The recent election has led to violence and general pandemonium. An explosion of independent journalism offers hope.

Image credit Nomi Dave.

As the world’s media focuses on the US elections, we should consider another 2020 ballot, also featuring an unpopular incumbent president, a deeply divided nation, questions about the integrity of the electoral system, and interference from Russia. This is the situation in Guinea, where presidential elections were held on October 18. The results of that vote are still under dispute, as both the sitting president Alpha Condé and the opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo have declared victory and the police and military have subsequently rained down violence on protesters.

Local news sources are describing the Guinean situation as “electoral pandemonium.” State authorities have shot and killed dozens of civilians, destroyed houses and private property, and cut off internet services for several days. What happened to the promises of a new democracy that were made only 10 years ago?

Guinea has been making uneasy progress towards democratic rule for decades, from a market women’s revolt against Sékou Touré’s economic policies in 1977 to pro-democracy demonstrations in the 2000s and continuing to the present day. While the country has seen a succession of authoritarian leaders since 1959, writers such as Laye Camara and Djibril Tamsir Niane, countless journalists, and everyday citizens have risked their lives and livelihoods to demand change. Social ideals of interdependence and truth to power are rooted in the precolonial Mande empire, and remain at the center of popular debate around leadership and responsibility today.

Image credit Nomi Dave.

Yet Guinean people are also wary about protest, as it disrupts economic activities, jams the streets, and often leads to police brutality and spectacular state violence. To many, authoritarian rule offers stability and familiarity, particularly in a region that saw civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Sierra Leone through the 2000s. Authoritarianism has also long been entangled in feelings of nostalgia, collectivity, and national pride. Guineans remember the Touré era with mixed feelings—twenty-six long, bloody years but a moment of independence, pan-Africanism, and anti-imperialism. They remember their glorious history rooted in the Mande empire, a history that postcolonial dictators such as Touré consciously evoked. These memories offer a sense of certainty and self-recognition, in contrast to the unknowns of a democratic future.

After years of reforms and demonstrations, Guinea held its first democratic elections in 2010. Many people hailed Alpha Condé for his history of exile and opposition and his training and work as a lawyer. Yet the Condé years have been disastrous for Guinea, with ever-deteriorating living conditions, cuts to schools and basic services, and the senseless crushing of oppositional voices. Democracy has proved a mirage, as presidential and legislative elections are continually mired in conflict and Condé has inflamed ethnic divisions between Fulbe and Maninka people. With vocal support from Russia, Condé recently pushed through a new constitution to allow him to run for a third (and eventually, fourth) term, effectively erasing his first two terms from the count.

What Guinean people have learned over the past decade—perhaps what they already knew—is that democracy is not easy, its meanings and goals are not clear, and it takes work well beyond elections. As Moses Ochonu recently noted in the case of Nigeria, despite the insistent rhetoric of promise they carry, elections do not represent an endpoint in the search for dignity and rights. Nic Cheeseman reminds us that elections may be the all-important symbols of success for donor nations and international observers, but they rarely reshape daily experience for ordinary people.

Image credit Nomi Dave.

Fortunately, in the case of Guinea, the country has two resources that offer some hope. First, since media reforms in 2005 and 2006, the country has seen a creative explosion of political commentary and news broadcasts well beyond state channels. Private radio and TV stations and newspapers have proliferated and are unafraid to voice dissent. In particular, feminist news outlets such as Actu-elles inform and mobilize young women, while a number of vocal female broadcasters such as Moussa Yéro Bah further bridge the close worlds between private media and activism in Guinea. The Condé government has taken a hard view of these oppositional voices, and has subjected journalists to censorship and violence, including the death of a young journalist Mohamed Diallo in 2016. But although embattled politically and economically, private, dissident journalism in Guinea—through old and new media—is a growing force.

The second resource that many Guineans hold is a patriotism twinned with a healthy skepticism towards power. Love of country does not blind them to the violence and violations of the state. Rather, they mobilize love and wave the flag as a call to opposition and a better Guinea. While patriotism and love have historically been wrapped up in Guinean authoritarianism, in memories of a glorious past linked to postcolonial Big Men, protesters and journalists are reappropriating this narrative and these feelings for dissidents to claim, for a genuinely post-authoritarian future.

The Guinean present is tense and the future remains deeply uncertain. But as many throughout the globe find ourselves teetering on the thin line between authoritarianism and its other, we can recognize and salute the work and love of those there who are fighting for hope.

Further Reading