Alpha Condé, undone

Fashion creates spectacle. What can we learn from the images from Guinea's recent coup d’état?

Image credit Nomi Dave.

Perhaps the most—if not only—surprising thing about the recent coup d’état in Guinea was the images that quickly circulated on social media of ousted president Alpha Condé. Condé, who usually appears in public immaculately groomed, was filmed and photographed looking disheveled, unshaven, and hastily dressed. A mobile phone video shot by a member of the military junta that deposed him shows Condé slumped down in his private quarters, barefoot in jeans and a partially buttoned shirt with his undershirt clearly visible. He scowls at the camera as young, heavily armed soldiers surround him and one asks him to confirm that they have neither touched nor abused him. Condé remains irascibly silent, seemingly both infuriated and resigned. Surely, as many Guineans feel, he knew this day would come.

In October 2020, Condé oversaw an election to amend the Guinean constitution to allow him to sit for a third term in office. The move was volcanically unpopular, with months of protest and violence in the run-up and accusations that it symbolized a new dictatorship in Guinea. Condé had originally come to office after Guinea’s first democratic presidential elections in 2010, victoriously declaring that “Guinea is back!” At the time, many referred to Condé as “le professeur” because of his previous career in public law in France. But Condé quickly proved his dictatorial credentials. His government cracked down on opposition supporters, stifled dissent, and oversaw shady contracts with foreign mining companies. For the past two years, the streets of the capital Conakry have been sprayed with graffiti calling on Condé to leave. Few in Guinea will now mourn his departure. Yet, as the journalist Moussa Yéro Bah suggests, those who opposed Condé’s third term wanted in part to avoid this shameful fate for the president, who has now been “shown to the world as a badly dressed, crude, common man.” Her statement zooms in on the mobile phone images and their humiliating power that cannot be undone or unseen. Condé is the emperor in his new clothes, dethroned and disrobed before the public.

Fashion matters to politics. Politicians and leaders carefully compile and curate their sartorial image as a mode of public persuasion. Guinea’s first president, Sékou Touré, strategically shifted his preferred formal dress from a European business suit to a West African duruki-ba (damask robe) in the mid-1960s, as his regime increasingly honed its anti-imperialist, revolutionary ideology. Touré also famously dressed in white as a form of spiritual power and a symbol of purity—and he expected his citizens to do likewise. As this example shows, the politician’s power is further actualized and projected outwards through the dress of others. In fact, the only time I personally ever saw Alpha Condé was at an electoral campaign rally in 2009, where partisans were dressed in clothing featuring Condé’s face. Fashion creates spectacle, allowing power to be concentrated in the figure of the well-dressed leader and to radiate outwards to envelop and be reflected by those around him.

Image credit Nomi Dave.

Yet alongside the power of dress is the shame-laden, gendered power of undressing. As Naminata Diabaté details in her work Naked Agency, shame is a potent social force in many African contexts, stemming from the understanding that individuals are collectively constituted. What others say, think, and feel about someone matters greatly. Shame is therefore strongly linked to public presentation, clothing, and the body. Women may be forcibly stripped of clothing as an act of disciplining, but women also can wield their nakedness as a source of power, a weapon with which to shame others. Diabaté shows how female African protesters have deployed this power through strategic nudity in actions across the continent. This gendered notion of shame suggests, however, that men have no such power in a state of undress. Instead, they are simply exposed and undone.

Returning to the recent images from Guinea, we can further read into the spectacles of dress that were on display. Juxtaposed with the imagery of the badly dressed Condé were the photographs and videos of the junta leader, Mamady Doumbouya. Doumbouya appears in military fatigues, combat boots, dark sunglasses, and a red beret. This image instantly elicits parallels with Guinea’s previous coup leader, Moussa Dadis Camara, who came to power in 2008. Dadis Camara also had a penchant for sunglasses and red berets, evoking revolutionary heroes such as Che Guevara and Thomas Sankara, as Garhe Osiebe has recently noted. Dadis Camara was hailed as a liberation hero in Guinea when he seized control of the government twelve years ago—much as Doumbouya and his junta have been in the past three weeks. Yet Doumbouya would do well to remember the fate of Dadis and his regime, which imploded within months following political violence and popular anger. So far, Doumbouya is aware of this history, stating, “We will not repeat the mistakes of the past,” and appearing on Guinean television draped in the national flag to underscore his patriotic credentials. It remains to be seen, however, just how the new military regime in Guinea will fashion its and the country’s future.

Further Reading