Guinea: The Causes and Consequences of West Africa’s Latest Coup
September 8, 2021
The Guinean military’s overthrow of President Alpha Condé—an outcome of autocratic overreach, economic mismanagement, and eroding democratic norms—points to the failure of regional bodies and international partners to anticipate and respond to an evolving coup playbook. On September 5, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya ousted the country’s civilian leader Alpha Condé, proclaiming that “the duty of a soldier is to save the country.” The military putsch is the country’s third coup d’état since independence in 1958 and the latest in a string of unconstitutional power grabs in the region, including in neighboring Mali and Chad, during the past two years.
Q1: Who is Guinea’s new military leader and what are his objectives?
A1: Colonel Doumbouya is a 41-year-old former French legionnaire and commander of the country’s elite Special Forces Group. He has received training from France, Israel, Senegal, and Gabon, as well as participated in at least one U.S. special forces exercise. According to his official bio, he also served in missions in Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, and Djibouti. Since the coup, he has twice quoted former Ghanaian coup leader Jerry Rawlings, who infamously publicly executed several of his military predecessors. In a 2017 speech, Doumbouya expressed resentment about U.S and French influence in Guinea. According to the BBC, Doumbouya was one of 25 Guineans that EU members of parliament threatened to sanction for alleged human rights abuses during Condé’s presidency—although neither his name nor that of the unit he commanded have appeared in international human rights reports about the repression of protests and other abuses in recent years.
As of September 8, Doumbouya and the ruling junta, known as the National Rally and Development Committee (CNRD), have revealed very little about their plans, a troubling sign in a region where young coup leaders have resisted pressure to swiftly hand over power to civilians. The CNRD detained Condé and other top officials, dissolved the government, and imposed a nightly curfew. It has pledged to form a transitional government soon and committed to “rewrite a constitution together.” The junta failed to share additional details on the transition or present a timeline for a return to civilian rule. Doumbouya, however, has paid special attention to the bauxite mining sector, which saw prices leap to a decade high in the wake of the coup. He tried to assure business and economic interests, “asking mining companies to continue their activities” and exempting mining areas from the curfew.
Q2: What local, regional, and international drivers explain this coup d’état?
A2: While Doumbouya’s personal motivations are unclear, Condé’s decision to amend the constitution to run for a third term and recent missteps on the economy set the stage for the military putsch. In his first statement following the coup, Doumbouya vowed that “we will no longer entrust politics to one man; we will entrust it to the people.” He presumably was referring to President Condé’s increasingly messianic leadership. Condé, who had been a longtime opposition leader before his election in 2010, argued that he was the only one who could rule Guinea during a private meeting at CSIS in 2019. Condé proceeded to hold a controversial referendum and problematic election during the pandemic to secure a third term in office. Condé’s move was an affront to the public; according to Afrobarometer polling, more than 8 out of 10 Guineans favor a two-term limit on presidential mandates. Doumbouya also alluded to Condé’s economic mismanagement and the regime’s corruption. He deplored the “state of our roads . . . the state of our hospitals” and said that “we don't need to rape Guinea anymore, we just need to make love to her.” In another survey, Afrobarometer polling revealed that 63 percent of Guineans believed corruption had increased during the previous year.
Doumbouya also probably assessed that the region and international community, which had weakly protested Condé’s third term, would do little substantively to oppose the coup, judging from their ham-fisted responses to recent unconstitutional moves in Mali and Chad. The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), France, and the United States have been hesitant to exact significant penalties in recent years, a contrast to past decades of principled responses to unconstitutional takeovers.
- In Mali, 37-year-old colonel Assimi Goïta, who also served in a special forces unit, ousted civilian president Ibrahim Boubacar in August 2020. While ECOWAS suspended Mali from the regional body and the United States quietly imposed coup-related aid restrictions, France continued its counterterrorism operations and ECOWAS acceded to an 18-month transition led by a retired military general. A year later, Goïta removed Mali’s civilian transition leadership and declared himself interim president. His government seems in no rush to leave power. It has missed several deadlines, failing to submit a draft constitution or conduct voter registration. There has been limited international outcry or concern about this inevitable delay.
- In Chad, 37-year-old Mahamat Idriss Déby assumed control following his father’s death on the battlefield in April 2020. The United States called for a transition of power in accordance with the Chadian constitution, but changed its tune following France and the African Union’s support for the young leader’s rule. When French president Macron attended the funeral for Déby’s father, he vowed that “France will not let anybody put into question or threaten today or tomorrow Chad's stability and integrity.” Déby, similar to his counterparts in Mali, promised an 18-month military-led transition, a dialogue, and a new constitution.
Q3: What are the coup’s implications, and what steps should be taken to arrest a democratic backsliding?
A3: Doumbouya’s age, temperament, and admiration for the region’s past coup leaders bode poorly for Guinea’s transition to civilian rule. Doumbouya is in the same age cohort as Goïta and Déby, all of whom served in elite military units. Rawlings, Doumbouya’s hero, seized power in a second coup in 1981 before he finally stepped down in 2000. (Goïta visited Rawlings, who recently died, for advice, as well as Moussa Traore, Mali’s military leader from 1968 to 1991.)
Doumbouya and the CNRD probably will use the same coup playbook perfected by Goïta and Déby, parroting the 18-month transition timeline and pledge to rewrite the constitution to placate the international community. If Guinea’s neighbors and external partners quietly accept these conditions, it will serve as a signal to ambitious soldiers in Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, and Niger—to name just a few potential candidates—that there are limited consequences for seizing power. While it is hard to prove a contagion effect, coups d’état in the region tend to occur in waves. Between November 1965 and February 1966, there were military takeovers in Congo, Dahomey, the Central African Republic, Upper Volta, Nigeria, and Ghana.
Africa’s regional bodies and international partners need to act more decisively to anticipate and respond to this alarming trend and evolving coup playbook.
- Confront Democratic Backsliding. The international community has been meek in responding to problematic elections in Benin, ambivalent in tackling corruption in Mali, and uneven about term limits in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. While West Africa has suffered the fastest decline in political rights and civil liberties, its partners have prioritized counterterrorism or strategic competition with China and Russia over democracy promotion. This regression has set the conditions for soldiers to seize power or at least use it as pretext for military action.
- Apply Lasting Penalties. Africa’s regional bodies and international partners have been going through the motions, instituting temporary suspensions and occasionally levying economic sanctions. These punitive measures usually are lifted quickly either because other priorities are paramount or at the slightest sign of progress. This leniency has enabled coup leaders to make minimal concessions while preparing for longer stays in power.
- Shape the Transition. The international community has been lulled into accepting an increasingly similar transition plan, including dialogues and 18-month timelines, without questioning the process or objective. In Chad, for example, there is no pressing need to revise the constitution except for the fact that it bars Déby for running for the presidency because of his youth. In Mali, the junta has put forward a transition agenda that is simultaneously expansive and vague, making it difficult to identify priorities or assess progress. Transitions should be fit for purpose, and local, regional, and international stakeholders should help set the various milestones and timelines.
- Prioritize Collective Action. The growing gap between neighboring countries, regional bodies, and foreign governments, especially ECOWAS, France, and the United States, have enabled authoritarian rulers and coup leaders to forum shop and undercut more forceful responses. President Biden’s Summit for Democracy could start a much-needed discussion on coordination and develop a new repertoire of responses to antidemocratic actions and coups d’état in the region.
Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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