Elections and Ethnicity in Guinea

There is a certain deja vu about how Alpha Conde stays in power: every time there's an election he exploits ethnic divisions.

Alpha Conde in London, 2013. Image: Chatham House, via Flickr CC.

The traffic along the Route de Fidel Castro, the main thoroughfare that runs through Conakry, was among the lightest I’d ever seen Monday evening. Usually, the infamous embouteillage (literally, “bottle-neck”) of Conakry has vehicles inching along as crowds of people weave through the streets on their way to and from work, or take advantage of stranded customers by offering products of every imaginable variety for sale through your car window. On Monday, however, the massive, bustling market of Madina was closed, as were shops and businesses throughout the city, as rumors of violent clashes in the areas of Avaria and Boussoura spread unease and even fear.

The clashes, as it transpires, were minor and short-lived. The atmosphere of tension, however, was not unfounded. Guinea’s legislative elections on Tuesday, September 24th will be the first to be remotely “free and fair” in the country’s history, and the last two years of negotiations and delays have resulted in dozens of violent and deadly clashes throughout the country. 

Guinea is a state of more than 11 million people and is home to over two dozen ethnic groups including the Fulani (French, Peul) at over 40% of the population, the Malinké (or Mandingo) at approximately 30%, and the Soussou at 20%. It was part of the great Malian Empire from the 13th to 15th centuries, is the source of both the Niger and Senegal Rivers, has some of the world’s largest reserves of bauxite and iron-ore in its Nimba Mountains, and, in 1958, was the first French colony south of the Sahara to gain independence.

Despite independence leader Sekou Touré’s idealistic speeches about Pan-Africanism, equality, and respect for diversity, he was a callous autocrat who ruled the country until his death in 1984. His successor, Lansana Conté, was a member of the Soussou ethnic group who ruled until 2008. For fifty years, the political norm was one of frequently jailing and occasionally publicly hanging political opponents, stealing from the state coffers while letting existing infrastructure crumble, and, most importantly, activating ethnic cleavages .

After Lansana Conté’s death in 2008, a military coup brought the crazed Captain Dadis Camara to power. On September 28, 2009, a pro-democracy protest in Conakry’s soccer stadium ended when the military opened fire, killing over 157 people and raping an estimated 300 women. In December of 2009, Captain Dadis was shot, and in the ensuing void, a provisional government was established that wrote a constitution and organized the country’s first legitimate presidential elections in 2010.

Each of Guinea’s three dictators had made a habit of providing posts and contracts to members of their own ethnic group while ensuring more investment in their home region; Captain Dadis, of the Guerze ethnicity who hails from the Forest Region, is still beloved there for bringing better roads, social services, and electricity during his brief tenure. The elections of 2010, rather than break from this ethnocratic past, exploited it. In the first round of the elections, the Fulani presidential candidate, Cellou Dalein Diallo, won 44% of the vote, while his next closest opponent, the Malinké candidate Alpha Condé, won just 18%. Opponents of President Condé claim he rigged the final vote, which he won with 52%, but from election slogans and the prevalence of ethnic-based voting, it is clear that Condé’s success was based on a uniting of other ethnic groups against the Fulani.

Condé is now three years into his five-year presidential term. There are a number of Soussou and a scattering of Fulani members of Condé’s government, but the RPG-Arc-en-Ciel (Rally of the Guinean People-Rainbow Party) is overwhelmingly Malinké and Soussou, while the main opposition party, the UFDG (Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea), still led by Diallo, is overwhelmingly Fulani. There is an idea that can be heard throughout the Fulani community of Guinea that, “after over 60 years, it should finally be our turn to rule.” Malinké and Soussou communities respond that, as Fulanis are overall wealthier and more prosperous, “they already run the economy, so don’t give them political power too.”

The tendency, including in the paragraphs above, to describe African politics in terms of ethnic groups is not so very far removed from the exoticizing and imperialist view of “warring tribes” that once pervaded Western constructs of the continent. Even the horrors of Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Nigeria, indisputably ethnic in nature, are not typically examined by main-stream media through the frame of differing economic interests. It is simpler for many to assume that these people hate one another because of their differences in language and culture, and ethnic conflict becomes almost congruent to racism in the minds of many in the West. “Ethnic Clashes Kill Five in Conakry” read the headlines last Spring, while “More than 100 Killed in Ethnic Clashes” was the common title for the violence (unrelated to the elections, but rather over land-rights and economic interests) that plagued N’zérékoré in July. In 500 words or less, with reporters either not in Guinea, poorly translating from French-language sources, or flying into the country for a week to investigate, and with readers who hardly know where Guinea is located, let alone the country’s complex history and political or socio-economic environment, these articles do little justice to the situation at hand.

Democracy in Guinea is not so very different than, for example, Belgium. In Belgium, the Flemish majority and the Walloon (French-speaking) minority live mostly in different regions, with the Walloon area being less economically prosperous. Political crisis in Belgium has meant government formation talks often ended in deadlock in recent years, and there is prejudice and suspicion on both sides of the divide. It is in no way unique for politicians from certain geographical regions or cultural traditions to favor their own constituents — is that not how reelection occurs in a representative democracy? Just as Dadis brought better infrastructure and business to the Forest Region, would not a President Diallo bring investment to the Fouta Djallon? For a Fulani resident of Labé to vote for UFDG rather than RPG, under this analysis, would seem a wise choice, not at all motivated by prejudice.

This is a difficult space to navigate, however, because one cannot avoid the fact that, unlike Belgium, Guinea has experienced ethnic based violence in recent years that it would be foolish to conflate with a model of solely economic interests. In the fall of 2012 and the spring of 2013, mobs of either Malinké or Fulani youth would stop cars, demand the occupants speak, and if the wrong language was spoken, the result could vary from threats, to theft, to torched vehicles, to bodily harm. Gangs of Fulani youth would separate themselves from scheduled UFDG marches to throw stones and Molotov cocktails at the (predominantly Malinké) gendarmes, who would in turn respond with tear gas, water cannons, and occasionally bullets. In reaction, Malinké gangs of youth went into Madina market to loot and burn Fulani stalls and gendarmes entered Fulani homes, stealing cell phones and other valuables. Continuing the cycle, groups of Fulani youth burned at least two gendarmeries. Each time there are deaths, public funerals are held to honor the “martyrs”, which can be foci of even further clashes.

To the astute observer, the word “youth” will have emerged as an important detail of these patterns of violence. More than 60% of Guinea’s population is under the age of 24, with a median age of 19. The literacy rate is less than 50%, and a meaningful unemployment rate would be impossible to calculate because of how few Guineans participate in the formal economy. Indicators such as GDP or HDI (Human Development Index) are notoriously poor for painting an accurate picture of states in the developing world, but it is difficult to deny the statistics that place Guinea among the worst in the world for health, education, job opportunities, and overall standard of living. People are angry — especially the youth.

Young Guineans talk wistfully of neighboring Senegal, where there is electricity all the time, high speed internet access, shopping malls, and fast food. Sierra Leonean youth whose families immigrated during the war now talk of longing to go back permanently to Freetown, where everything is so much cleaner and more advanced than in Conakry. Three years into this democratic experiment has not delivered the salvation they were promised, and that disappointment and anger has found an outlet in political activism-turned-violent.

Older, educated, and professional Guineans show very few signs of ethnic prejudice and, if anything, demonstrate exhaustion with their country’s constant turmoil. They talk about the gangs of youth using a French term that roughly translates as “hooligans”, and give excuses for the violence by saying the young people are drunk, on drugs, without anything to do, and therefore make trouble not for political purposes, but for fun. “If only those young men would go to school,” I’ve heard said, “then none of this would be happening.” What this attitude belies, however, is the very real disenfranchisement that many Guineans, especially the youth, feel within the nascent democracy and the ethnic cleavages that have indeed been stoked since the time of Sekou Touré.

RPG banner

The streets in Conakry are adorned in political posters and the radio and television stations crammed with candidates recommending themselves. Yellow streamers (the color of the president’s RPG-Arc-en-Ciel) hang across some streets and shops while on others, giant green banners (the color of UFDG) with Dalein Diallo’s face declare “La Rupture — C’est Maintenant!” (The Break — It’s Now!). These are by no means the only political parties whose candidates are vying for election on Tuesday. Blue UFR (Union of Republican Forces) posters declare they are “La Solution!”, while the PUP (Unity and Progress Party) has banners that read “Votez PUP C’est de Refuser l’Ethnocentrisme Sous Toutes ses Forms” (Voting PUP is Rejecting Ethnocentrism in All Forms). Much as the side-lining of third parties in the United States, however, these other small parties are not the main event.

Fulani people from both wealthy and educated backgrounds and otherwise have expressed their certainty that UFDG will win the parliamentary elections unless President Condé rigs the vote. Malinké and Soussou residents of Conakry note how the president has started building a hydroelectric dam and has promised to provide more funding to hospitals (in giant billboards all around town) and argue that Alpha Condé and the RPG are leading Guinea in the right direction, and are sure to win. With the compromising of last spring holding, parades of supporters from opposing parties marched through the streets unhindered throughout August and the first two weeks of September, and hopes were high that the calm would remain.

As the strangely empty streets on Monday indicated, however, the next few days may be less-than peaceful. Diallo, as the leader of the coalition of opposition parties, announced on Sunday that there would be a protest today, Thursday, because the government has not published voter lists with sufficient time for them to be reviewed. Diallo claimed to have evidence of people being registered to vote in multiple districts and other massive errors, and is calling foul on the ruling party already, but on Tuesday evening, agreed to put off the protest to give election inspectors a chance to survey the situation.

At the time of this writing, this Conakry resident has no predictions of what will happen in the coming days. I would like to believe that cooler heads will prevail, and the silent-majority of Guineans who want peace, development, and a say in their government will overcome the minority of disaffected youth who have been played by politicians into their ethnic trenches. Guinea does need real activism to steer it away from its ethnocentric past and cycle of bad governance, but death, destruction of property, and further division of the Guinean people may be too high a price to pay.


Further Reading:

In English:

Guinea poised to complete transition to civilian rule – IRIN
Focus on Guinea’s Media as Legislative Poll Nears – VOA News
Guinea: Ethnicity, Democracy and Opposition – Think Africa Press

In French:

La Guinée, otage de la guerre des egoLe Pays
Guinée: l’opposition accepte d’annuler son appel à manifester – RFI
Tension en Guinée – GuineeNews

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.