Guinean authorities released an official report on the violence that broke out in the city of Nzérékoré on March 22, when Guinea held a contested legislative election and constitutional referendum. On that day and the following days, several clashes broke out between security forces and political opposition, which boycotted the elections in protest of what they believed to be an attempt by President Alpha Condé to pave the way for him to run for a third term in 2022. This was despite the new Guinean constitution clearly stipulating a two-term limit.
“Abuses by the security forces are fueling an already deep-seated distrust of the authorities”
The attorney general of Kankan, a city 375 kilometers north of Nzérékoré, said on Tuesday, May 26, that thirty civilians were killed and sixty-seven were injured during the clashes in late March. He said tensions were fueled by local officials of the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC), a coalition of opposition groups and civil society organizations that were at the forefront of the anti-referendum and anti-Condé protests.
The FNDC, on the other hand, has reported that at least sixty-six people were killed in Nzérékoré, and nearly twice as many across the country. They accuse the governing party and the security forces of these deaths.
Human Rights Watch interviewed victims of the violence, witnesses, doctors, and political leaders in April and May, and has said there was credible evidence that the security forces used excessive force during the street protests, but those implicated have not been held to account.
The FNDC and other members of the opposition have also accused the Condé administration of using the COVID-19 restrictions to target and arrest people. “Abuses by the security forces are fueling an already deep-seated distrust of the authorities, adding an obstacle to the fight against COVID-19,” says Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), an international coalition of human rights organizations, warns that Guinean authorities are using the country’s state of emergency to suppress opposition political groups and human rights activists. Opponents of the controversial referendum to amend the national constitution enacted on April 7 have faced arrests, arbitrary detainment, judicial harassment, and acts of intimidation.
Collectively, these political opponents refer to themselves as the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC), whose leadership has been held without due process for more than two months now. The FNDC rejected the legitimacy of Guinea’s newly elected national assembly and opposed the constitutional referendum for fears it would allow Presiden Alpha Condé to run again for a third term. Although the Guinean constitution limits presidents to two terms, the ratification of a new constitution effectively resets the clock, which would allow Condé to run again in 2026.
The arrests of dissidents is especially concerning given the crowded conditions in prisons.
The FIDH has also raised concerns over several deaths last week linked to protests over roadblocks set up by security forces to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The pandemic’s presence in Guinea coupled with escalating arrests of political dissidents is especially concerning given the crowded conditions in Guinean prisons, which have already reported infections.
COVID-19 is expected to curtail much of the economic progress made in sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting an average regional GDP shrinkage of 1.6 percent due to a dip in commodity prices. However, five African countries are actually projected to exit the pandemic with positive growth rates, three of which are located in West Africa.
Niger and South Africa are seeing some of the worst GDP growth contractions on the continent.
Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Guinea, Botswana, and the Seychelles are all predicted to see positive growth rates—between 6.8 and 8.7 percent—in 2021, thanks in part to their economies being largely dependent on the agricultural sector. Nations like Nigeria and South Africa, dependent on oil and raw ore exports, respectively, are seeing some of the worst GDP growth contractions on the continent. Other sectors, such as tourism, transport, and commerce, will still feel the oncoming recession induced by the pandemic, piling on additional public debt burdens on these states.
The combination of existing outstanding debts coupled with these grim economic forecasts has resulted in a chorus of African leaders, including African Union special envoy for infrastructure Raila Odinga, to call for full debt relief.
African clergymen have presented a powerful force for social and theological consciousness in the Catholic Church in recent years, perhaps none better known than Cardinal Robert Sarah. Many Vatican insiders feel that Sarah could be the first African pope in centuries.
There have been only three African popes, going back to the early days of the Catholic Church: Pope Victor I (189–199), Pope Miltiades (also known as Melchiades) (311–314), and Pope Gelasius (492–496). All three men are believed to have been of full or partial North African (Berber) ancestry.
Robert Sarah was born in 1945 in the village Ourous in the far north of Guinea (then known as French Guinea). His parents had converted to Christianity from a pagan belief system, and their intense belief and passion often found in converts would have a profound impact on their son.
By the age of twelve, Sarah was already enrolled in a minor seminary, studying and discerning his vocation for the priesthood. He was ordained as a priest in 1969. For a young man with a sharp mind and strong faith, local parishes and communities would prove too small.
An Impressive Rise
For centuries, the Catholic Church has looked to Europe for its archbishops and, of course, its popes. When the current pontiff, Pope Francis, was elected in 2013, he was first bishop from outside Europe (in his case Argentina) to ascend to the Holy See.
Yet this bias, if anything, makes the young African’s ascent up the Church’s hierarchy all the more impressive and also speaks to another quality: determination.
At just thirty-four years old, Sarah was appointed metropolitan archbishop of Conakry by Pope John Paul II. At the time of his ordination, he was the youngest bishop in the world. When John Paul II had his first meeting with Sarah, he asked him his age. Sarah recalls that when he replied that he was only in his mid-thirties, the pope burst into laughter and exclaimed that he was “un vescovo bambino”, a baby bishop.
The two spiritual leaders would become friends. It was perhaps their shared struggles against totalitarianism that brought them together.
John Paul II was a vocal opponent of Communism both in his native Poland and worldwide. Sarah, while serving as archbishop, was put on a blacklist by Ahmed Sékou Touré, the first president of Guinea and a brutal authoritarian with close ties to the Communist bloc. Touré's regime killed or disappeared an estimated 50,000 people and some two million people fled the country out of a population of six million. Sarah saw the regime for what it was, and his work to keep the church separate from the regime made him a de facto enemy of the state. Prior to Touré’s death in 1984, Sarah had been put on on a "death list" by the Marxist regime.
Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul II’s successor, made Sarah Cardinal-Deacon of the See of San Giovanni Bosco in via Tuscolana.
A Force for Traditionalism
Sarah, now Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments at the appointment of Pope Francis, is seen as one of the Catholic Church’s strongest forces for traditionalism worldwide. Many Catholics see him as a papabile, a cardinal who has the potential to be the next pope. His close ties to John Paul II’s legacy have certainly helped his rise.
Sarah has consistently taken hardline stances on Catholic teaching and doctrine, a position he believes is common sense for Catholics.
This strict adherence to doctrine applies to all social issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, secularism, artificial birth control, and other concepts he opposes.
“The idea of putting Magisterial teaching in a beautiful display case while separating it from pastoral practice, which then could evolve along with circumstances, fashions, and passions, is a sort of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology,” Sarah says in his book on faith with writer Nicolas Diat, God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith.
Sarah’s concerns surround what he sees as a rapidly secularizing and modernizing Catholic laity and clergy. He has repeatedly warned against seeing oneself as the center of one’s spiritual life, and laments decreasing religiosity in the Church’s most sacred liturgical celebrations.
“We observe more and more that man seeks to take the place of God,” Sarah says in God or Nothing. “The liturgy then becomes a mere human game. If eucharistic celebrations turn into human celebrations of ourselves and places where we apply our pastoral ideologies and partisan political preferences, which have nothing to do with spiritual worship that is to be celebrated as God wills, the danger is immense. For then God disappears.”
Sarah sees the Church of Africa, his own jurisdiction, as a section of the Catholic Church that must lead the charge against the allegedly rapid modernization and alternative interpretations of Church teachings.
“I therefore solemnly state that the Church in Africa is staunchly opposed to any rebellion against the teaching of Jesus and of the Magisterium…. The Church of Africa is committed in the name of the Lord Jesus to keeping unchanged the teaching of God and of the Church.”
Many European nations have more Christian deaths than births.
His faith in the Church of Africa reflects not only the growing numbers of Christians on the continent, but also their religious commitment, which far outflanks the traditionally Christian countries of Europe and North America.
According to a Pew Research Study, “Christians in Africa and Latin America… tend to pray and attend church at higher rates than Christians in most of the rest of the world. For instance, at least four out of five Christians in Nigeria, Liberia, Senegal, Cameroon, and Chad pray every day.”
In the same study, Pew states that many European nations, plagued by falling church attendance and a lack of religious commitment, have more Christian deaths than births.
Sarah’s challenges for a revitalization in the Church does not stop at this lapsed laity. He has also lamented the failings of himself and his brother clergymen: “We bishops ought to tremble at the thought of our guilty silences, our complicit silences, our overindulgent silences in dealing with the world.”
The fervent traditionalism and hardline orthodoxy of Cardinal Sarah make him an exceptional and highly public figure among Catholics at a time when the Church is being asked to re-examine its teachings in the face of changing social mores.
Timothy Nerozzi is a journalist and writer currently reporting on religious issues.
Existing tensions in Guinea were exacerbated by President Alpha Condé’s abrupt decision to postpone the general election and constitutional referendum that were to be held on Sunday, March 1, citing flawed voter registration. Opposition groups have helped to organize mass protests since October 2019 against the planned referendum on a new constitution, accusing Condé of using the pretext of changes to the constitution to effectively reset the clock on presidential term limits, allowing him to run for a third term despite the 2010 constitution clearly defining a two-term limit.
Why It Matters
Alpha Condé became Guinea’s first president to be elected through democratic multiparty elections since the country declared independence from France in 1958. There was hope that Condé would be an advocate for democratic reforms, but his efforts to extend his rule for a potential additional twelve years raise doubts that he can live up to such lofty ideals. Clashes between security forces and protesters have left at least thirty people dead. This had left some observers worried that an escalation of the political crisis could lead to another coup d’état, like the one in 2008 that resulted in the removal of long-time president Lansana Conté, who had declared himself president after a bloodless military coup in 1984.
What Happens Next?
The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, opposition groups, and a delegation of West African leaders led by Nigerien president Mahamadou Issoufou have found problems with about 2.5 million of the 7.7 million names on the voter roll, pointing to duplicate registrations and the names of people who had died. And just before the weekend, the African Union recalled an election observation delegation due to a “major controversy” with the voter roll. The increase in names on the roll mainly occurred in the region where Condé has broad political support, which raises questions about the credibility of the poll.
As of this writing, Condé has not announced a new date for the elections or the referendum, but a letter from the Economic Community of West African States regarding the matter suggested a delay of no more than two weeks. Opposition leaders have vowed to keep up the protests despite the postponement; they wantCondé to leave power under the current constitution.