Guinea held two major votes on Sunday, March 22: one for the National Assembly and the other for a referendum to change the Guinean constitution. The elections took place in a troubled country.
Rally of the Guinean People (RPG): The ruling party, led by Alpha Condé, is fielding candidates for the 114-seat National Assembly.
Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG): The main opposition party, led by Cellou Dalein Diallo, is boycotting the elections.
Union of Republican Forces (UFR): This opposition party, led by Sidya Touré, is also boycotting the elections.
Several small parties are fielding candidates. The parliamentary terms run for five years.
Two Votes, Multiple Concerns
In Guinea, legislative elections were originally planned to take place in January 2019, but have been delayed on four separate occasions due to political instability and bouts of violence stemming from mass protests against President Alpha Condé led by opposition parties and their supporters. At the core of the protesters’ message is concern that President Condé is using the constitutional referendum as a pretext to run for a third term, as the ratification of a new constitution would create a new republic and reset the clock for presidential term limits.
Since the announcement of the referendum in April 2019, thousands of Guineans sporting red shirts have amassed in the streets to rail against Condé’s proposition to change the constitution. The citizen movement, comprising members of labor unions, civil society organizations, and opposition political parties, is known as the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC). The FNDC didn’t grow directly out of opposition politics, but the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG)—the largest of the opposition parties to President Condé’s Rally of the Guinean People (RPG)—holds immense sway over the direction and nature of the demonstrations.
Nearly a dozen FNDC protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces since the movement began. The escalating violence has prompted fears that Guinea might once again suffer a military coup d’état in a bid to “restore order”, as happened under the twenty-four-year-long rule of President Lansana Conté and, following his death in 2008, under the transitional military junta initiated by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara.
Why A New Constitution?
The new constitution would replace the current one that was drafted and passed on May 7, 2010, during Guinea’s transitional period from 2008 to 2010, which was a delicate time for the country. Camara had promised a quick turnaround to civilian rule and that he would not run in newly organized elections, but by mid-2009 it was becoming clear he was reneging on his promises. The country was at a flashpoint on September 28, 2009, when Camara’s security forces fired on protesters at a mass opposition rally in the capital of Conakry, killing 157 people, injuring more than a thousand, and arresting several prominent opposition figures and civil leaders, including UFDG leader Cellou Dalein Diallo.
Not long after, Camara was shot and wounded by his former aide-de-camp and airlifted to a military hospital in Morocco for treatment. His vice president, General Sékouba Konaté, stepped in as acting president. Under international pressure, Konaté helped Guinea move toward its first true multiparty election since independence in 1958. In the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou, where Camara was living in exile, he, Konaté, and Burkinabe president Blaise Compaoré signed the Ouagadougou Accord, an agreement to end the political stand-off in Guinea and form an interim government in the run-up to presidential elections within six months. Camara would remain in exile.
The National Assembly of this era was not elected but appointed. Thus, while not delegitimizing the Guinean Constitution they implemented, it does reflect the reality that the current constitution is in need of some amending down the line to properly reflect the wishes of the Guinean electorate. The actual content of Condé’s proposed changes to the constitution would make it one of the most progressive ones in francophone West Africa. Among the many changes, it calls for the abolition of the death penalty; formally bans female genital mutilation, slavery, and child labor; makes school compulsory up to the age of 16; lowers the age one can run as a political candidate from 25 to 18; requires one-third of parliament be made up of women; and grants equal rights to all partners in divorce proceedings.
Voter Rolls Called Into Question, Voters Question Election Integrity
Regardless of how one may feel about the proposed constitution, the vote for it and the National Assembly is in jeopardy if the opposition parties boycott the election. The largest parties of the opposition, the UFDG and the Union of Republican Forces (UFR) led by Sidya Touré, have made it clear that they approve of no changes to the constitution as long as Condé remains in power. Should they successfully convince their supporters not to vote, turnout for the March 22 election could be low enough to seriously call into question the validity of the results.
It’s not just the opposition parties that President Condé has to concern himself with. In Afrobarometer polls taken in 2019, a large majority of Guineans expressed a lack of faith in the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). Their suspicions are not unfounded. Three experts appointed by ECOWAS to assist CENI in auditing the country’s voter registrations found significant discrepancies.
Among 11.9 million registered voters, the ECOWAS audit found that 3.5 million of them were duplicates, 164,000 were deceased, and 59,000 were minors. The experts recommended the immediate purge of more than 2.4 million names on the voters’ role to ensure the integrity of the election. As CENI has occupied itself with that, demonstrations have continued, and clashes have escalated between protesters, soldiers, and police officers.
Guinean Economy Resilient Amid Demonstrations, Clashes
Some analysts are tempted to characterize this violence as a simple ethnic conflict between the Mandinka, largely represented by the ruling RPG–Arc-en-Ciel coalition, the Fula under Cellou Dalein Diallo’s UFDG, and the Susu for Sidya Touré’s UFR, but this ignores a component of Guinean political culture that has existed since Ahmed Sékou Touré regime and codified near the end of Lansana Conté’s rule. According to historian Dr. Aly Gilbert Iffono, Guinea’s rulers have benefited from fanatical mouvements de soutien, or supporter movements, that help present to the Guinean public the illusion of widespread popular support for autocratic rulers and as a pressure group against political dissent.
These movements are largely made up of unemployed graduates, perennial unemployed workers, informal sector laborers who earn low wages, and highway bandits, all of whom are willing to blindly rally in support of whichever political movement makes them promises. This isn’t to say the FNDC protesters are all manipulated and have no agency in calls to oppose Sunday’s election, rather that the zealous character of these mouvements de soutien can easily escalate a demonstration into a riot or ignite fights with security forces.
Aside from democracy advocates and election observers, the double vote is being closely followed by multinational mining companies, who own large operating stakes in Guinea’s mining industry. Mined ores comprise more than 50 percent of all of Guinea’s exports, and mining makes up 17 percent of the country’s GDP, but what is most valued by mining firms is Guinea’s vast reserves of bauxite, an aluminum-based ore used in a variety of chemical applications and in the cement, steel, and petrol industries. Instability arising from a contested election is unlikely to jeopardize Guinea’s mining operations as long as clashes don’t reach the Forested Guinea region, where the bulk of the country’s mineral deposits are located.
Update: March 23
Guinean security forces were deployed in force on Sunday March 22 to protect polling locations throughout the country. Supporters and opponents of the constitutional referendum clashed in the streets of Conakry, leading to four deaths, according to the Ministry of Security. The FNDC claims ten protesters died during clashes and that some protesters sustained gunshot wounds, whereas the Ministry of Security reported nine officers suffered injuries.
Demonstrators descended on polling stations in the province of Middle Guinea, a bastion of support for Diallo’s UFDG, and stole or destroyed voting materials. Some areas saw the majority of their polling stations closed in response to these attacks.
Election and Referendum Results
On April 1, CENI announced that President Alpha Condé’s RPG party won 79 of the National Assembly’s 114 seats, granting the party a clear majority. The Constitutional Court proclaimed the new constitution, adopted by a majority of nearly 92 percent of the votes in favor, amid the boycott by opposition parties. President Condé enacted the amended constitution on April 7, the same day he announced the creation of a US$315 million “economic response plan” to the COVID-19 pandemic.