The overthrow of President Alpha Conde in Guinea capped a steady slide from grace for the veteran opposition leader and human rights professor who critics say failed to live up to pledges to deliver democratic restoration and ethnic reconciliation.
A dishevelled Conde appeared in a video circulating on social media as he was being held in custody after the military seized power on Sunday, announcing that it had dissolved the constitution, shut down the country’s borders and imposed a nationwide curfew.
Draped in a Guinean flag and surrounded by a group of six soldiers in full gear, special forces commander Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya appeared on national television pledging to restore democracy.
“The personalisation of political life is over. We will no longer entrust politics to one man, we will entrust it to the people,” Doumbouya said.
The colonel, who has headed a special forces unit in the military, said he was acting in the best interests of the nation of more than 12.7 million people. Not enough economic progress has been made since independence from France in 1958, he said.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Dakar in neighbouring Senegal, said Sunday’s coup came a week after the parliament voted an increase in budget for the presidency, but a “substantial decrease” for civil servants and members of the security services.
The putsch came less than a year after Conde won a third presidential term in a violently disputed election last October following the adoption of a new constitution in March 2020 that allowed him to sidestep the country’s two-term limit, provoking mass protests.
Dozens of people were killed during demonstrations, often in clashes with security forces. Hundreds were arrested, including opposition leaders.
Sanctions or no sanctions?
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened to impose sanctions after what its chairman, Ghana’s President Nana Akuffo-Addo, called an attempted coup, while the African Union (AU) said it would meet urgently and take “appropriate measures”.
Akwasi Osei, professor of history and political science at Delaware State University, warned, though, that regional players will have to open a dialogue with the colonel as citizens are backing the military.
“Don’t forget that Doumbouya is a Conde man, he was placed in charge of the Special Forces and specially trained to protect Conde. This is important to understand perhaps why the country seems to stand behind him,” Osei told Al Jazeera.
“All sources say that in spite of the AU, ECOWAS’ requests of them [the military] to go back to the barracks, it’s not working … is not being heard in Guinea,” he added.
“There is no question that Doumbouya is in charge and he is the de facto head. So sanctions or not sanctions they will have to talk to him and more importantly they will have to take the measures of the country and it is clear that it is a popular uprising, at least as of the moment,” Osei said.
For Conde’s critics, the third-term bid was the final nail in the coffin of his claims to be “Guinea’s Mandela” and risked chaos in the West African bauxite and iron ore producer.
Alioune Tine, an independent human rights expert for the United Nations and founder of the AfrikaJom Center think-tank, said Conde’s refusal to cede power had made either a popular uprising or a coup inevitable.
“Alpha Conde is one of the politicians who worked over 40 years for democracy in Guinea. Once in power, he totally destroyed it,” Tine told Reuters.
“He put people in prison. He killed and he completely refused any political dialogue with the opposition.”
Conde has previously denied accusations of human rights abuses. Echoing other African leaders who altered constitutions to hang onto power, he said he needed more time to realise his vision of a modern Guinea.
The lead-up to the election last October was marred by sporadic violence between members of Conde’s Malinke ethnic group and supporters of his main rival Cellou Dalein Diallo Peul. Conde was declared the winner with 59.5 percent of the vote. Diallo disputed the results.
Human Rights Watch says at least 12 people died in the post-election violence.
The 2010 election of Conde, Guinea’s most prominent champion of multi-party democracy, was greeted with optimism by human rights activists and international organisations.
Until then, Conde had been the chief critic of a succession of leaders: Ahmed Sekou Toure, who ruled from independence in 1958 until he died in 1984; Lansana Conte, who seized power in a coup after Toure’s death; and Moussa Dadis Camara, who led a coup after Conte’s death in 2008.
His advocacy earned him a death sentence under Toure, forcing him into exile in France, where he became an assistant professor of human rights at the Sorbonne.
He lost presidential elections to Conte in 1993 and 1998. In 1998, he was arrested on the eve of the vote, accused of plotting to overthrow the government and jailed for the next two years.
After the ruling military government agreed in 2010 to a democratic transition, Conde finally got his chance to stand in an open election and scored an upset victory over Diallo.
“I will try in my small way to be Guinea’s Mandela and unite every son of Guinea,” he said in his inaugural address. “The restoration of social cohesion and national unity requires a collective look at our painful past.”