On Guinea and Alpha Condé: Will He or Won’t He?

The man Guinean president Alpha Condé likes to compare himself with is none other then Nelson Mandela. And yes, there are similarities. Both spent most of their lives opposing odious governments. Mandela’s fight was against the racist apartheid regime that jailed him for 27 years. Condé’s enemies included Guinea’s first president Sékou Touré, who condemned him to death in absentia, and then Lansana Conté, who had him jailed and tortured when he contested a presidential election.

Apartheid finally died its natural death in 1994 and South Africa rejoiced, albeit briefly. The symbol of that joy could not have been anyone else but Mandela himself, who, at 76, oversaw the brief transition to something resembling political normality and stepped down after one term in office.

Condé had to wait for the deaths of his two nemeses to finally get his chance. He was 72 when he became Guinea’s first democratically elected president but he is not content to oversee a transition: he wants to be that transition. Undoing what Guineans always scathingly refer to as “Fifty years of bad habits” is his life’s work. His staff, many of them younger than the president, reportedly complain that they cannot keep up with him.

Indeed, there is a lot to be done. Alpha Condé’s most famous quote is when he quipped, upon election: ‘I have inherited a nation but not a state.’ This is true: the state, first made synonymous with brutal one-party rule under Touré and then completely hollowed out as Conté mismanaged Guinea into near-bankruptcy, needs to be built from the ground up. This means ending corruption, excessive profligacy, widespread absenteeism, and putting a stop to the corrosive practice of appointing incompetent sons, daughters, nieces and nephews to positions of responsibility.

But in spite of all this reformist zeal, Condé also remains a very Old School politician, from a generation of men whose very presence embodied the party. Kenneth Kaunda was the United National Independence Party; Kwame Nkrumah was the Convention People’s Party; Julius Nyerere was the Tanganyika African National Union. And so it is with Alpha Condé. The Rassemblement du people de Guinée (RPG), the dominant force in the ruling presidential coalition: very much his creation, his operation. What he says, goes.

Times are changing, though, and there is an increasingly impatient generation that has grown heartily tired of this Big Men politics. While not necessarily enamoured of the consensus models so beloved in Western Europe, they are willing to try something else because they have come to the conclusion that Big Men politics do not produce the desired results, in spite of Condé’s tireless efforts. They will be disheartened to hear the constant trickle of hints that suggests Condé may want to consider a further term in office. He appears to be weighing his options and gives ambiguous responses whenever the question is put to him.

Let’s be clear: if true, this is both unconstitutional and irresponsible. Changing the Constitution will not necessarily be the walk in the park à la Rwanda: Condé neither dominates politics as completely as Paul Kagame does, nor is he universally loved, thanks in no small part to his rather abrasive personality, honed in decades of adversity. But even if he managed it, he would be well to remember a phrase from a Liberian journalist when president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, another long-standing oppositional figure who became head of state, broke an election promise and went for a second term in office: ‘What does she think Liberia is?’ he bristled, ‘Her private project?’

There is a further point to be made. Any confirmation that Condé would be willing to consider a third term would revive what Guineans so aptly call “the ethno-political strategy”. Many observers tend to describe the nation’s politics in simplistic and inaccurate ethnic terms. They do this for political reasons; hence Guineans’ coinage of the term. Condé’s bid would quickly be framed as “another Malinké power grab,” as this is supposedly the ethnic group Condé is beholden to, to the exclusion of everyone else. It is factually incorrect, but like ethno-political siren calls in Europe and the United States, it has appeal. Condé, who has done much to improve Guinea’s economic performance and its standing in the world, must surely be aware of those dangers. Hopefully, he will provide transparency about his intentions and hand over to the generation that has been waiting in the wings for so long.

 

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