Monday, January 12, 2009

Groundhog Day in Guinea

A long-ailing dictator finally dies. A corrupt, repressive regime heading a sclerotic state is overthrown, replaced by a military junta of young officers which tears up the constitution, promises to crack down on graft and improve the country's economic state and launches a purge of high ranking officials. 1984 in Guinea is repeating itself.

The death of the country's strongman, Gen. Lansana Conté, has cast confusion into a country that once billed itself an island of stability in a turblent West African sea. Conté himself came to power in a 1984 military coup under nearly identical circumstances as today. Less than a day after his death, a group of young soldiers took power and formed a ruling junta called the National Committee for Democracy and Development (known by its French-acronym CNDD).

As expected, the seizure of power was widely condemned by the outside world, including the US, European Union, African Union and the West African regional body ECOWAS. This is understandable, as these entities tend to have a pro forma opposition to military coups d'Etat.

What's notable is how the coup was generally welcomed by Guineans themselves. Pres. Abdoulaye Wade of neighboring Senegal was one of the few foreign leaders to urge recognition of the junta. The civilian opposition parties in Guinea were also notable in their failure to condemn the putsch.

The main difference is that outside countries and organization hold general principles like military intervention is always bad, civilian rule is always good, constitutionalism and elections are the be all and end all. These are good principles in theory and perhaps the only principles these organizations can actually enunciate but in practice, things are more nuanced.

The main reason Guineans themselves supported this military intervention against "constitutionalism" is because constitutionalism in Guinea was a fraud. The Guinean loi fondamentale was basically ignored by Conté and the cabal around him, including his minions in the judiciary. The constitution Conté himself (or his loyalists) wrote decreed that the head of state be a civilian. Yet Conté remained an active military general for nearly all of his reign. The constitution allowed the Supreme Court to declare a 'vacancy in power' should the president die or become seriously ill and that the National Assembly president become acting head of state. Despite Conté being a virtual vegetable for years, such a vacancy was never declared and the state remained paralyzed. In fact, the current National Assembly's mandate officially ended in 2006 as legislative elections have been repeatedly postponed. So it's debatable whether the normal constitutional process would even be legal in this case.

In suspending the constitution, the CNDD merely formalized what had been the reality of the past several years: the Guinean constitution had long ceased to be relevant to the country's politics.

And it's worth asking why the Conté regime's massive human rights abuses, abuses of power, corruption, arbitrary arrests and the like did not garner a fraction of the international condemnation received by the soldiers who put an end to this regime.

In reality, the military intervention was not a coup against an irrelevant constitution. It was a coup against an irredeemably corrupt system. The mafia around Conté has had a stranglehold on the economy for years. Had the "constitutional" transition taken place, this cabal would've retained its suffocating control on the floundering economy. People who had a vested interest in the system were never going to permit changes. They'd proven this in the way several of Conté's former prime ministers found their much needed ideas for reform strangled by those vested interests. A "constitutional" transition would've permitted the continuation of the dysfunctional, sclerotic institutions and faux democracy that had never been given a chance to work normally.

Conté had been a vegetable for years. It's an open secret that his cabal has been de facto running the country for a long time. The "constitutional process" would have both legitimized and perpetuated this disastrous state of affairs.

In principle, I don't like appear to be endorsing military coups. But when legality has long ceased to be part of the equation, what's the difference? Who cares whether the men illegally holding power wear khaki or not?

The main concern about the coup is talk of a split within the armed forces. High-ranking military officials opposed the coup and supported the "constitutional" continuation of the system from which many of them benefited. Junior officers, feeling they got the short end of the stick, led the coup. Guinea's new head of state, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, has publicly admitted divisions within the armed forces and urged dissident officers to remain calm, though this appeal came a few days after the junta arrested several top generals.

The CNDD's reign may not ultimately lead to democracy and good governance. But a continuation of the old system was guaranteed to prevent those things. A short-lived military junta is not sure to bring progress, but regime change is the only chance for such progress to have the slightest hope of getting enough oxygen to thrive.

It's worth remembering that the CMRN junta led by Conté from 1984-93 brought real improvements to the Guinean economic and political climate before they became too comfortable with power and fell prey to Lord Acton's Dictum.

The Guinean opposition is calcified and opposition parties are based largely on the cult of personality around their party leader. Nearly all older opposition parties have the same leader they did when pseudo-democracy was declared in the early 90s. Nearly all of the newer opposition parties formed since have been created by a dissident from an existing party who got pissed off and formed a party around their own self. Opposition parties are mostly ethnically-based and have no real ideological agendas... other than professing their belief in democracy (because that's what all parties say when in opposition).

But in fairness, the repression waged by Conté's regime really prevented opposition parties from having the political space to operate normally. Opposition party members were systematically harassed, subjected to arbitrary arrest and the like.

Neither was civil society really given much space to operate, except when they finally forced themselves onto the scene during the general strike of early 2007. And the general strike might prove to be one of the most significant events in Guinean history. It was the first civilian event that truly made the dictatorial Conté regime tremble with fear, because it was the first uprising that was truly popular in origin. It was the second time in Guinea's history that a grass roots uprising made a dictatorial regime blink, the 1977 market women's revolt being the first.

With the former opposition political parties impotent and incoherent, an organized and assertive civil society might be the difference between a military junta that keeps its promise to cede power via democratic elections this year and one that finds a million excuses to hang on to power ad infinitum.

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At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Mark said...

An excellent entry. I also have been following events in Guinea, and from what I saw, I too had trouble understanding why the international community was so quick to condemn the overthrow of this corrupt regime. If many average Guineans support a change, and in fact support this coup, what is the international community going to do? They obviously failed to pressure Conte to change, so pressure from the bottom up had to fill the vacuum.
For now, we wait and see for the resuls of the coup.

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Mark: western countries and international institutions condemn military coups against civilian regimes in a pro forma fashion. And understandably so. They don't want to set a precedent whereby militaries feel at liberty to overthrow democratic regimes such as in Mauritania last year. They at least want militaries to know there will be consequences if this happens. It's also leverage to pressure these juntas to hold on to power for as short a period of time as possible.

At 10:25 PM, Anonymous Mark said...

Oh I definitely see their perspective. However, this case, if anything, shows that a cookie cutter policy approach doesn't always work. But if pressure can be applied on a junta to quickly carry out a transition back to democracy, then that makes sense.

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Brian said...

No doubt. But really what policy can the outside world have? When organizations like the AU start saying, "Coup x bad, coup y good," it opens itself up to charges of hypocrisy and double standards. Which of course it faces anyways because it never expels an existing regime because of human rights abuses (which are a violation of the African Charter on Human Rights). And on and on...


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