Guinea: No Coups Are Good Coups
With Mike McGovern, allAfrica.com, 22 March 2006
Last Saturday, the Republic of Guinea’s second president, Lansana Conté, was evacuated from Conakry to Geneva, gravely ill. Twenty-two years ago, in March 1984, the first president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, was evacuated, similarly ill, from Conakry to Cleveland, Ohio. He died there, and one week later, a group of officers – led by Conte – took power in a coup d’état. Guineans then danced in the streets of Conakry, thrilled to be rid of a dictator. Now, there are army officers in Conakry again preparing a coup. If they take power, there will be more dancing in the streets, for Guinea will once again be rid of a dictator.
Such events need to be seen for what they are, not what we would like them to be. People living in terrible circumstances under repressive governments dance in the streets not because the new putschists are good, but because the old ones were bad. Africa has known over one hundred coups d’état since the 1960s, and until 2005, only one – Mali’s coup of 1991 – was judged to be a “good” one. However, political fashions change, and coups are suddenly à la mode again.
This is largely due to the Mauritanian coup of August 2005. Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, handsome, straightforward, and evidently of irreproachable morals, has Western diplomats swooning, and even the African Union (whose predecessor institution, the Organisation of African Unity, held the rejection of coups as its first article of faith) seems impatient for elections to take place so it can lift its ban of disapprobation.
The euphoria over the Mauritanian coup, like the cynically blind eye turned to the de facto coup in Togo last year, has not been lost on the officer corps in Conakry. The day after the Mauritanian coup, the Conakry press called upon the army to take power in Guinea. They had forgotten that Conte himself had led the National Military Committee of Renewal in 1984, one that was meant to reverse the culture of fear, torture and repression developed in Guinea during Sékou Touré’s 26-year rule. They forgot that the same year, 1984, Ould Taya had come to power in Mauritania amidst dancing in the streets in Nouakchott, having overthrown the dictator who preceded him.
If Guineans failed to make the connection, nursing false hopes that the forcible and illegal confiscation of power would lead to the reestablishment of good governance and rule of law, they had a good reason: most Guinean families in Conakry eat once a day, if they are lucky. In such an atmosphere of desperation and hunger, they might welcome any putative saviour.
And yet, the Guineans seem to be several steps ahead of those who might think they know what is best for Guinea. Despite dire economic conditions, Guineans stayed home and universally respected a general strike for five days in late February-early March, shutting down Conakry, forgoing what little money their work would have brought them. In 1960, Guinea’s trade unions were obliterated by Sékou Touré’s brutal repression of a teachers’ strike, which marked the first step in his move toward dictatorial and authoritarian rule. Although unions were made legal again by Lansana Conté’s government, they have never done anything consequential since – until two weeks ago.
Guinea’s opposition parties, until now divided amongst themselves and motivated by a winner-take-all attitude, suddenly saw the risk that they would be bypassed by this organic coalition. They called a “National Consultation” to bring together opposition parties, trade unions, women’s groups, youth groups and civil society organizations. For the first time, these representatives of all sectors of Guinean society were discussing the country’s future together at the time the President was evacuated. They proposed the establishment of a transitional national unity government for 18 months, and they called for it to be supported by international observers, including representatives from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and the UN.
Although Guineans lived through a sombre and violent period under Touré’s socialist dictatorship, they developed a heightened sense of national unity, pride and a sense of civic responsibility. Much of Lansana Conté’s 22-year rule has been oriented toward replacing that sense with egotism, pillage and greed. Guineans have not forgotten the sense of communal sacrifice that prevailed, and many of them are ready to build upon that foundation a form of government that combines the patriotism of the past with the values of an open society.
Most of those quietly touting “good coups” in Africa consider it obvious that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is the wrong way to promote democracy. But there cannot be a different standard for Africa. Guineans deserve a legal and consultative succession. There are Guineans – some of them military leaders, others political figures uncertain of the support they could muster in a democratic arena – who would like to see power handed to them on a platter. Neither group speaks for the mass of Guineans, and in the last weeks, many ordinary Guineans have shown the willingness to take great risks in order to control their own destiny. We owe it to them to support them in that process.