Is dissent an act of faith in a democracy? Lessons from the Guinean military coup

Abdulai Mansaray: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 6 September 2021:

On August 19, 2020, I questioned whether the coup in Mali was a sign, “Is Africa returning to its bad old ways? (Sierra Leone Telegraph. Com, Binkongo.com). It took one year to fulfil that prophesy, no arrogance intended, but we told you so; thanks to events in Guinea.

As usual, the custodians and connoisseurs of democracy are queuing up to condemn this “dastardly” acts by the military. The US Department of State says that” violence and any extra-constitutional measures will only erode Guinea’s prospects for peace, stability and prosperity”. It emphasised the need for a process of national dialogue to “sustainably and transparently” address any concerns in order to find a peaceful and democratic solution.

The expected perennial mantra from the West African economic bloc, ECOWAS condemned the “coup attempt and affirmed” its disapproval of any unconstitutional political change”. The UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres and the African Union have also condemned the coup and demanded the immediate release of President Conde. No shocks there. They saw nothing wrong with Conde’s tinkering with the Constitution then.

Last month, in his attempt to balance the budget, Conde announced tax hikes while slashing costs on the police and the military, but increased funding for the office of the President and National Assembly.

But the recent “dismissal of a senior commander in special forces, provoked some of its highly trained members to rebel and occupy the presidential palace”. The accusation that France’s fingerprints are all over this coup is not surprising. Let’s look at some of the plausible “facts” for the “conspiracy theorists”. Mamady Doumbouya’s military CV makes for an interesting reading.

Mamady Doumbouya, the boss of the Group of Special Forces of the Guinean army is married to a European woman with three children. His wife is a French gendarme in active service. A graduate from the School of War, he had military training in Israel, Cyprus, UK and served on UN military missions in Afghanistan, Djibouti, CAR and Ivory Coast. With a Master 2, and as Commando instructor, instructor at the foreign legion in France on risk assessment and rapid decision making from the Paris War school, he has a litany of experiences for his new job description.

It is so interesting to note that the man who joined the Guinean army in the wake of Conde’s first election as president in 2010, was the same man Alpha Conde called to head the Special Force to the President, a critical segment of the state apparatus that eventually made the curtain call on his presidency.

While some would say “et tu brute”, others would think that “the gods are not to blame”. Was it written in the stars? Either way, it sounds like a Greek mythology dipped in Shakespearean flavour.

The King of Macedonia Antigone II who once said over 2000 years ago, “My God, keep me from my friends! As for my enemies, I’ll take care of them!”, comes to mind. Conde entrusted the security of his regime to Lieutenant-Colonel Mamady Doumbouya. Looks like he handed his regime on a plate, to a franc-Guinean military man.

It’s worth making it clear that military coups are not the way forward. Military juntas are “notoriously fickle”, and you can never guarantee that they will deliver on their mantra, well just like the ones they profess to replace. Democracy against democracy. They are political chameleons whose first aim upon seizing power is to ditch the camouflage and put on garments of legitimacy.

In demonstration of  their democratic credentials, Doumbouya justified the coup that the  “Committee of Reconciliation and Development (CNRD), [was forced] to take its responsibility” after “dire political-situation of our country, the instrumentalization of the judiciary, the non-respect of democratic principles, the extreme politicization of public administration, as well as poverty and corruption.” He even quoted the late Jerry Rawlings who said, “if the people are crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom”, as further justification.

He said that the duty of a soldier is to save the country, and that “we will no longer entrust the politics to one man. We will entrust it to the people”.  But already, they plan to replace the Governors with regional commanders. This comes with a hazard warning, that “any refusal to appear will be considered rebellion against the country’s new military leaders”. What happened to “we entrust it to the people?”

Unverified sources already claim that Conde’s Defence Minister, Mohamed Diane, had died after being hit in the skull by a bullet. George Orwell’s Napoleon in “Animal Farm” is ever so contemporary.

Without doubt, it is a worrying trend that Africa has witnessed four attempted coups in just over a year. Interestingly, all these attempted coups were preceded and triggered by the brazen audacity of the leaders to tinkle with the constitutions; in order to extend their grips on power.

Since Conde ramraided the constitution, Guinea had been asphyxiated with riots, protests and demonstrations throughout. With precedents in Mali, Niger and other countries in Africa, many could see that the writing was on the wall.

The irony lies in the hypocritical mantra not coming until now, from these so-called High Priests of democracy and democratic principles. Where were they when these leaders changed their job descriptions to become constitutional wordsmiths? The precursors to these attempted coups were already scripted. But did these High Priests read the scripts? No. Did they ever tell these guys that fidgeting with the constitutions was wrong? No. They are societies for self-preservation.

Of course, no one expects these foxes to vote for the welfare of chickens, or turkeys to vote for Christmas. I don’t support military takeovers, but these interventions should serve as indictments of these regional bodies. Their selective amnesia, blindness and sermons on democracy is questionable to many.

When was the last time the AU, ECOWAS or any of these mightier than thou condemn these leaders for their constitutional gymnastics? At 82, they could have warned Conde, if not for anything but health reasons to quit. But that would be too easy for them. They sat on their hands and watched hundreds lose their lives, just to protect one man’s hubris.

Knowing full well that Alpha Conde shared similar gymnastics with other leaders like Quattara in Cote D’Ivoire, who is reportedly seriously sick and not being seen in public recently, many are asking where next. The hope for Africa and Africans is that military coups will remain a thing of the past, as no one wants to see an “African Spring”. But should the regional bodies like ECOWAS, the AU and others do more to prevent such spectacles? Should they intervene sooner, and especially when recalcitrant leaders attempt to circumvent their constitutions to tighten their grips on power?

If recent political upheavals are anything to go by, it stands to reason that those who make peaceful evolutions impossible make violent revolutions impossible. And that would be too high a price to pay for the long-suffering masses. These bodies should get off their high horses and stop acting as echo chambers or talking shops.

So where next for Guinea?

There is no doubt that the situation is fragile. Alpha Conde and his counterpart Cellou Diallo played to the gallery during the last elections. They whipped up incendiary rhetoric along tribal lines. Unfortunately, it appears to have driven a wedge between the legendary “sananku” relationship between the Mandingoes and Fulanis. It is not surprising that the Fulanis have been in triumphalist mood since the takeover. (Photo: Author – Abdulai Mansaray).

Understandably, they may see the back of Conde as a window of opportunity for Cellou to finally get to the Promised Land. How long would those jubilations last is anyone’s guess. We hope that whosoever takes the reigns will restore those “Sanaku” relations again.

My Fulani brethren have always treated me as their “Mande Mansa”, and I wouldn’t want to lose the privilege. Jankeh Wali, Alpha Yaya, Alpha Moyo and Mansaba Wali etc who fought in the battle at kansala in 1774, will not forgive us. Don’t forget to get the Marklate.

19 Comments

  1. It is all well and good to lionise, beatify – now that they are both dead – or even deify JJ Rawlings and Thomas Sankara. The fact remains that their regimes were not without their problems. Indeed, both leaders did things that were not entirely so glorious. Rawlings was lucky, got away with his deeds inglorious, survived many assassination attempts, had time to rethink and abandon his initial Marxist ideological outlook, embraced and implemented the principles of market economy, and became a champion of democratic governance. Yet many Ghanaians I know call him a very dangerous man to this day and have not forgotten nor forgiven him his sins.

    Sankara was not so lucky. He died at the hands of a fellow coupist, Blaise Campaoré. His moral rectitude and homegrown developmental policies while in power have been and rightly so, hailed. He was a leader who was very suspicious of others. He saw enemies everywhere and developed repressive tendencies, leading to many highly educated and professionally competent Burkinabès to flee abroad. Coupists are betrayers and once in power develop a fear of being betrayed in turn and at every turn. The repressive reaction that ensues spares no one, laying them open to counter-coups, sending them at times as in Sankara’s case to an early grave.

  2. There is a possibility that most of the laws that the African Union, ECOWAS and other organizations agreed to have Fine Print at the bottom that most of us are not privy to. Also if we take our time to read some of these Laws we will realize that there are some Loopholes.
    I personally believe that the White Elephant in the room is President Paul Kagame of Rwanda who has served continuously since 2000. Although Human Right Organizations report suppression of opposition groups and restrictions on press freedom and freedom of speech but ironically he has made progress in the fight against corruption and economic activities.
    Finally Sierra Leone has been there and done that, we will never get over it, but through the blessings of the Almighty we are thriving.

  3. In reply to the editor’s question. The people have a right to overthrow a government that is violating the contract between them. There is no need for it to be added to the constitution, as it is a fundamental principle of democracy, as is the rule of law and separation of powers. Seen through these lens, we do not have democracy in Sierra Leone. Going to the ballot every five years or so does not qualify.

    The sailors of the Kronstadt in the October revolution overthrew the Russian state, however, they handed power to the people in the form of Vladimir Lenin and his Soviets. The armies of the Chinese communists conquered China, however Lin Biao and Zhu Di acquiesced to Mao Tse Tsung and the civilian element holding power.

    The moral of the story is that, while the military may seize power, they should always be controlled by civilians. A paradigm shift would be needed in the thinking of Africans to achieve the above, as there is more to power than holding a gun. Therefore, the coup in Guinea will be the same as other coups. A failure.

    • “The moral of the story is that, while the military may seize power, they should always be controlled by civilians. A paradigm shift would be needed in the thinking of Africans to achieve the above, as there is more to power than holding a gun. Therefore, the coup in Guinea will be the same as other coups. A failure.” This is sobering thought Leo.

    • There is a lot to be said about democracy and its meaning. Maybe what democracy mean to a civilain population that believe in rule by concent, that same concept doesn’t apply to the military. Maybe the way the military think of themselves when they take an oath to defend the country, both within and outside its borders, that definition or interpretation of that oath might mean different things to different people. Now if you have a corrupt civilian government, looking after their interest, instead of the general population, the military are happy to tug along, until their interest is threatened by tbat very corrupt system they’ve been popping.Their are invisible red lines drawn on the sand that the civilian government sould not cross. Becsuse Once the meb in uniform interest are threatened, all bets are off. What happened in Guinea, and the reasons given by Lt Col. Mammady Dounbounya for the removal of Alpha Conde, mirrors the same reasons given by Saj Musa, Straser, Bio and others for overthrowing the Momoh governments back in 1992.They claimed to have been abandoned by the Momoh government.

      Effectively becoming sitting ducks for malcontent, nappy babies carrying AK 47s rifles , high on drugs child soldiers commiting tbe most gruesome atrocities to both members of the Republic of Sierra Leone armed forces, and civilain population. This false pretence of the military saying they are looking after civilain population is a big fat lie. Soon like Straser and his comrades, they will be swapping their military fatigues for Armani suits and expensive sun glasses. Don’t ask me why African dictators like to wear sun glasses, even if is the middle of night. Some how psychologically they feel the dark shades are symbols of authority and empowering. So far the tale of the tape on African coups since independence for most countries starting in the 60s has not make a jot of difference in peoples lives.If anything it has brought them hardship. Sitting on top of the table for most coups are Sudan, 15,Burundi 11,Ghana 10,Sierra-leone 10, Comoros 9, Guinea Bissau 8,Mali 8,Benin 8,Nigeria 8,Guinea 3.

      So in other words if the military was the answer to our problems, the Countries listed above, should have been the leading lights in the continents economic front. The reality of course majority of this countries are still struggling to find their feets on the economic rat race of the world. We need to build strong insututions, like respect for the rule of law, Free press, an independent and viable Judiciary. And above all else a strong opposition that can hold governments to account.

  4. The hypocrisy of the West African region is also another concern. Jammeh was ousted by Buhari and Macky Small because of democratic reasons. ECOWAS cannot sanction and bully small or militarily weak countries, while turning a blind eye to Guinea or Chad because they have well equipped forces. This is a travesty of the charter. One rule should be applied to all.

  5. Mr Thomas, the issue you raise is a very difficult one. Given the long history of misgovernance in independent sub-Saharan Africa, one may be tempted to see the military for whom discipline and order are a central pillar of life, as a means of safeguarding good, orderly, democratic governance. And yet legalising military coups to serve as an antidote to misgovernance seems to me a contradiction in terms. If democratic governance is premised on the supremacy of the people (governance of the people by the people and for the people), then only they should decide who govern them and when and how to remove these if they fail in their duty to govern well. To give the military the right to remove democratically elected leaders from power on the grounds of misgovernance is to run the risk of providing legal justification for violent acts that have the potential to result in state-sanctioned murder.

    Two wrongs do not make a right and the military should remain in their barracks, ready at all times to defend a nation from external aggression and to come to its rescue in such emergencies as natural disasters. They should in no circumstance be allowed to turn their guns on their fellow citizens. Democratic governance as we know is reserved for civilians and should remain so. We should never lose sight of the terms ‘civil’, ‘civility’ and ultimately ‘civilian’. These words are etymologically related, and taken together they foreground a sense of being polite, calm,
    rational, restrained, civilised.

    Put another way, democratic, civilian governance means a mode of governing based on and regulated by well-mannered, well-reasoned, non-aggressive, lawful behaviour by those who govern and those who are governed. If armed men are made watchdogs of democratic governance, then who should be such watchdogs’ own watchdogs’? Unarmed civilians are not good fits for such job descriptions. I think what is needed for a young and fragile democracy like Sierra Leone to hold firm, grow and thrive is sustained voter education, not armed guardians of democracy. With time, widespread literacy and well-designed voter sensitisation programmes, those leaders inclined to subvert the principles and institutions of democratic governance will become a rarity and ultimately history. Guns are not the answer.

  6. Very interesting and thought provoking piece and hope our regional leaders would find time to read and learn a lesson or two. When Conde manupulated the constitition many knew he was sowing the seeds of discord that will come back to hunt him. Abdul Rashid Thomas though has asked very important but tricky questions around legitimacy of military interventions but my view is it may be a wrong step to recognise interventions in law as there are various interests involved in coups.

    As others already mentioned the military coup leaders have the potential to create the same problems they claim to be solving. The way forward is for regional bodies and their leaders to take domocracy seriously and call out leaders like Conde and Ouattara and host of others who have overstayed their welocome.

  7. Nicely put, Mr Mansaray ( Mansakeh). Truth be told , I always enjoy reading your pieces. It give me joy and hope. Indeed, we still have objective journalists. Arguably, you are one of the best among the few bests.

  8. Mr Thomas, thanks for posing such a thought proactive question. It really gets one thinking the way forward. The military what ever their intentions should never be the sole guarantors of our fragile democracies. But when our elected civilian leaders abandoned their duties and responsibilities, and the insututions like the judiciary and the press failed to hold civilian governments to account, and a population that is cowed by state sanctions violence, it becomes very hard to know who we turn to, in other to put in motion the changes we want to see for the betterment of all not the few. What happened in Guinea, is not only the failure of Alpha Conde not obeying the two terms presidential provisions in the Guinean constitution, but the failures of the insututions that are set up to stop it happening in the first place. The legislators and most importantly the judiciary. If Guinea had an independent judiciary, and Alpha Conde expressed his desire to change the constitutional arrangements that limits his time in office to two terms, and want to extend it to a third term, and the opposition lodge a case in the courts on the basis its viloet the constitution of the country, and the judges hearing the case rule in their favour , because is stipulated in the constitution, then Alpha Conde respect the ruling of the courts, and decides not to ignore the ruling, and bow out of the presidential race, none of what happened on the 5th of September would have taken place.

    The Judiciary is the most important bulwark against leaders that nurse dictatorial tendencies. We saw how the 2020 Americans presidential election unfolded . It makes for good TV ratings, but there was an element in it that we learnt. The judiciary is the most important defender for democracy. This great insututions did it work for democracy and for the citizens of the United States. It stood firm and fought off any attempts by former President Trumps challenge to the out come of the presidential election. May be if we close our eyes, and think of the United States as an African Country, President Trump might have been serving his second term. Thefore, in any country, the Judiciary, and a Free press is the most important insututions that are entrusted to defend and protect the constitution of our countries. The military are there to defend the country from external aggression and protect the country’s territorial integrity.

    As for politicians in general, their antics, can only be discribed as manic and idiotic in nature, and full of, cynicism, with weeds of egotism fixation and delusional about their the opinion of themselves they have all the answers to their country’s social and economic problems . But in reality the only degree of respectability accorded them, is we think of them as our elected leaders.So they can’t put their foot wrong. Thats the public perception, but invast majority of case is not the case. Naturally, as humans, Politicians are difficult, bone headed, and semi detached from reality of every day life.

  9. I personally not from Guinea and I don’t even speak any of their languages, perhaps, let’s be realistic as always said; where is the truth? does anyone have the right to change the constitution of land in order for that very particular person to hang on to power for life?. The last time I visited Guinea Conakry, I heard President Conde, saying “there is no finger pointing at someone called our former President yet in Guinea, I won’t be the first”. Now I want all the(third term seekers) current and future to understand that, we are no longer accepting or encouraging dictatorship I said, the 70s are over. The same military Coup happens in Egypt, Sudan, Zimbabwe also just have a look what happened in Chad.

    Believe it or not in my country itself Sierra Leone, there would be no more 11 years rule for one man, when your time due we don’t want you no more, at the same time we don’t accept more time neither third term. I don’t care how strong you be, we will remove you from office by all means. My African Author Mr. Abdulai Mansaray, thank you so much for this powerful article.

  10. The philosophers Hobbes and Rosseau defined a governememt as a social contract between the rulers and the ruled, where people agree to give up their freedom and rights in return for peace and prosperity. The African problem is that the rulers act in violation of this contract. In such a situation, the people have the right to change the system to one that is of benefit to them. The problem with military coups, as a great chinese philosopher once postulated is that: one may conquer the empire on horseback, however one cannot rule it on the back of a horse.

    The lesson from this is that the military is an apparatus of the state whose primary responsibility is the defence of the state, they are trained to fight not to rule, therefore, the purpose of a coup should be to allow the people to express their democratic right. By all means, certain political actors who have been proven to be corrupt should be excluded and radical intellectuals brought to the fore to execute meaningful change.

    • Forum members, I guess the question then is whether it is about time the military is recognised in law – rather than de facto as guarantors of our democracies, in the sense that they should be granted the right to intervene and even remove a government that violates the constitution – especailly with the help of the judiciary that has become politicised and under the control of the president, brutalise its own people and engages in massive and blatant theft of public funds? It seems each time there is coup in Africa, the people – especially the poor and disenfranchised, rejoice.

      Another question for Forumites is how you then stop a military leader who topples a bad government for all the right reasons, from himself becoming a dictator by overstaying his welcome and hanging on to power indefinitely while he too amasses wealth at the expense of the poor?

      • Right on point. That was the question and essence of the article. Sadly, it sometimes gets lost in translation. Kudos my editor for the reminder.

      • Brilliant article and reasonable question. There are no easy answers and no reliable ways to prevent the military or dictators from gaining power and hanging on to it. A political system with an absolute separation of powers, combined with genuine checks and balances, will minimise the military takeovers or dictators to survive. Other than that, I don’t see how anyone could stop military coups or dictators.

        Remember the recent US elections? If the other branches of power were weak and under the control of the executive by proxy, America should have had its first coup, in my view. But the democratic institutions resisted the test of time and eventually won. Thank you very much, Mr Abdul Rashid Thomas, for asking a question that will leave many scratching their heads to find answers. God bless Mr Abdul Rashid Thomas and Mr Abdulai Mansaray. Yeah.

        • A very good comment yours is, Mr Matturi. America’s robust democratic institutions and largely transparent electoral process saved the day in that country. Add to that the fact that the military there know full well the nature and function of their institution: to defend the state, not to govern it.

  11. At 82 years What are you looking for? Time to hang your hat up. Enjoy Your grandchildren, be a Mentor, have fun, Africa leaders can be very greedy. Agreed with you, Sir. ECOWAS should have stepped in earlier, they don’t wait until something bad happens then crying wows.

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