Guinea: Coup d’Etat or Coup de Grace?


“Guinea is beautiful: we don’t need to rape it anymore. We just need to make love to her.” — Mamady Doumbouya

More often than not, news coming from countries in Africa remain somewhere on the periphery of our news feeds, seemingly carrying little significance for global politics and world economy as compared to other macro-regions. Many of us, Russians included, know next to nothing as to what is going on across the vast expanses of the African continent.

Many would have heard about the ridiculous incident in the Suez Canal in Egypt, while few in Russia ever paid attention to a possible extension of Russia’s industrial zone in the North African country — to possibly include the East Port Said and Ain Sokhna regions. However, over the past months of 2021 it is West Africa rather North Africa that has come to the regional “epicenter”, rich in events of far-reaching consequences.

Africa’s “Wild West”

For this, article could have sought to explore one of the following:

  • a conceivably increased risk of the terrorist threat (notably, on the part of the Boko Haram group whose terrorist activities now span Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon) in the wake of the complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan;
  • an aggravated political situation in Chad following the mysterious death of the nation’s long-time strongman, President Idriss Déby, who had remained in office since 1990, — in less than a month of being re-elected into his sixth term while “defending the sovereign nation on the battlefield”;
  • dubious consequences of a third-in-ten-years coup d’état in Mali which occurred this May and has seen to the ousting of the nation’s interim President Bah Ndaw as well his Prime Minister and Defense Minister by Vice President Assimi Goïta, the very same person behind the August 2020 Malian coup d’état;
  • the slow-rolled intention of the ECOWAS member states to adopt a single currency, the “Eco”, by 2027, thereby abandoning the long-established semi-colonial practice of relying on the France-guaranteed and euro-bound CFA franc;
  • a rather complicated epidemiological situation in Côte-d’Ivoire, trapped in an unhealthy dynamic of COVID-19 cases to be aggravated by a possible outbreak of Ebola;
  • Malawi’s freshman in presidential office, Lazarus Chakwera, now seeking to eradicate corruption and discover an alternative base for promoting economic growth, with cannabis being considered among the candidates to replace tobacco, the country’s mono-culture, amid a dwindling global demand;
  • or, finally, the authorities of Ghana, the continent’s largest gold-mining nation, willing to embrace the basic tenets of “green economy” to effect a socially-beneficial transition.

In the name of the nation’s unity and the country’s development

Each of these stories has its own significance and value for understanding international affairs. Today, it seems, though, that it is worth darting a glance at Guinea. More recently, the international community was taking an exclusive interest in this small West African country within the epidemiological context. Back then, everyone feared the Marburg fever spreading globally. The highly fatal disease, “boasting” a mortality of up to 88%, owes its origins to contacts with bats, much like the coronavirus (whose mortality, we shall say, rarely exceeds 34%). Fortunately for us, though, the fever is not expected to acquire a global footprint—unlike the Sunday coup d’état in Guinea that may bear far-reaching consequences.

No-one seems to have foreseen the events of September 5, 2021, when an early Sunday morning was mired by (supposedly) extensive shooting in downtown Conakry, the nation’s capital, when the presidential guard attempted to repel an attack of the elite Special Forces Groupe (GFS) under the command of Col. Mamady Doumbouya, a native Malinké [1] from Kankan, Guinea’s second-largest city. His military career includes training at the École de guerre, the French War College, in Paris as well as service in the French Foreign Legion, with him participating in missions in Afghanistan, Côte-d’Ivoire and Djibouti. M. Doumbouya only returned to Guinea in 2018, when he was to take command of the elite group to help the country’s authorities combat terrorism. Throughout 2021, he was paving the way to become something more than a military man, boosting the strength of his unit and insisting on more autonomy from the Defense Ministry to raise concerns among many in the ruling class and trigger rumors of his would-be arrest. To counter his growing influence, the Defense Ministry set up another elite group, the Quick Response Unit (GIR); but that was, as it now seems, a bit too late.

Rumors of the upcoming arrest could have played its role in M. Doumbouya’s decision to mastermind the coup, which he explained in his televised address to the nation—this time as the person in charge of the National Committee for Rally and Development (CNRD) and, thus, the country’s future—through ousted President Alpha Condé abusing his powers and the rights of citizens, also citing paralysis of the state institutions, rampant corruption and the all-the-more deteriorating situation in the country’s economy and social affairs. Besides, it was noted that the new military authorities would abrogate the current constitution and dissolve the government, while closing down Guinea’s borders. As became evident from a video-proof released by the GFS, President Alpha Condé, in office from 2010, is being detained by the Special Forces. Alongside the President, the speaker of Guinea’s Parliament, Amadou Camara, seems to have been arrested—being the second person in the state, he was an ardent supporter of A. Condé. The fate of the country’s defense minister has long remained unknown, although he, as well as the President, apparently deemed what was going on beside his residence as not that serious, releasing a message on the government’s official Facebook page that “the threat was contained, and the attack was repelled.”

The Sunday coup may seem all too familiar to the other military-driven regime changes, especially given the recent events in Mali that borders Guinea to the north—many parallels could, in fact, be drawn with the May coup in the neighboring country, especially so since M. Doumbouya and A. Goïta are well-acquainted as they both participated in the U.S.-organized “Flintlock” exercises in Burkina Faso in 2019. Interestingly enough, Alpha Condé’s ascent to power in 2010—the first rather “democratic” transition in Guinea’s history as a result of elections rather than a coup, as was the case in 1984 or in 2008—was nevertheless mired by tensions and uncertainty, imposed curfews as well as the military and armored vehicles on the capital’s streets. Getting back to M. Doumbouya’s address, though, we would gently suggest that the Sunday coup d’état apparently came to be a by-product of the more general political process in Guinea, following up on the events of October, 2019.

Elections — Guinea-style, or no Constitution is set in stone

In 2019, at the initiative of A. Condé, whose second term in office was nearing its end, the authorities organized a constitutional referendum to be held together with the parliamentary elections, intending to legalize the president’s desire to be re-elected for a third consecutive term, which was banned under the constitution [2]. Along with resetting the count of all A. Condé’s previous terms, the amendments provided for the extending the number of years in the presidency: raising the bar from 5 to 6 years. Despite the government’s attempts to present the new edition of the constitution as a step towards further democratization of the country—since other amendments proposed were to ban child marriages and female circumcision, to grant spouses equal rights in divorce and to redress gender inequality in state institutions—the referendum was largely seen in a negative light, both in Guinea and abroad.

The issue was not in the government’s move only; it was just as much about how the authorities in Conakry went about its implementation. First, even the rather loyal ECOWAS officials had to indicate that the vast discrepancies in the polling lists, apparently containing many a “ghost voter”, be removed, something the President’s administration only did in part. Second, in order to preclude any undesirable coverage, the authorities went on to block all messengers and social media on the eve of the referendum and until the outcome, with 89,76% of the votes “FOR”, was revealed. Third, the official redaction of the constitution, as was published by the government, appeared to be somewhat different from the one the Guineans vote for. The “new” constitution provided for an extension of the President’s powers, especially in regional affairs, and an exclusion of any opportunity for independent aspirants to be elected into office. The only commentary offered by a governmental official came from Papa Koly Kourouma, Minister for Hydraulics and Sanitation (sic!), who argued that “no final version was ever submitted to the people, because the text was in perpetual modification, before and after (sic!) its adoption.”

It is, therefore, far from surprising that the country’s cities and towns witnessed numerous and rather violent protests—in the build-up to the referendum; following the official announcement of its outcome; and immediately after A. Condé having endorsing the proposal of his own party, “Rally of the Guinean People” (RPG), for him to run in the presidential elections.

The elections held in October 2020, while mostly following the logic of “ethnic voting”[3] typical of Guinea and a number of other nations in Africa (such as when people of one nationality tend to vote exclusively for “their own”, without taking other factors into account), came to mark a watershed in Guinea’s political process. At this point, it would do us good to remember that the key ethnic groups in Guinea are the Malinkés and the Fulbhés. While Malinkés tend to occupy the highest positions in the state hierarchy more often than others (A. Condé is no exception here), Fulbhés, who are often ready to position themselves as an oppressed people [4], ultimately stand at the helm of the country’s big businesses, however, remaining out of business politically. The confrontation between these two ethnic groups in the political domain, as well as the struggle for “winning the hearts” (and votes) of the smaller ethnic groups, has determined the essence of the elections, where A. Condé put up his candidacy against Cellou Dalein Diallo (Fulbhé), the former Prime Minister and the leader of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea, a party in opposition to the government.

In the end, the demographic situation, being generally favorable for A. Condé, was aptly used by his spin doctors to allowed him—in spite of C. Diallo’s initial leadership in the counting of votes—to win the election, having received, according to the official data, some 59.5% of the votes. At that point, the protests inspired by the defeated C. Diallo and the opposition were nevertheless quelled, albeit with civilian casualties of about 50 people, including children.

When examining the Sunday coup staged by M. Doumbouya and his faithful, it would be too easy to assume that the coup d’état came as a corollary of this deep-rooted conflict between the two ethnic groups. May it well turn out that, much like a year before, the reason for the coup lies in the “third-term problem” that has got in the way of unity among the West African nations? Back then, A. Condé’s aspirations failed to win approval of most of his neighbors. Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, for instance, chose to endorse C. Diallo and, by extension, the Fulbhés—a move that resulted in a closure of Guinea’s borders. All this is too easy until we pay attention a seemingly minor detail.

Perhaps, it is well worth remembering that M. Doumbouya by no means shares an allegiance to the Fulbhés; he is a Malinké and a native of Kankan. Located in Upper Guinea, the city is the heart of A. Condé’s electoral campaigns as the overwhelming majority of the region’s residents back his policies. What can then provide an explanation for the discontent among Guinea’s GFS, who are now claiming to be “responding to the legitimate aspirations of the people”, as has been mentioned M. Doumbouya’s appeal?

Changes to shuffles to blunders

On the one hand, the jubilation of Conakry’s residents about the coup, which is now described by most of the media, is quite understandable, since there is no compact dwelling of any ethnic group in the capital—instead, we are dealing with a noticeable difference in the neighbourhoods that are opposed to the government and are loyal to it. If this is the case, then most of the cheering, apparently, should probably be attributed to the Fulbhés. Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain why one of Conakry’s residents said in his commentary to the French Le monde, “People are afraid. They wonder what will come next, preferring to stay safe at home rather than rub shoulders with the military”. At least, this testifies to the ambiguity of the public as regards the coup and its instigators. This is, by the way, also visible from the comment by Abdourahmane Sano, coordinator for the oppositional National Front for the Protection of the Constitution, established during the 2019–2020 protests, which is not particularly optimistic: “I am not surprised that a military coup follows the constitutional coup. We take note of the CNRD’s statements promising an inclusive and peaceful transition, but we are awaiting details on the modalities”.

On the other hand, it is somewhat more difficult to explain the motives of the coup. It seems, however, that there are two main reasons here, with the two closely intertwined.

First, the coronavirus pandemic and the Ebola fever, which has long persisted in the country, have finally exposed all the gaps in President A. Condé’s socio-economic policies. Home to world’s largest bauxite deposits, Guinea has so far managed to sustain its annual GDP growth at a fairly high level. When A. Condé assumed power in 2010, the number was around 4.8%, reaching 5.6% in 2012. By 2016, Guinea’s GDP growth stood at 10.8%. Even in the pandemic-spoiled 2020, the country’s economic growth was as much as 7%. These figures, though, poorly reflect the real state of affairs in national economy, which is also true of the standard of living of Guineans. Some 71% of the country’s residents have to live on less than $3.20 (PPP) per day[5] which renders the country one of the poorest in the world. Although Guinea now finds itself at an early stage of demographic transition, which can theoretically translate into promising economic potential as the number of young people goes up, the social dynamics “on site” seems to chisel away at this advantage. According to a World Bank report, only 30% of Guinea’s nations are literate, while the government’s spending on education does not exceed 2.6% of GDP (by way of contrast, the average indicator for sub-Saharan Africa stands at 4.6%). In many of the country’s regions, the people either continue to live their traditional way, remaining virtually unintegrated into Guinea’s “official economy”, or prefer to migrate. In fact, it is in many ways the Guinean diaspora abroad—rather than the government in Conakry—that keeps the population afloat through the remittances they send to their relations in Guinea.

Alpha Condé came to power under the slogan of the changes to come. Eleven years ago, it seemed that he, a graduate of the French Sorbonne and the author of the book “A Caring African: This is What I want for Guinea”, would succeed in reversing Guinea’s political source, achieving a better life for his fellow citizens. As we may see, however, it was absolutely not enough to embark on the path of ensuring political and fiscal stability. Apparently, it is for a reason that the new interim body of government is called the “National Committee for Rally and Development”.

Second, the Sunday coup could also be regarded through the lens of a generation gap. The President, who was elected in October 2020 for a six-year term, is already 83 years old. His perspective on the world and his country must have formed back in the era when Guinea took its first steps on the path to decolonization and, later, as an independent state. If we only take stock of age considerations, A. Condé only represents some 3.85% of the population (group 65+). M. Doumbouya was born in 1980, and the “brothers in arms”, who stand behind him, are young. His generation is, therefore, much closer to the bulk of the country’s population: the youth. For this reason, it seems that the support of these segments of the population may well come to play a pivotal role in the future fate of the newly-made head of state. In the meantime, he pledged to “end the personalization of political life” and “rewrite the constitution together on the basis of an inclusive dialogue that will decide the future of the country.”

Finally, we have to mention that the reaction of the international community to the coup contains exclusively negative assessments. The coup has already been condemned by the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Some African states (for example, Nigeria), as well as the European Union, France, the United States, Russia and China have all taken the same positions—such a united front is a rare thing to see, which is quite indicative.

This may well mean that A. Condé—whose political career saw both ups and downs, as he was twice defeated in elections, forced to migrate to France only to end up behind the bars upon returning to Guinea in 2010—could still be able to restore his former glory. If this happens, we can then assume that the president’s power would no longer be so far-reaching, while the ruling party, just as the 83-year-old A. Condé himself, would need to decide on a successor whose candidacy could be endorsed in the next presidential election (or even earlier).

In the meantime, we see that A. Condé’s entourage chose to take the path of least resistance to the new authorities. The meeting of the incumbent government, convened by M. Doumbouya on Monday, was attended by Prime Minister Ibrahima Kassory Fofana, Secretary General of the Presidency Kiridi Bangoura and the all-powerful Defense Minister Mohamed Diané (who, as one might remember, was previously confident that the coup would fail). Their absence would have been equated to “rebellion against the government”. All of them have now lost their positions, as well as their passports (they were taken over by the GFS), but they have so far walked free.

Alright, what about the Russians?

Guinea is one of the few countries in Africa to be openly oriented on Russia, due to various circumstances throughout its history. Back in 1958, Guinea was the only nation that refused to join the French Community, instead declaring its independence—two years earlier than other francophone countries in Africa. The wrath of France (all production facilities were shut, and all specialists left the country) notwithstanding, Guinea’s Sekou Touré, as a snub to the former colonial power, put forward his own alternative to France-Afrique”, calling for the creation of the United States of Black Africa (this was even enshrined in the constitution) and persisting in his new, independent course. As a sidenote on the bilateral history of relations, we shall indicate that the only visit of a highest Soviet official to Africa was paid to Guinea, when a month into Sekou Touré’s election as the President of Guinea in 1961, Leonid Brezhnev arrived in Conakry on a visit. There was little surprise, then, in Guinea proclaiming a “non-capitalist path of development” already in 1962, although its official abandonment followed just as soon (in 1967). Anyway, the bilateral relations have always remained quite close, being based today on a fairly solid framework. One of the recent achievements of Russia’s diplomacy in Guinea was the signing of an agreement on military cooperation. Besides, Alpha Condé became the first African leader to be publicly vaccinated with the Russian “Sputnik V” vaccine against the coronavirus.

And yet, the economic aspect of the bilateral relations is much more important, as the Russian business is profoundly represented here, enjoying a predominant influence along the way. RUSAL, for one, is implementing at least three major projects in Guinea: the development of the world’s largest bauxite deposit Dian-Dian (production launched in 2018), the operation of the mining complex at the Debele bauxite deposit as well as the production of alumina at the Phrygia complex. The development of bauxite mines is also carried out by the Russian “Nordgold”. Finally, most recently, STM Holding reported on the planned deliveries of 6 TGM8 locomotives to be exploited in RUSAL production chains in the country.

Another major success of the Russian business was the agreement on the transition of all schools in the country to the Russian software “MoiOfis”, an analogue of a more expensive ecosystem from Microsoft Corporation.

This quite explains why the news about the Sunday coup was met with some concern among Russian businesses operating in Guinea to find a mirror reflection in an unprecedented growth of prices for aluminium: the metal is now trading at $ 2,727 per ton on the London Metal Exchange, updating the record of 2011. Perhaps, someone has also pondered the comparison of the current situation in Guinea being resemblant of the fate of the agreement on the Russian base in Sudan—a success story suspended in the air and riddled in uncertainty.

However, there is reason to believe that nothing will fundamentally change for Russian businesses in Guinea. Faced with the rejection from the international community and probably fearing isolation and sanctions, M. Doumbouya has been quick to stress that National Committee for Rally and Development will respect all the obligations towards “economic and financial partners”, asking mining companies not to put a halt to their operations. In addition, all restrictions—such as curfews—were lifted in the mining areas of the country, and maritime borders were reopened.

Of course, there remain many gray spots in the story about Sunday’s coup in Guinea at the moment. This applies to the true motives of the members of the CNRD, the fate of both A. Condé and the coup itself. The level of real public support for M. Doumbouya is not completely clear as well. What follows from available sources is that his figure is not so-well known to the general public—he appeared on the forefront as late as 2018, being an experienced military man rather than an ambitious politician with a clear-cut program. Therefore, his further steps also remain in the dark: what will follow the words that there will be no “witch hunt” on those who supported A. Condé and that a “government of national unity” will be created?

  1. This ethnic group, totalling some 10,5 million people, dwells on where we now find the modern states of Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Côte-d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Sierra-Leone and Burkina-Faso. In Guinea, this is the second largest group, although quite compatible to a bit more numerous Fulbhés. While Malinkés account for some 30% of the country’s population, the share of Fulbhés stands at around 32%; however, it is within possibility that this ration may have levelled off recently. The ousted Alpha Condé is also a Malinké, although coming from a Burkina-Faso wing known as Dioulas.
  2. Throughout its history, Guinea has known a total of four constitutions, with the first adopted upon the country’s declaration of independence in 1958. Interestingly enough, the story with the constitutional referendum seems to be repeating itself as a similar referendum took place in 2001 to see the amendments to the 1990 approved. The amendments lifted restrictions on holding consecutive terms, with the presidential term expanded from 5 to 7 years. The Constitution adopted in 2010 reintroduced these restrictions. Apparently, this could be what A. Bregadze, the Russian Ambassador to Guinea, may have meant when he said: “The Constitution is not a dogma, the Bible or the Koran… The Constitution needs to be adapted to reality, not reality to the Constitution.”
  3. Despite the may attempts to eradicate tribalism, including through mixed marriages and promoting Islam as a factor uniting people, it is still ethnic considerations that dominate the political process in Guinea.
  4. Indeed, alongside with the repressions of the late years of Sekou Touré in power, September 2009 saw tragic events when an opposition rally was brutally put down by the security forces, killing some 157 demonstrators, most of whom turned out to be Fulbhés.
  5. The international poverty line is now set at this level. According to Guinea’s own poverty indicators, 55% of the population is considered to be poor.

From our partner RIAC

Nikita Panin
Nikita Panin
Program Assistant, Website Editor at the Russian International Affairs Council


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