Military rule in post-Conté Guinea: implications for peace and security in the Mano River Basin

1 February 2009.

After almost 28 years at the helm of affairs, Guinean president and strongman Lansana Conté died on Monday 22 December 2008. Just hours after Conté was declared dead on state television by the National Assembly Speaker, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara together with a group of younger officers dissolved the government, suspended the constitution, and dismissed 22 old army generals from Conté's generation arguing that ‘state institutions were incapable of resolving the crisis which have been confronting the country’ (BBC 23.12.08). After consolidating their seizure of power, Camara and his compatriots, established a new cabinet to run the affairs of the country. Entitled the First Government of the Third Republic, the new government is a collection of former ministers and completely new faces, mainly drawn from the private sector and the army. The question is what this rapid transformation will bring to Guinea and the neighbouring region: a peaceful transition period or increased instability leading to a civil war?    

The coup – life after ‘death’
For decades Conté dominated the political scene in Guinea. Prior to Conté, Guinea had only been ruled by one other person, Ahmed Sékou Toure – a reign which even by West African standards was characterised by paranoia about plots, subsequently followed by repression and violence in combination with a nationalist and socialist rhetoric that resulted in the isolation the country. Conté and a group of fellow officers seized power in a coup on 3 April 1984, just a few days after Toure had died of natural causes. Initially, Conté promised to rule for two years only, after which he said he would return the country to civilian democratic rule. Similar promises by Captain Camara and his compatriots therefore give some cause for concern, and the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have suspended Guinea until elections are held. However, not all neighbouring countries have been equally condemning. Countries such as Libya and Senegal have voiced support, and even if the Nigerian president, Yar'Adua led the meeting in ECOWAS that suspended Guinea, his personal envoy to Guinea, the former Nigerian military ruler General Babangida (retired), said in public that the military intervention had saved Guinea from sliding into chaos. Thus, also preserving peace and stability in the Mano River Basin. This kind of support for a military coup may seem strange in the contemporary world of ‘good governance’ and ‘multi-party democracy’ rhetoric, but is at least partly (although other motivations cannot be ruled out) a consequence of the political situation in Guinea as well as the security predicament in neighbouring Mano River countries. Internally, the coup has been relatively well-received as almost everybody agrees that the country is not ready for immediate elections. This includes senior opposition figures such as Alpha Condé.

Conté's reign
After coming to power, Conté consolidated his rule by purging possible competitors among the group he committed the coup with. In 1990 he arranged for a new constitution and under considerable donor pressure held elections in 1993, 1998 and 2003. All were seriously flawed and rigged. The next election was scheduled to take place in 2010. During these decades, Guinea drifted into economic recession, with political reforms that were going nowhere. The ‘death’ of Conté's Guinea was foretold many times during this period, but at the corner of every crisis, the regime somehow managed to pull itself back from the brink. Thus, even if seemingly caught up in a permanent crisis, Guinea did not fall into the abyss of a civil war as the cases of neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In fact, for Conté, the proximity to the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone turned out to be quite useful. The consequences from these wars in neighbouring countries may have been disastrous for the Guinean population, but for Conté, it was quite the opposite as it made it possible for him to emerge as a regional ally to the United Kingdom and the United States, first in the case of Sierra Leone and later in Liberia. Thus, even if Guinea was often seen as the next country in line to fall into the West African conflict trap, it managed to keep out of the wars that engulfed its neighbourhood.  

Historical patterns and cross border connections in the Région Forestiére
Many questions beg to be asked; not the least whether the new rulers are sincere about their agenda of anti-corruption, good governance and a return to democratic civilian rule, but these must be dealt with elsewhere. Here, the main question is the extent to which the death of Conté and the subsequent military coup will impact negatively on regional security in the Mano River Basin?

The consequence of conflict in Guinea may be disastrous not only for this country, but also for its neighbours as well. Conté had managed to keep Guinea from totally falling into the mayhem of civil war as in Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but this does not mean that linkages do not exist. Particularly threatening today is a scenario where instability in Conakry spreads to the already tense situation in the country's Région Forestiére, and from there possibly spill over to the Lofa and Nimba counties in neighbouring Liberia.

Guinea's Région Forestiére belongs to the Upper Guinea Forest Ecosystem that extends from Guinea into Sierra Leone and eastward through Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana into western Togo. This ecosystem is biologically rich and diverse; it is, however, also an integral part of the regional conflict zone. Wedged in by Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone, over 800 kilometres away from Conakry, with which it has few direct links, the Région Forestiére has suffered the consequences of the violent onflicts in the neighbouring countries as well as its fair share of internal turmoil.

Part of the current tension and instability is linked to events that took place during the civil war in Liberia. Liberian insurgencies (e.g. ULIMO and later LURD) were supported by Conté. These armed groups established rear bases in Guinea and their fighters were allowed to come and go as they saw fit. Weapons and ammunition were provided for, and some Guineans (mostly of Konianké origin) were also recruited in the ranks of ULIMO and LURD.

The cross-border dynamic is complex. The Loma live on each side of the border, and also the Liberian Kpelle and Mandingo people have their ethnic ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in Guinea. The Liberian Kpelle are related to the Guerze group in the Région Forestiére, whereas the Mandingo are known as the Konianké on this side of the border, and this is not the only similarity. The conflict pattern is very much the same as the one we find in Lofa and Nimba in Liberia. In particular, the tensions between the Guerze and the Konianké – who are seen as ‘newcomers’ – are longstanding. As on the other side of the border, it is almost impossible to say who actually came first to this area, but the common wisdom is that the area was inhabited by Guerze and Loma groups prior to the major movement of Konianké people that started when the French struggled to control this region in the early 20th century.

Some ex-LURD fighters have drifted back into Guinea, their exact number is unknown, but among them are people with a high sense of purpose and history. LURD emerged as an armed movement along the forest-savannah frontier in Macenta Prefecture in the Région Forestiére, and part of their meta-narrative is not only Mandingo insecurity in Liberia, but also the similar plight of their brethren, the Konianké of Guinea. As long as sentiments such as this are expressed on both sides of the border, the potential of a renewed local conflict once more spilling across borders cannot be ruled out.

One local conflict can create another, and the lack of a comprehensive approach to disarmament in the Région Forestiére adds another dimension to this as it has created a class of ex-combatants of both Guinean and Liberian origin currently living in the area. The levels of crime and banditry are already increasing, fanned by a small, but steady trade of light arms in the region. Half-heartedly, the former regime made some attempts at strengthening border security, but these measures did not stop the arms trade. They only disrupted normal cross-border trade. Interviews with traders and communities along the border in Liberia indicate that whereas the trade in arms and other illegal commodities continue through numerous informal and secret bush paths what was prevented and slowed down was the ordinary trade involving trucks and cars along the road. The result is a rise in prices for certain commodities on both sides of the border as well as shortages of basic items such as soap and palm oil.  

In a situation of increased instability in Conakry and other central parts of the country, one or several new armed insurgencies could emerge in the Région Forestiére, taking advantage of the prevailing mood of general discontent. Thus, similar to what happened during the LURD rebellion in Liberia, such insurgencies could be used as a pretext to settle local conflicts over land and identity issues, and would almost be bound to have ramifications across the border in Lofa and Nimba as well. This is exacerbated by the fact that during the last years of Conté's regime former combatants from Liberia and Sierra Leone were re-mobilised to strengthen its informal security apparatus. For example, the street protests in Conakry in January and February 2007 were crushed by Guinean security forces assisted by ex-LURD combatants controlled by Aysha Conneh, the former wife of ex-LURD leader Sekou Conneh. This is an issue of grave concern as it establishes a direct connection between a power struggle in Conakry, the Région Forestiére, and parts of Liberia such as Lofa and Nimba. This kind of re-mobilising continued throughout 2008, as the political circles around Conté tried to prepare for what could happen after he died. Groups within Conté's closest circles were clearly trying to preserve their political and economic interest. Acutely aware of this, Camara and the junior officers immediately warned army generals not to use mercenaries to oppose their coup. Intervention by outside forces, they said, would have dire consequences for those behind them.

Marriage of convenience?
The situation in Guinea is still volatile and uncertain, but for the time being, the immediate post-Conté period has passed more smoothly than most predicted. The country has not fragmented into conflict or even worse, civil war. Captain Camara and his fellow junior officers are seemingly in control. The power struggle that many feared in the army that could have had huge ramifications given the country's ethnic divisions have so far been avoided. The Soussou (the ethnic group that Conté belonged to) have not attempted any large-scale mobilisation, and no open struggle for supremacy between the country's largest ethnic groups, the Peul and the Malinke, has emerged either. The question is if this state of affairs will last or if what we currently see is just the calm before the storm of conflict hits not only this country, as well as the region. Further developments are difficult to predict, but it may be that for the time being that some sort of benevolent military rule by junior officers is the best option for peace and stability in Guinea and its immediate Mano River sub-region. That is, if their promise to return the country to civil rule after a transition period is sincere. Preparing for immediate elections under the current circumstances of a high level of volatility and tension could have resulted in threats to Guinea’s security, as well as the fragile stability of the region.

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