Cheers for Africa’s new military ruler. For now.
Fifteen years ago this month, Guinea’s late ruler Lansana Conte made clear what form democracy would take under his rule.
We answered a summons to a late night news conference to hear the result of his first multiparty election, speeding through silent streets where armoured vehicles waited in the shadows. The interior minister announced that ballots from the east, the opposition’s stronghold, had been cancelled because of irregularities. Conte had therefore won 50.93 percent of the vote. There was no need for a run-off because he had an absolute majority.
The show was over.
We rushed off to file our stories at the press centre, set up helpfully by a government under pressure to show the world it was ready for fair elections. The press centre was gone, the lines cut. In the morning, fighter jets swept over Conakry in case the message had not been clear already.
There were more elections, there was occasional turmoil on the streets, sometimes bloodshed. At one point Conte was almost overthrown, but he managed to hold on until his death from illness on Monday.
In a matter of hours, the army – Conte’s real constituency – made clear he would be succeeded by one of his own instead of any of the civilian politicians who prospered under the system over which he kept such strong control.
Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, the head of the junta, was the first soldier to announce the coup on state radio. A Guinean website said the choice was made by drawing lots. Camara’s promises – heard many before times in Africa – are to fight corruption, to hold elections in a set period – in this case two years – and not to stand himself.
Thousands of Guineans have come out to cheer, hoping for a clean break from the Conte era. But thousands once cheered Conte as a reformer. His 1984 coup followed the death of Sekou Toure, the independence era leader who became paranoid, cruel and isolated during more than a quarter century in power.
It is interesting to compare Guinea and Ghana, the first former European colonies in West Africa to win independence – Ghana in 1957 and Guinea in 1958.
In recent years, Ghana seems to have escaped its own cycle of coups and counter coups that brought ruin for decades. On Sunday, it will hold a presidential election run-off after a first round that set an example to the continent. The two candidates both appear to have a genuine chance of winning. Investment has been flowing in and living standards have, overall, been rising.
Look at the World Bank data and the winner is very clear. In the decade between 1997 and 2007, Guinea’s per capita income, in current U.S. dollars, dropped from $500 to $400. Ghana’s has risen from $370 to $590.
Will Guinea have a better chance of success this time? Is Western-style democracy appropriate in a country carved up by colonialists across ethnic lines? Is there a better alternative?
What should the world do? Western countries were never particularly vocal about Conte’s version of democracy. Will they be as critical of the junta as they have been of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, or do different standards apply?