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Perspective | The historical roots of Guinea's latest coup – The Washington Post

On Sept. 5, a young army officer seized power in the West African Republic of Guinea, staging the country’s third military coup since independence from France in 1958. Like previous coup leaders, Col. Mamady Doumbouya claimed to be saving the country from a corrupt, brutal dictatorship. Decrying the broken promises and corruption of the Alpha Condé government, Doumbouya dissolved the parliament, suspended the constitution and promised to restore democracy after an 18-month transition period. During that time, the military would hold power and produce a new constitution.
In explaining the coup, Western media coverage has largely overlooked the historical context, ignoring the political, economic and social structures at the root of popular discontent and the roles of French colonialism, exploitation by international mining companies and Western counterterrorism initiatives in precipitating military action. Understanding that history is critical to understanding recent events.
Guinea was severely damaged by the trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved people and French colonialism that spanned much of the 17th through 20th centuries. And then, in the 1950s as European empires began to renegotiate their relationships with African colonies, the people of Guinea made a critical choice.
On Sept. 28, 1958, Guinea rejected a constitution that would have relegated it to junior partnership in a new French Community. Casting a “no” vote in an empire-wide referendum, the people of Guinea claimed immediate independence instead. The outcome was the culmination of a decade-long struggle by a broad-based ethnic, class and gender alliance composed of grass-roots activists — notably, trade unionists, teachers, women and youths. Guinea was the only French territory to contest continued French control.
France retaliated with a vengeance, isolating Guinea diplomatically, economically and militarily. Paris suspended bank credits, development assistance and cooperative endeavors. It diverted incoming ships with food and medicines. Departing personnel cut telephone wires and stripped hospitals and military camps of equipment and supplies. French businesses transferred large sums of money out of the country, while the government’s secret services peppered Guinea with counterfeit currency.
The denial of bank credit and the deprivation of vital goods and services provoked economic panic, political discontent and civil unrest. Following Paris’s lead, the United States, the United Kingdom and West Germany delayed official recognition and declined to provide economic, technical or military aid to the new nation.
Throughout the 1960s, France engaged in successive plots to overthrow the Guinean president — sometimes with the assistance of espionage services from Portugal, West Germany and the United States, which sought to protect Western interests in the global Cold War. Menaced by political and economic isolation, multiple coup and assassination attempts, and, finally, a Portuguese invasion, the Guinean state, led by President Sékou Touré, increasingly repressed dissent as a manifestation of imperialist aggression.
Prompted by foreign interference, as well as his own certainty that he knew best, Touré weakened the democratic structures developed during the nationalist period. The onetime democrat and trade union leader banned all political parties but his own, claiming that they would lead to regional and ethnic fragmentation rather than national unity. The broad-based ethnic alliance of the nationalist era crumbled as the Touré government increasingly favored his own Malinke ethnic group over others.
While marred by significant civil and human rights violations, Touré’s rule brought dramatic improvements in other aspects of citizens’ lives, especially during his first decade in power. The Touré government made huge strides in the expansion of primary health care, education and women’s rights. It punished domestic corruption and refused to cede the country’s patrimony — rich deposits of bauxite, iron, gold and diamonds — to international mining companies, diverting a greater share of the revenue to benefit Guinea’s impoverished population.
On April 3, 1984, just days after Touré’s death, the Guinean military seized power, dissolving the ruling party, parliament and mass organizations and suspending the constitution. The new junta, led by army colonel Lansana Conté, decried the Touré dictatorship and claimed that it would establish a democratic system that would respect human rights. It would also open the country to unfettered foreign investment, attracting much-needed foreign exchange.
Yet, after a 1985 failed coup attempt, 100 alleged plotters were shot by firing squad, and Conté, like his predecessor, embarked on a downward spiral of human rights violations and ethnic favoritism. In a new development, this conduct was accompanied by massive corruption that benefited Conté, his family and associates.
When a grass-roots democratic movement emerged in the 1990s, Conté was forced to accede to a multiparty system. However, he manipulated elections and repressed the opposition, maintaining his hold on power. While he and his cronies continued to grow rich from pacts with international mining companies, most Guineans remained mired in poverty. Protests against rising food and fuel prices and the lack of water, health care and electricity were violently suppressed. Hundreds were killed in 2006 and 2007.
On Dec. 23, 2008, the day after Conté’s death, junior military officers, led by Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara staged yet another coup. Once again, the plotters decried the corruption and oppression of the country’s leaders, the poverty of the general population and the depredations of international mining companies.
Camara promised a transition to democracy, including elections in which he would not be a candidate. Camara reneged on his promise to step down, and on Sept. 28, 2009, the 50th anniversary of the independence vote, tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in Conakry’s soccer stadium.
Soldiers fired on the protesters, killing at least 150 and injuring 1,400 more. Some 100 women and girls were stripped, raped and sexually assaulted with sticks, batons, rifle butts and bayonets. Security forces then targeted neighborhoods largely inhabited by Malinke and Peuhl residents, raping, killing and detaining scores of political opponents, many of whom were tortured.
Following an assassination attempt in December 2009, Camara stepped aside, and in 2010, elections were held. Alpha Condé, a longtime opposition leader and human rights activist, was elected president. He, too, promised to restore democracy, stamp out corruption and promote ethnic reconciliation.
The beginning was auspicious. The new government prosecuted soldiers who had violated human rights. It revised mining laws and canceled or renegotiated contracts that had been enacted without due process.
However, the “resource curse” persisted. While mining production increased, Western banks, corporations, lawyers, accountants and public relations firms continued to take the lion’s share. Among Guineans, only the wealthy and well-connected prospered, while mineworkers were paid only five dollars a day and pollution by foreign companies destroyed local farming and fishing enterprises.
Condé, like his military predecessors, eventually jettisoned his human rights orientation, jailing and killing opponents, muffling the press and manipulating ethnic divisions to remain in power. Transparency International ranked Guinea among the world’s most corrupt nations. In 2015, in the midst of the Ebola epidemic that ravaged the nation, Condé was reelected.
In 2020, he declared that he would run for president again — despite the two-term limit. After a controversial referendum altered the constitution, most opposition parties boycotted the election, and Condé was declared the winner. During the protests that followed, scores were killed and more than 400 detained.
And so, the unending loop of broken promises and military coups continues — with a significant new development. It has become clear that international mining companies and the banks that finance them are not the only external actors that perpetuate Guinea’s poverty and corruption.
U.S. counterterrorism programs have also played a role. Coups in several African countries have been spearheaded by graduates of U.S. military programs. In Guinea, Green Berets have been training a 100-man elite special forces unit. Its commander, Col. Mamady Doumbouya, led his men from the camp to stage the latest coup.
Guinea has now experienced three military coups since independence. In each case, coup leaders have pledged to clean up corruption, end economic mismanagement and ethnic domination and restore democracy. Instead, the new regimes have simply changed faces.
The deep-seated grievances that have driven popular unrest have remained unaddressed, and the corrupt systems that privilege Guinea’s elites and their outside backers have remained unchanged. Possessing the world’s largest bauxite and iron reserves, Guinea is not destined to be poor. However, as noted by veteran journalist Howard French, “Without honest, disciplined and visionary government, no amount of underground wealth” will ensure popular well-being. That history lesson must still be learned.
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