Guinea calm, but tense, as election results trickle in

Sunday's vote – the West African country's first free democratic election in more than fifty years – went smoothly, but will voters accept the results?

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    Guineans supporting presidential candidate Alpha Conde line up outside Matoto's city hall, where some election results are tabulated in Conakry, Guinea. Guineans cast their ballots on Nov. 9 in a vote that has been delayed multiple times following violent ethnic clashes pitting the nation's two largest ethnic groups against each other.
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Results from Guinea's long-awaited election on Sunday are still trickling in.

The vote, the West African country's first free democratic election since it gained independence from France more than fifty years ago, went smoothly, and despite swirling political and ethnic tensions in the run-up to the vote, the streets are calm.

The outstanding question, however, remains: Will Guineans respect the results?

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The presidential candidates hail from different ethnic groups, fueling the impression that many voters chose based on ethnicity, rather than political platform.

The Union for the Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), led and dominated by the majority Peul ethnic group, has yet to hold presidential power, fostering a longstanding sense of marginalization and a belief that it's now their turn at the helm. Their candidate, Cellou Dallein Diallo, secured a majority in the first round of elections, convincing many that his victory is all but inevitable.

The Malinke-led opposition, Rally of Guinean People (RPG), includes all other communities who do not wish to see a Peul in power. The movement is united against Mr. Diallo and embittered that the Peul people seem solely fixated on nominating one of their own. Peuls who have defected from Diallo’s camp have been labeled as traitors within the Peul political leadership, further aggravating ethnic tensions.

The fear is that if the UFDG loses – completely plausible given the growing alliance against it – Diallo supporters will be convinced the vote was rigged.

Already, UFDG supporters maintain economic control over the country and have not hesitated to shut down their businesses when defending their political cause. If such retaliation were to occur, it could easily set off ethnic clashes across the country and into neighboring countries, turning the promise of a new democratic era into a tragedy.

A lot at stake

The issues at stake in this election are no small matter.

Guinea, although blessed by having the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, also is near the bottom of most development indexes. The country is prone to corruption, bad governance, and extreme poverty. Voters expect the next president to reallocate resource revenue, attract greater foreign investment, and reform the judicial branch.

Until now, the lack of proper state infrastructure has meant an over-reliance on armed forces for maintaining order. Restructuring the army and returning it to its traditional domain – away from political decision-making and toward defense of the country’s territorial integrity – has been one of the top priorities imposed on the current military-led government by the current push for full democratization.

The military – the not-so-functioning seat of power for over 50 years now – will likely face a bumpy transition in the reduction of its sphere of influence.

In September 2009, armed forces squashed a political uprising in the nation’s stadium, killing over a hundred protesters and allegedly raping many of the women present. The public quickly decried the act as a flagrant abuse of power and a call to action against the military’s over-reach. The international community, also noting the gravity of the situation, assigned sanctions against the heads of government, placing even more pressure on them to follow through with the people’s demand for full and fair elections.

Lessons from last year's violence?

Ironically, however, it seems September’s outbreak of violence coupled with the initial postponements, have prepared Guineans for the trials facing them. Voters are hyper-sensitive to any escalation and the military has been flexing their muscle across the country to discourage any uprising. The capital and border crossings remain under tight control.

There have been numerous non-governmental and international organizations who have pleaded for calm. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) convened a civil exchange between the wives of the two candidates, UNICEF has worked to sensitize the younger generation for the election period, and the international conflict resolution organization, Search for Common Ground (SFCG) has led a process of uniting all private radio stations to broadcast the same, impartial reporting of the electoral coverage in order to avoid the political hijacking of the news cycle.

Also, Guinea has thus far avoided the protracted civil wars of their neighbors, a fact not lost on people here.

Still, how Guineans handle the election results in the next few days will ultimately test whether the country is indeed ready for inclusive democracy.

Andrew Kessinger writes at Second Passage.

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