Populism and Profit: Guinea’s Coup

By Patrick Fox

Guinea Armed Forces practice during a US-lead training exercise in 2020
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Sidney Sale/DVIDS

In the small West African country of Guinea, the military has dissolved the government and closed the borders. 

The 83-year-old president Alpha Conde is in military custody, and Guinean Special Forces Colonel Mamady Doumbouya has announced that a new government will be created on an undisclosed timeline

Throughout this military coup, Colonel Doumbouya has practiced an interesting dichotomy. He has been careful to preach a populist message, such as promising to “entrust [politics] to the people” of Guinea, but has also provided mining companies an exclusive exemption to the nationwide curfew. 

As a former member of the French Foreign Legion who only returned to Guinea to establish special forces there in 2018, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya’s career and recent political language is emblematic of larger trends in the region regarding relationships between the military and foreign capital. 

Even with all of the brutality of his ten year regime, President Conde’s only real policy change was an economic shift away from France and toward China. As a result, this recent military coup holds an eerie similarity to many decades of French intervention in its former African colonies.

The context of Sunday’s military coup is crucial, as President Alpha Conde was a highly controversial political leader who quickly became a global player. 

Prior to Alpha Conde’s presidency, Guinea had been plagued by repressive dictatorships and rampant economic exploitation from international corporations. Conde’s international acclaim from his 2010 election came in contrast to 50 years of totalitarianism and suffering. 

Conde had been a vocal advocate for democracy and human rights in Guinea for his entire life, having spent time in jail and exile for opposing totalitarian leaders there. His election in 2010 was praised as the first free election in Guinea’s history, and in his inaugural speech, he boldly promised to be Guinea’s Mandela. 

Once in power, however, this former human rights professor’s political objectives bore a striking similarity to the exploitation and human rights abuses he had spent his life fighting. 

A 2018 Human Rights Watch article describes how President Conde worked to transform Guinea into a global leader in the export of the mineral bauxite, a crucial ingredient in aluminum products. Guinea soon became the largest exporter of bauxite to China, the world’s leader in aluminum products. 

The mining companies that he supported caused rampant environmental damage to Guinea’s rural communities while offering no compensation to the local communities for the damage to air and water quality. Riots broke out due to this expansion of mining, among other issues, and local populations created informal checkpoints to block the passage of mining personnel. 

Shortly prior to his reelection in 2015, there were waves of “pre-election violence” with Conde’s security forces using live ammunition to disperse protestors. That election was marred with accusations of fraud and corruption. Despite this, Conde served as the head of the African Union from 2017 to 2018. 

As an international figure, President Conde began building connections with NATO’s rivals China and Russia. As his second term drew to a close, Conde refused to accept the existing term limits and announced that he would run for a third term

This sparked anger both domestically and abroad, with mass civil unrest that was forcefully put down. International power brokers demanded he step down, most notably French president Emmanuel Macron

Toward the end of his second term, Conde had become highly critical of the French government’s role in West Africa, citing interference in local politics. It was around this time that President Conde specifically offered Colonel Doumbouya a position running Guinean special forces. 

Much of the international backlash for Conte’s attempt to remove term limits to suppress civil dissent was due to the heavy contrast of his actions compared to his previous promises to become Guinea’s Mandela. 

Ultimately, one of the greatest changes that occurred in Conde’s presidency was not violence and exploitation, but simply his specific business partners. 

His decision to strengthen connections with Russia and pursue large-scale trade with Chinese companies broke from a long tradition of preference for French companies and partners. 

The sad reality is that Colonel Doumbouya’s military coup carries striking similarities to a long history of military coups carried out by former members of the French Foreign Legion. Military coups by ex-legionnaires occurred in Togo in 1963, the Central African Republic in 1966, Burkina Faso in 1966, Mali in 1968 and Benin in 1972

The regimes that were born out of these coups were nearly invariably beneficial to French interests. One of the most relevant French interests to Guinea today is the seldom articulated rule that French companies must have priority in the awarding of government contracts. This very well may have been President Conde’s misstep, as he traded heavily with France’s economic and diplomatic rivals in Russia and China. 

It is not yet clear exactly what motivations Col. Doumbouya has for the country or if he received any foreign support, as real accusations of foul play cannot be credibly brought forward yet. 

What little we know about the developing situation interestingly comes from an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24, which describes itself as providing a “French perspective” on global affairs. 

The Economic Community of West African States has threatened sanctions over the coup and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has condemned the coup and demanded the release of President Conde. Already, the price of aluminum has shot to a 10 year high as competing powers brace for the situation to develop. 

The Guinean coup is just one place where a global power struggle between traditional 20th century economic systems and developing 21st century economic systems is playing out. Only time will tell how this microcosm of changing global power dynamics will play out.

Patrick Fox is a regular contributor for the Review and an international relations major at Syracuse University. He specializes in Africa and economic development in the Global South.

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