Promise and Peril in Guinea

Cautiously optimistic scenes in the West African nation of Guinea as the population prepares for its first free elections in its history, tomorrow. There are 24 presidential candidates, and so far election observers from around the world say everything looks like it’s in order.

After independence from France two military dictators ruled consecutively from 1958-2008, after which the country faced instability and violence (including a large massacre of civilians) under a new military regime, until Gen. Sekouba Konaté – then Vice President of the new junta – took control of a transitional government, in an agreement sponsored by nearby Burkina Faso this past January. He quickly scheduled democratic elections for the Republic of Guinea, pledging to stay out of them himself, and the army has stood down and plans to remain in its barracks during the election tomorrow.

Bands of supporters in their candidates’ T-shirts marched through the rutted streets, motorcades of partisans coursed down the avenues on beaten-up motorbikes and thousands of people crowded highway overpasses to greet presidential candidates noisily as they returned from final campaign trips for Sunday’s vote.
[…]
The candidates, all 24 of them, have been free to hold packed rallies without interference, and the faces of presidential hopefuls now beam from giant billboards all over town. Soldiers, omnipresent in Conakry in the past year, have barely been in evidence in recent days. They have been ordered to stay in their barracks during the voting, a military spokesman said.

“The army is neutral,” the spokesman, Lt. Col. Lancei Condé, said. “We don’t have a candidate.”

Election observers confirm that the transitional government has taken pains not to influence voters. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the leader of the European Union’s electoral observation mission here, said, “There’s a serious determination at the political and administrative level to make this election happen and be a success.”

 
Simply thrilling. I do love a good election, especially in Africa.

So that’s the promise. The peril is, of course, the unfortunate possible outcome after the election. Even if there is no widespread violence or military intervention in the first-round or the runoff in this election, there is still the possibility of future instability, whether by popular discontent with the slow grind of democracy or by some overzealous or power-hungry military officer. Statistically speaking, from what I have read, the failure rate for developing country democracies in their first couple decades remains extremely high. So the odds are against Guinea.

But, in the things-could-be-worse perspective, Guinea can always look at its neighbor Guinea-Bissau (the former Portuguese colony), which was being labeled less stable than Somalia by the drug-traffickers last summer, and faced a military coup earlier this year that went virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world. As long as Guinea’s doing anywhere near as well as it is now, it’s way ahead of Guinea-Bissau.

So, let’s hope for the best, and keep the 10 million people of Guinea in our minds tomorrow. If they pull this off successfully and continue without instability, they could become a seriously strong role model for democratization around the third-world, since the story of the Republic of Guinea is one seen time and again all across Africa and the developing world.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Guest Post: Our hung parliament

Matt is currently a university student in Britain, but he attended high school in the US with the co-editors of Starboard Broadside*, and he has provided us with his reaction to the inconclusive results of yesterday’s general election.

Well, Nick Clegg has said he won’t be giving any more speeches today, and after those of us who weren’t shut out of the poll station at 10 p.m (which wouldn’t have been a problem but for the bloody Labour government having all pubs shut at 11p.m.), there’s a prevailing feeling that our votes were denied a definite result. One generally expects when they go out to vote to know who’s running the country the following day. However, as exciting (read: worrying) as the results are, they were far from unpredictable. The “yellow tide” of Cleggmania may have fell short of a tsunami, but that’s only because of the very electoral system which Clegg has been critiquing from the start.

The system in the UK is confusing even to us, but to put it simply for American readers, the Lib Dems did do well for a third party, achieving 23% of the national vote (only 6% less than Labour), but the only thing that matters is the amount of seats that are won. In this “First Past the Post” system, whoever gets the most votes in each particular constituency goes to Parliament and the rest of the votes are thrown away. This is how the Liberal Democrats have only 2 million less votes than Labour but 200 less seats in the House of Commons, and this is why Clegg has been demanding electoral reform from the start. The reason this election is so exciting is because of the very issue of electoral reform which it has brought to the forefront, and which will play a decisive role in how the new government is formed.

Indeed, the chairwoman of the Electoral Commission has described the current system as “Victorian” and demanded an overhaul. While we claim with great pride that the voter turnout increased massively, the country was unable to handle this, and polling stations shut voters out after 10 p.m., leading to sit-ins at polling stations around the country, and even demands for another vote to be held.

The anxiety over the current state (or non-state, rather) of the UK government has negatively affected the British economy, with sterling falling from $1.4732 to $1.4678 during Cameron’s speech – this could not have been more badly timed given the current economic happenings. The fact of the matter is that while this country is currently in need of a strong government, we are now left with a minority one that will rely on either small-scale policy compromises between two parties who’s manifestos are on polar opposites, or something even scarier and more revolution-worthy such as a Labour coalition (and we grow tired of Mr. Brown) or a defunct parliamentary minority. While we may wonder who it was that the country really voted for, we can guarantee it was not a Conservative-Lib Dem quasi-coalition. This election’s most defining aspect is that it has disproved the reliability of our current system, and Britons are demanding change.

From his speech given this afternoon, Cameron is in no way proposing an official coalition, but rather, to use his own words, a government which will “try to find new ways in which Liberal Democrats can contribute” – i.e. making the coffee. Expect a cartoon to surface on the internet within a few days of (forgive the cheeky British banter) Clegg with a big “57” painted on his chest kneeling down and doing rude things to a wryly grinning Cameron sporting an even larger “305,” with a caption somewhere along the lines of “Cameron spurns coalition, opts for ‘special arrangement’ instead.” No one expects this government to last for more than a year (in the UK elections can be called at any time, there are no fixed terms). Cameron has, however, said that he will sate the appetite for electoral reform with an all-party Electoral Inquiry Committee, but anyone who has been following Conservative agenda knows that his only desire is to have constituency borders proportional to population size, which – while still progressive – does not address the issues posed by this election.

And if that prospect doesn’t seem uninspiring enough, we are all faced with the fact that Gordon Brown is still in office! In the situation where there is no clear majority, it is up to the prime minister to tender his resignation to HM the Queen and it is Her role to then invite a new prime minister to form a government. This might mean that if the politicians can’t sort it out themselves, then Buckingham Palace will have to make its own decision.

All in all, between a resurgent monarchy and a weak coalition, the results (or, as of yet, lack there-of) of this election have confirmed our anger with the electoral system and lead the way to a United Kingdom that is even less able to deal with either the ongoing or the impending financial crises.
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Niger junta taking steps to restore democracy

As previously pledged, the military regime that suddenly seized power in Niger from the democratically-elected president just over a week ago in a violent coup d’état has begun taking steps to restore democratic rule:

As its promised transition to democratic rule begins, the military junta that overthrew Nigerien president Mamadou Tandja on February 18 has named a former information minister, Mahamadou Danda, as the new prime minister while retaining legislative and executive powers for itself.

Danda, 59, is seen as unaffiliated to any political party, was appointed on Feb. 23 by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (known by its French acronym, CSRD).

In a declaration broadcast nationally the previous day, CSRD head Djibo Salou was announced as head of state and the government; the junta will, for the moment, have the final word in governing the country.

Marou Amadou, president of a coalition of groups opposed to the ousted president known as the United Front To Safeguard Democratic Gains (FUSAD, after its French acronym) believes this first decree provides further guarantees of the junta’s intention to return power to civilians.

“The length of this transition will be decided after the consultations with all political and social stakeholders in the country announced by the junta,” Amadou told IPS. He hopes the transition will be neither too slow, nor overly hasty.

 
Because of the falling popularity of the democratic administration — due to it’s consolidation of power and the famine conditions nationwide — the coup has been met with generally positive reactions within Niger, though some expressed concern of a repeat of the breakdown of bureaucratic function seen in the months after the more violent 1999 coup.

Outside Niger, there were mixed reactions as most major power diplomatic corps struggled to decide whether to condemn the coup, encourage the rapid reintroduction of democratic norms, or help the average Nigerien get critical food supplies. Since sanctions placed on the democratic regime were already aggravating a food crisis, further sanctions would have been damaging and entirely unproductive. The United Nations pledged food aid, while the United States cautiously urged the junta to continue steps toward democracy and lightly condemned the illegal seizure of power (which involved heavy exchanges of fire right near the US embassy in Niamey). An interview about the coup with the Deputy Secretary of State for African Affairs, William Fitzgerald, can be read here.

As I previously examined, Niger is a major uranium-producing country, so there is a good reason for the world to be paying attention to its politics.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Military coup in Niger

It’s unclear what’s going on, but apparently there’s been a military coup d’état in the West African nation of Niger:

Soldiers in Niger assaulted the presidential palace in a coup attempt on Thursday while the government was meeting inside, according to officials and diplomats.

After a day of gunfire, explosions and nonstop military music on the radio in Niger’s capital, Niamey, the whereabouts of the president, Mamadou Tandja, remained unknown.

“There’s been a coup d’état,” said Boureima Soumana Sory Diallo, a high official at the state media regulatory agency under Mr. Tandja.

“I don’t know where he is,” Mr. Diallo said of the president. “They told us he has been taken by the soldiers.”

A spokesman for the American Embassy in Niamey, Robert Tate, said, “We’ve gotten several unconfirmed reports that he is in the custody of the insurgents.”

Late Thursday, a colonel who claimed to represent the coup leaders said on state media that they had decided to suspend the Constitution and dissolve the nation’s institutions, news agencies reported.

 
The president had allegedly been taking unpopular anti-democratic actions of late, so the military may claim to be protecting democracy. Food shortages due to US and regional sanctions had destabilized the government, along with opposition protests. It’s unclear how this development might affect the security of the country’s large uranium deposits, if at all.

We have to be careful here in analyzing the situation because as we saw with the 2009 Honduras coup, the pro-coup people tend to spin the situation to claim the democratically-elected leader was going to become a dictator without military intervention. I don’t know if there’s a possibility that some foreign powers might be backing this coup to gain control over the uranium mines, but there are often allegations of that sort of thing when military coups occur. I’ll look into it more.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.