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How to Avoid Civil War in Guinea

Author: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies
December 9, 2009

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Last week's apparent assassination attempt on Guinea junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara by rivals within the military is the latest escalation of the worsening political crisis in this West African country. The gunman, Camara's aide Lt. Abubakar Diakite, has since gone into hiding. Camara's deputy, Sekouba Konate, has assumed control of the country while Camara recovers in a Moroccan hospital.

This attack follows a September 28 massacre that drew international attention to Guinea's simmering conflict. Military and security elements supporting the regime opened fire on a large crowd that had gathered in the national stadium, killing 157 people and wounding many more. The group had assembled to protest peacefully military clique leader Camara's seemingly inevitable presidential candidacy in the upcoming January 2010 elections. Soon after, reports of clique supporters' use of rape to terrorize the opposition began to spill into the mainstream media around the world, provoking outrage. At best, the ruling clique was unable to control the violence; at worst, it was complicit in it. Camara has refused to be held accountable, though he is nominally the head of state. He has also failed to investigate credibly the atrocities and punish the perpetrators.

These events have not only stymied transition to civilian, democratic governance in Guinea but also have focused international attention on the prospect of civil war in Guinea involving competing military factions. Such an outcome would be a humanitarian disaster for one of the world's poorest countries and could spill over into the fragile states of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The African Union (AU) and the Economic Communities of West African States (ECOWAS) have so far taken the lead to resolve the current stalemate involving the ruling clique, other elements of the military and the civilian opposition. The AU appointed Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré to negotiate a settlement. In response to the September massacre, ECOWAS' heads of state held emergency meetings on possible next steps and the UN assistant secretary-general for political affairs met with Camara to express the international community's concern. The European Union (EU), the AU, and ECOWAS put targeted sanctions in place. Following the assassination attempt, ECOWAS issued a statement reiterating its opposition to continuing military rule even as the hunt for those involved in the shooting was underway.

There is a consensus among civil society and the political opposition that military rule must go, an assessment shared by much of the international community.

The Obama administration has also imposed targeted visa and financial sanctions against members of the military government, a step in the right direction. Ideally, the Obama administration and the United Nations should take an even stronger public stance against continued military rule. As a practical matter, military intervention would be difficult, and there is no consensus in favor of it inside or outside Guinea

In his capacity as mediator, on November 18 Compaoré presented his proposal aimed at restarting the transition to civilian government. Camara would lead a transitional government that would organize presidential elections within eleven months. Participants in the military transition government would be barred from running in the elections. On November 20, the opposition rejected the proposal, reflecting its profound lack of trust in the military regime to hold free and fair elections. Compaoré's own weak democratic credentials may have also undermined his credibility with the opposition. It is widely believed that he murdered his predecessor in a coup, and his most recent presidential electoral victory was by a suspiciously large margin.

This current crisis has been building since a military clique seized power following the death of longtime Guinean strong man Lansana Conte in December 2008. Captain Camara proclaimed himself interim chief of state, albeit with support from only parts of the military, promising to fight corruption and hold elections after a two-year transition.

Initially, some leaders of Guinean civil society and parts of the international community welcomed the military in the aftermath of years of Conte's corrupt misgovernment. Such sentiments withered, though, as the clique visibly sought to hold onto power indefinitely. Relations between the clique and the civilian opposition have since deteriorated, and competing factions within the military have emerged, as the December 3 shooting illustrates. There is a consensus among civil society and the political opposition that military rule must go, an assessment shared by much of the international community post-September 28. Meanwhile, the ruling clique has resorted to violence against its opponents, established "youth support groups" around the country, and placed its supporters in provincial leadership positions. The ruling clique is also playing a dangerous ethnic card in Camara's native Guinée Forestière, an administrative region adjacent to Liberia and Sierra Leone, feeding upon local grievances at having been marginalized under Conte. This poses the risk of eventual reprisals against the local people if Camara loses power.

Lack of strong leadership to animate [African alliances] requires more UN involvement. A sharply worded UN Security Council resolution might have a salutary effect on Camara and the people around him.

There are also indications that clique elements and possibly their rivals are revivifying old, cross-border alliances with groups that were previously involved in civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and were never integrated back into their local communities following the end of hostilities. The International Crisis Group has received reports of clique thugs speaking Liberian Pidgin English in Conakry.

In previous West African crises, Nigeria's then-President Olusegun Obasanjo played an essential role in resolving similar stalemates by working within the AU and ECOWAS institutional frameworks and through his personal shuttle diplomacy. He would knock heads and deliver tough messages. He was also willing to take unpopular risks, such as offering Liberia's former dictator Charles Taylor asylum as a means of getting him to leave Liberia. His ace was his country's hegemonic role in the region. However, he is now out of office, and his personal democratic credentials are diminished because of his own failed efforts to remain president of Nigeria indefinitely. Nigeria's successor government is weak and inward looking, and its president, Umaru Yar'adua, is ill. Absent the active involvement of Nigeria's president, "African solutions to African problems" through the AU and ECOWAS is reaching its limits. Compaoré does not have the stature or credibility to play a role comparable to that of Obasanjo.

Lack of strong leadership to animate ECOWAS and the AU requires more UN involvement. A sharply worded UN Security Council resolution might have a salutary effect on Camara and the people around him. It could be a reminder that they can be held personally accountable for atrocities, as is Taylor, now being tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague. In the meantime, ECOWAS should send a military observer mission to Conakry to underscore the unacceptability to the West African region of the current regime. The United States and other international friends of West Africa should urge the AU and ECOWAS to stand fast in their opposition to military rule. The Obama administration should also favorably consider an ECOWAS or AU request for financial assistance for a peacekeeping force in Guinea, if such a request is made. However, with expansion of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and continuing responsibilities in Iraq, the involvement of U.S. military assets in Guinea is highly unlikely. Nor is there support in Guinea for such outside intervention, leaving the international community with few options. Nevertheless, Guinea's ruling military clique should be left with no doubt that it has become a pariah in the eyes of the international community.

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