How serious are Guinea protests?

There appears to be little appetite for the Guinean opposition’s promised campaign of civil disobedience. However, deep-rooted ethnic tensions, suspicions over Ebola and simmering resentment for the security forces could still see pre-election protests boil over.

Opposition-led demonstrations have turned increasingly violent over the past month. Hundreds of protestors have been arrested. The opposition says at least two have been killed, scores more injured.

“I’m really afraid,” Ibrahima Bah, a taxi driver in the capital Conakry, told IRIN. “People continue to walk in limbo because of the ongoing political squabble. Nobody knows what will happen next.”

Guinea has a long history of the government using force to suppress detractors. Ethnic divisions have also led to prolonged, deadly conflicts in the past.

What are the protests about?

Following the controversial election of President Alpha Condé in 2010, legislative elections were finally held in September 2013, after six years of delays over the choice of the voter registration company and the composition of the electoral commission.

In the lead-up to the 2013 elections, dozens of people were killed and more than 400 injured as security forces and opposition protesters clashed repeatedly on the streets of Conakry.

Things took another violent turn last month after Guinea’s independent electoral commission, CENI, announced that presidential elections would be held this year on 11 October, ahead of municipal elections scheduled for March 2016.

All this makes for a dangerous cocktail.

 The opposition has asked for the community elections, which have not been held since 2005, to take place ahead of presidential elections.

 “The similarities [between] the previous electoral controversy…[and the situation now] are striking and worrisome,” said Vincent Foucher, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) in West Africa.

“Politics has a strong ethnic dimension, and ethnicity has killed in the past, in various parts of Guinea. And this is an Ebola context, with lots of rumours and suspicions. The relations between citizens and the security forces are notably bad. All this makes for a dangerous cocktail.”

A game of ‘he said, she said’

According to the Guinean constitution, if two elections coincide, the “most important one,” i.e. the presidential, should be held first.

But the opposition claims the only way to ensure a free and fair presidential election is to hold municipal elections first, as the majority of current mayors were either appointed by the ruling party in 2010 or have overstayed their mandates by more than six years.

Opposition leaders say these mayors will help “rig the elections” by swaying their constituents to vote against the opposition in the presidential race if new municipal elections are not held first.

“The opposition remains convinced that it has been cheated of victory in the presidentials of 2010 and the legislatives of 2013,” Foucher said. “It hopes for revenge…. So they want to take back some local authorities first, in order to defend their voting pool better at the presidentials.”

The ruling party says such opposition claims are “unfounded” and points out that the current mayors were all in office when the opposition was able to win 45 of the 114 parliamentary seats.

The government has also said that the outbreak of Ebola has made municipal elections difficult to hold for financial reasons and that the focus should be on holding the “more important” presidential elections first.

Entrenched positions

“Neither of the two sides in the political conflict is willing to back down for the other,” Issa Bangoura, a banker in Conakry, told IRIN.

Sidya Touré, a former Guinean prime minister who is now leader of the opposition Union of Republican Forces, refused to give any ground.

“We will continue to put pressure on the government until our demands are met. Negotiations with the government are out of question,” he told IRIN. “The demonstration on [13 April] was just the beginning of civil disobedience in the country, and will continue until the end of the year.”

The government says that such persistence implies that the opposition wants to provoke a military takeover in the country.

“The previous controversy lasted more than two years,” Foucher said. “This protracted, tense process could [again] go wrong… And it is not clear that Guinea can really afford another round like that, wasting time, money, resources, and the patience of international partners.”

Renewed violence

Frustrated at the impasse, hundreds of angry opposition supporters – mainly dissatisfied youth – have been taking to the streets of Conakry since mid-April to express their demands. They block roads and burn tires, bringing much of the capital to a standstill. Shops are forced to close and many have been destroyed.

Security forces, called in to disperse the protestors and restore order, inevitably end up clashing with the demonstrators. They claim to have been attacked with stones and other objects. Protestors say that the security forces have fired back with stones, tear gas and, in some cases, bullets.

Security Minister Mamoudou Cissé has repeatedly denied reports of live bullets being used to disperse demonstrators, but the government has said it will investigate the allegations.

Little popular support

While many Guineans say they are unhappy with Condé, the latest demonstrations have failed to garner much support from the people, who increasingly accuse the opposition of being selfish.

“The demonstrations against insecurity in Guinea by the opposition should have come a long time ago,” Mohamed Kamara, a businessman in Conakry, told IRIN. “Now it is too late,” he said, adding that people see the opposition as just trying to use Guineans to gain the presidency.

Elhadj Thiernor Bah, a member of the Guinean Employment Federation, told IRIN: “These protests are causing us too much trouble. We want them to stop now.”

Our children have finally started going to school and now they want to disturb the future of our children?

International watchdogs say the government must do everything possible to quickly restore peace and order.

“The authorities know they have to avoid a massacre, another 28 September,” Foucher said, referencing the infamous day in 2009 when security forces murdered at least 150 people and raped dozens of women, after locking them inside a stadium during a political rally.

“So they have been trying hard to control repression…[But] this could go wrong. [It could] escalate, turn into ethnic clashes in Conakry, [and] reverberate in other parts of the country.”

Most civilians say they just want the fighting to stop.

“Schools have just reopened after six months… due to the outbreak of Ebola in this country,” teacher and mother-of-three Mariam Bangoura told IRIN. “Our children have finally started going to school and now they want to disturb the future of our children? No. Both the opposition and the government must go back to the negotiating table to iron out their differences.”

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