Guineans could come out better only if they face up to, and slay ogre of ethnicity

Monday September 20 2021
Guinea coup.

People celebrate in the streets with members of Guinea's armed forces after the arrest of president Alpha Conde in a coup d'etat in Conakry, on September 5, 2021. PHOTO | CELLOU BINANI | AFP


Since independence in 1958, Guinea has been run politically by the Mandingo, close cousins Susu, and the Fulani, lording it over the other 24 ethnic groups

While Ecowas this past week imposed sanctions on Guinea and ordered the military junta to return the country to civilian rule in six months, a civil society organisation sees the ouster of Alpha Conde in a coup as a solution to the deep-seated problem of ethnicism.

Africa Rising, while condemning the military coup, also sees it as a blessing in disguise, appealing to the junta to undo the effect of the “undemocratic” actions of Conde in the past two years.

The organisation said in a statement Thursday that Conde’s move to impose himself on the people of Guinea for a third term and his “high-handed” response to resistance was “characteristic of dictatorships” in Africa.

“We strongly condemn the coup and demand for the immediate release of President Conde and also call on the military junta to release all citizens, including activists and journalists, languishing in jail during Conde’s rule.”

Coups are loathed. But Guinea has had other intrinsic problems that lead to the build-up to the coup.


Ethnic groups

Since Independence in 1958 from France, Guinea has been dominated politically by two ethnic groups — the Manlinke (or Mandingo) and their close cousins, the Susu (French Sousou).

Together with the Fulani (or Peul), these three constitute the largest segment of the nation’s estimated 12 million population, which comprises a total of 24 ethnic groups.

With about 40 percent of the population, the Fulanis constitute the majority, followed by the Malinkes with 30 percent and Susu 20 percent, according to available census data.

Yet the Fulanis, a largely nomadic and business-oriented group, feel sidelined politically. And their efforts to resist this status quo has set the country on a path of constant tension that often rises higher at election times.

Guinea was a very important element of the 13th to 15th century Mali or Mande Empire, which comprised the lands that are today’s Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania and Mali. At its peak, Mande was the largest empire in West Africa and was once ruled by the famous Mansa Musa, considered one of the wealthiest Africans to ever live.

Today’s Guinea, on the other hand, is endowed with mineral resources like bauxite (the world’s biggest producer), shares borders with six countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea Bissau, and is the source of both the Niger and Senegal rivers.

Some of West Africa’s greatest historical figures hail from the country, the likes of anti-French resistance emperor Samory Toure.

Guinea’s first president, Sekou Toure, a descendant of Samory, was one of Africa’s renowned independence leaders. He stood out especially for his idealistic speeches about Pan-Africanism, with a remarkable oratory skill, which made him a strong opponent of Western colonial interest in Africa.

Under Toure, Guinea famously served as safe haven for many African independence heroes, notably the South African antiapartheid heroine Miriam Makeba and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah.

Coup after coup

Following his removal in a military coup, Nkrumah was invited to Guinea by Toure who declared and treated him as co-president until the Ghanaian’s death in 1972.

Back home, it was an irony for Sekou Toure couldn’t unite the tribes. His rule was characterised by mass emigration of his countrymen — mainly Fulanis — who faced frequent jailing and sometimes public hanging for their opposition to his authoritarian rule.

Guinea was the only francophone West African country that opted for complete independence from France, after a referendum rejected French proposal for it to remain a semi-autonomous member of French West Africa.

In retaliation, the French not only withdrew all aid, but according to historical reports, they also destroyed all infrastructure built using French money.

Toure, a Malinke, branded the Fulanis as traitors for their supposed opposition to the independence struggle. The ensuing mass migration of Fulanis is the reason a large number of them remain scattered across the region, notably in Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mali, Gambia and Guinea Bissau.

The Fulani Quest(ion)

Guinea is the only country where Fulanis form the majority of the population. They control the country’s economy through their dominance of the commerce sector. And they have made sure to use the power that comes with that to their advantage.

Toure was succeeded by Lansana Conteh, a Susu, who seized power in a military coup. After Conteh’s death in 2008, Musa Dadis Camara seized power. Dadis is from the minority Guerze tribe, who are predominantly found in the largely neglected, epidemic-prone southeastern Forest Region of the country.

Dadis is one of only two Guineans from a minority group to head Guinea. The first was Louis Lansana Beavogui, from the Toma ethnic group, also from the south, who was briefly interim president.

Beavogui stayed in office for only eight days after Toure’s death in 1984, when the military seized power. Dadis stayed for about 11 months when an attempt on his life saw him replaced by General Saikouba Conateh, another Malinke.

This apparent Malinke hegemony continued when Conde emerged winner of the disputed 2010 elections, leaving the Fulanis increasingly disillusioned. Conde won running as an opposition leader then.

The Fulani’s six-decade longing for political control is often met with concerns by the other ethnic groups that with their control of the economy, it would be too much to entrust them with power.

Consequently, ethnic-based violence is common during elections in Guinea. According to the World Bank, more than 60 percent of its population is under the age of 24; making their youthfulness vulnerable to be misused.

The 2010 election, rather than break from the chaotic ethnic past of the country, aggravated it. It was the closest a Fulani came to winning the presidency.

In the first round, the leading Fulani candidate, Cellou Dalein Diallo, won 44 percent of the vote, ahead of Conde, his closest contender, with just 18 percent.

In the second round Conde won with 52 percent.

Given his history as an opposition activist, Conde’s election kindled hope for reforms and the healing of the ethnic division. According to his critics, not only did he fail to achieve that, but Conde exploited it to his gain, thereby taking it to another level.

Majority of the victims of his eleven-year rule — dead or imprisoned — are Fulanis. The deep-rooted feeling about this is evident in the current post-coup discussions, with calls for his prosecution coming mainly from the Fulani.

The fact that coup leader Lt-Col Mamady Doumbouya, the head of the special forces who led the coup, is himself a Malinke may be a cause for concern for the Fulani, but it is also a blessing in disguise. If he had been from another ethnic group, or worse a Fulani, perhaps the political elites may have found reason to lock them out.

Setting up a government

Doumbouya is himself a product of the ethnic politics Conde allegedly espoused. He set up the Special Forces unit within the Guinean army allegedly to suppress opposition.

Junta leader Doumbouya is now in the eye of storm: He must return Guinea to civilian rule, meaning he must organise elections.

Last week he began talks with civil society groups. But it is unclear how long that will take and what role Doumbouya himself may want to play in government. In neighbouring Mali, coup leaders decided to lead the interim presidency where they will be expected to organise elections.

One thing on Doumbouya’s side is that the public approval remains high for his junta, going by the banter on social media in Guinea.

The junta’s ban on the formation of groups or public demonstrations in support of either the military or any other group suggests that Doumbouya has no plans to stay for long in power.