Guinea's 2008 Military Coup and Relations with the United States

Alexis Arieff, Analyst in African Affairs
Nicolas Cook, Specialist in African Affairs
Congressional Research Service — November 5, 2009

The Library of Congress, 101 Independence Avenue, SE, Washington, DC 20540-7500

Appendix B. Touré and Conté Regimes: Historical Background

Ahmed Sékou Touré and the Guinean “Revolution” (1958-1984)

Alone among France's African colonies, Guinea gained independence in 1958 after Guineans overwhelmingly voted for immediate sovereignty rather than membership in the self-governing but neocolonial French Community. Ahmed Sékou Touré, a trade unionist and militant anticolonialist, spearheaded the movement for independence, which caused France to precipitously withdraw all aid and remove many physical assets, such as port equipment. After the break with France, Guinea's fledgling government received significant technical and economic assistance from the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries. While adopting a radical anti-Western public stance, Guinea nevertheless also accepted aid from the United States which, seeking to counter Soviet influence, sponsored a Peace Corps program and provided other assistance. U.S. companies also maintained investments in Guinea, notably in the mining sector. Touré's Parti Démocratique de Guinée (PDG)—Guinea's sole political party at the time— centralized control over all aspects of political, economic, and cultural life. The economic system and national educational program were ostensibly designed to eradicate all traces of Western colonial and neo-colonial influence. External travel for Guineans was restricted, while foreigners' entry and movements within Guinean territory were strictly monitored. Touré allowed foreign multinational firms to form joint ventures with the government to mine and process Guinea's large bauxite reserves through the use of industrial enclaves largely unlinked to the local economy. Nonetheless, enormous economic hardship was the norm for nearly all Guineans, especially after Touré attempted to ban all private trade in the mid-1970s. Broad opposition to such policies, which was catalyzed by the 1977 “Market Women's Revolt,” led to an easing of economic control and other reforms during the late 1970s. After this point, Guinea turned increasingly toward the West for financial and technical aid.
Touré's government was strongly nationalist and espoused a non-ethnic, unified Guinean identity. The Bureau Politique National, the country's highest decision-making body, included members of each of Guinea's major ethnic groupings. At the same time, members of the president's extended family held key state positions and reportedly wielded significant power behind the scenes.
Additionally, some government programs disproportionately affected certain regions. For example, the “demystification” campaign of the mid-1960, which sought to eradicate “backwards” cultural practices, mainly targeted the diverse ethnic groups of Guinea's southeastern Forest region 1, while in 1976 the regime specifically targeted members of the Fulɓe (Peul) ethnic group after Touré announced that he had discovered a Fulbe “plot” to destabilize the country. Overall, state-sponsored repression affected Guineans of all ethnicities, including members of Touré's own Malinké ethnic group. The first two decades of Touré's presidency were marked by increasingly repressive practices as Touré claimed that France and other neo-colonial powers were engaged in a “permanent plot” to undermine the Guinean “Revolution.” The government regularly denounced various anti-government schemes purportedly led by counter-revolutionary Guineans and conducted regular purges of the civilian and military bureaucracies. The PDG also instilled a pervasive culture of surveillance and secrecy. A civilian militia was created for public security and to check the power of the military. Several thousand Guineans are believed to have disappeared in government detention under Touré, though precise figures are not available 2. As many as a third of Guinea's population (some two million people) fled the country during the Touré era, though many left for predominantly economic, rather than explicitly political, reasons 3. Many long-time observers suggest that Guineans, even those born after Touré's death in 1984, remain deeply influenced by the PDG regime, similar to the populations of post-socialist states in eastern Europe 4.

Guinea under Lansana Conté

Sékou Touré died during heart surgery in the United States in March 1984, leaving no clear successor and a government with little popular support. On April 3, a military junta calling itself the Military Committee of National Recovery (Conseil Militaire de Redressement National, CMRN) took power in a bloodless coup. Colonel (later General) Lansana Conté, a senior officer and former member of the French colonial military, soon emerged as the leader of the CMRN. The coup leaders suspended the constitution, disbanded Touré's ruling party (executing several of its formerly most powerful members), banned all political activity, and ruled by decree. However, the CMRN also relaxed the level of repression and initiated a few improvements in human rights, including shuttering the prison block at Camp Boiro, a notorious military base in Conakry that served as a detention center for Guineans accused by Touré of anti-government activities. In July 1985, while attending a regional conference, Conté faced a coup attempt by a rival CMRN member, Diarra Traoré, an ethnic Malinké who had served as Vice President* following the coup but who had later been demoted. The putsch was suppressed by pro-Conté troops. Purges of putative anti-Conté military elements, including military trials and executions of accused coup participants, followed, as did vigilante attacks on ordinary Malinkés and looting of their businesses. Such acts were publicly praised by Conté. These events were seen as lessening the influence of Malinkés within the military and state institutions, but they also highlighted ethnic divisions in Guinea and politicized ethnic identity among the President's fellow Soussou people.
As president, Conté steadily consolidated power. In seeking to resurrect the devastated economy, Conté pursued a pragmatic program of economic liberalization and reforms, including, for example, currency devaluation, a floating foreign exchange system, allowances for the creation of agricultural markets, and the privatization of state firms. Though Guinea remained somewhat economically isolated and strongly nationalist, Conté's reforms led to improvements in foreign relations and aid cooperation with donors. This included a moderate rise in U.S. assistance. In 2006, the government authorized Guinea's first private radio stations, making the country the last in West Africa to allow private broadcasting. The move ended a state radio monopoly in place since 1958, and was seen as complying with government agreements to relax regulation of political expression.

Tenuous Democratization

The ostensible need to ensure state security in the wake of the 1984 coup gave Conté latitude to extend his control over the state administrative and security apparatus. The president ruled by decree for nearly a decade. In December 1990, a new constitution, drafted by a transitional CMRN legislative body, was approved by popular referendum. Though it foresaw a five-year transition to elections, the constitution gave the president wide-ranging decision-making and governance powers. It also created the basis for a highly personalized regime based around the presidency, manned by officials drawn from across Guinea's ethnic groups but drawing heavily from the President's Soussou ethnicity. In 1991, Conté dissolved the CMRN, replacing it with a Transitional National Recovery Council, which promulgated laws based on the constitution and was charged with overseeing a transition to electoral democracy. In 1992, Conté legalized multi-party politics, but political activity was placed under strict state regulation. While donor countries, including the United States, provided technical assistance in support of this process, they did not extensively financially back the transformation or subsequent elections, due to apprehensions about limitations on popular participation under the system being created. Guinea's first presidential election, held in December 1993, was won by Conté, who garnered 52% of the vote. Conté won re-election in December 1998 and 2003. Guinea has held two multi-party legislative elections, in 1995 and in 2002. Conté's ruling Party of Unity and Progress (PUP) won both, taking 76 and 91 of the 114 seats in each respective election. Legislative elections were due to take place again in 2007, but were repeatedly delayed, leaving the National Assembly with an expired mandate. Most of these elections were characterized by credible reports of irregularities and manipulation favorable to Conté and the PUP. Varying, though often extensive, levels of political unrest, election violence, state harassment and detention of opposition leaders, and coercive suppression of opposition political activities, were common threads. In 1998, the main opposition leader, Alpha Condé, was imprisoned following the vote. In 2001, a PUP-sponsored referendum aimed at extending Conté's time in office was passed by a putative 98% vote margin, amid low turnout and an opposition boycott, anti-referendum protests, a crackdown by security forces on opposition parties, and strong international criticism of the effort. It extended the presidential term from five to seven years and removed term and presidential candidate age limits, among other measures, extending Conté tenure.
In December 2003, Conté, who did not campaign because of his ill health, was re-elected with a reported 96.63% of the vote with only nominal opposition, following the Guinean Supreme Court's disqualification of six presidential candidates from the race on technical grounds and in the face of an election boycott by key opposition parties. The European Union reportedly refused to support the conduct of the election or deploy election observers because of doubts over the transparency of the election 5. In 2004, the Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH, in French) issued a report, titled “Guinea: A Virtual Democracy with an Uncertain Future,” that sharply criticized the government's regular suppression of political freedoms and targeting of opposition groups 6.

Regional Instability

Starting in the late 1980s, each of Guinea's neighbors experienced one or more internal conflicts—notably Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and Côte d'Ivoire. Conté's government was an active participant in many of these conflicts, supporting various government and nongovernment actors in neighboring countries and reportedly serving as a conduit for arms. For example, Conté sent troops to neighboring Guinea-Bissau in 1998 to shore up his ally President Bernardo “Nino” Vieira amid a military uprising, while throughout Liberia's successive conflicts (1989-2003), Conté provided backing for groups opposed to his regional nemesis, Charles Taylor 7.
In September 2000, Conté's support for anti-Taylor rebels, along with ethnic tensions, played into a series of armed attacks along Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia. These attacks lasted several months, and terrorized residents of the southeastern Forest region in particular. A self-described Guinean rebel spokesman whose identity remains unknown claimed responsibility for the attacks and said they were aimed at forcing Conté to step down. Most observers believe the attacks were instigated by Liberia's then-president, Charles Taylor, and carried out by members of Sierra Leone's RUF rebel movement, Liberian militias, and some Guinean fighters. The Guinean military eventually quashed the assailants, using extensive aerial bombardment of villages suspected of harboring the rebels and the help of hastily formed village militias and Liberian rebel fighters opposed to Taylor.
Conté meanwhile presided over a weakening of central state structures. In its waning years, Conté's government was reportedly divided into factions controlling different areas of the government, economy, military, and even nominal opposition and civil society groups. NGOs and international media portrayed a country whose leader was unable “to control the day-to-day operations of government.” 8 Concerns over factionalization in the administration and military heightened with reports that President Conté, who declined to institutionalize his succession and who did not often appear in public, was terminally ill. Starting in 2003, the International Crisis Group warned that Guinea was at serious risk of a civil war or military coup 9.

Relations with the Military

Although he arrived in power via a military coup, Conté had a complex relationship with Guinea's armed forces. The military benefited from significant socioeconomic privileges, but served as the target of purges and surveillance from a president who feared a military uprising. Conté faced many coup attempts, notably in 1996, when dissident officers shelled the presidential palace and briefly detained the president himself. The stand-off was reportedly diffused when the mutinous troops failed to agree on who should take over power upon Conté's dismissal. In 2005, an armed attack on the president's motorcade was followed by mass arrests. The Conté era was also marked by repeated military mutinies spurred by demands for higher pay, more frequent promotions, and an end to the perceived monopolization of military patronage networks by a small handful of high-ranking officers. In response to these challenges, Conté cultivated the Presidential Guard (also known as the Bataillon Autonome de Sécurité Présidentielle, or BASP), an elite force based in Conakry and commanded directly by the presidency 10. Conté also expended significant state resources on military salaries and benefits such as subsidized rice for Guinean troops. Numerous officers were forced to retire in late 2005 following the mass promotion of about 1,000 non-commissioned and commissioned officers.
In 2007, the government more than doubled army salaries after soldiers rioted in dissatisfaction at their low salaries following their role in quelling nationwide strikes. These moves were generally seen as decreasing resources available to such public goods as education and infrastructure. The International Crisis Group noted that “pay increases, along with waves of recruitment in 2007- 2008, ate into the state's fragile finances. But far from satisfying the troops, they generated an expectation that violent protests would bear fruit.” 11
Conté's administration generally refrained from enforcing military discipline in connection with alleged abuses of civilians, fostering what many Guineans and international observers see as a culture of impunity. In 2006, Human Rights Watch issued reported that Guinea's security forces routinely employed arbitrary arrest, torture, assault and occasionally murder to fight crime and perceived government opponents 12. An official commission of inquiry into security forces' killings of demonstrators in 2006 and 2007 had stagnated at the time of Conté's death in 2008.
The last wave of protests in Conakry before Conté's death took place in November 2008; at least four people reportedly died when security forces opened fire with live ammunition.

Growing Pressure for Reform

Popular anger at Conté's regime grew in the later years of his regime. In mid-2006 and again in early 2007, a coalition of trade unions organized a series of general strikes in response to longstanding and widespread public dissatisfaction with economic stagnation, inflation of about 30%, the slow pace of promised political reform and democratization, and Conté's semi-autocratic presidential exercise of power. In January and February 2007, a general strike spiraled into unprecedented nationwide anti-government protests. These protests, which were supported by major political opposition parties and civil society groups, caused significant political unrest in urban centers. In response, the military opened fire on protesters and launched a harsh crackdown, particularly in urban centers and notably in Conakry, the capital. Confrontations between troops and largely unarmed demonstrators resulted in 186 civilian deaths, while hundreds were injured, beaten, or extra-judicially detained, and dozens tortured or raped, according to an investigation by local human rights groups 13. Martial law was imposed in February, during which time Human Rights Watch reported that security forces in Conakry “went house-to-house, breaking down doors, and looting everything of value inside, including cell phones, cameras, and money.” 14
In late February, the strikes were brought to an end in talks mediated by Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The unions agreed to call off strikes in exchange for several concessions from Conté, including the appointment of a Prime Minister with some executive powers from a list of candidates pre-approved by unions and civil society groups. Conté's selection of Lansana Kouyaté, a former diplomat, was widely welcomed. Kouyaté managed a few significant successes, such as an audit of some government institutions and the renegotiation of a debt-relief agreement with the IMF. His attempts to initiate sweeping reforms of public institutions, however, stalled. Many attributed his failures to machinations by Conté's inner circle, Conté's refusal to accord to Kouyaté the power to make real changes, and public's disillusionment with the prime minister's perceived pursuit of his own political agenda 15. Quality of life across Guinea continued to decline, and a promised official probe into abuses by security forces during the strikes stagnated. The unions, which had enjoyed broad public support during the strikes, waned in influence due to Kouyaté's lackluster performance and rumors of internal splits and corruption among union leaders 16. A presidential decree in May 2008 sacking Kouyaté and replacing him with a close Conté ally and businessman**, Ahmed Tidiane Souaré, met with little protest.

Military Divisions and Restiveness

Conté, a former general, depended on the military to enforce his rule, and closely controlled the Ministry of Defense and other security agencies. Nevertheless, he faced several alleged putsches, some attributed to military officers. In 1996, a military mutiny spawned a coup attempt that reportedly nearly overthrew the president, and in 2005 the president's motorcade came under fire as he drove through Conakry. In addition, as his tenure waned, the military became increasingly divided along ethnic and generational lines, and in recent years there were several military protests ― some violent ― mostly over pay, working conditions, and military rank promotions.

The 2008 Junior Officer Mutiny

Particularly notable was a May 2008 uprising led by junior army officers at Camp Alpha Yaya, the largest military base in Conakry and the headquarters of the army's elite commando parachutist unit (known as the BATA). Mutinous troops demanding back wage payments and rice subsidy increases took control of Alpha Yaya, took the army chief of staff hostage, and pillaged shops and private homes in Conakry. They demanded that the chief army quartermaster and the defense minister be fired and that Guinea's generals, who were reportedly seen by the mutineers as blocking opportunities for promotion and monopolizing lucrative patronage networks, be retired 17. Mutiny leader Claude “Coplan” Pivi also told local media that the mutineers sought the rehabilitation of soldiers who were punished for abuses during the 2007 strikes 18. Mutiny leaders exchanged fire with members of the presidential guard, and several people were reportedly killed, and dozens wounded, by stray bullets 19. After a week of unrest, Conté met in person with the mutineers' leaders, and the government agreed to pay salary arrears of $1,100 to each soldier, sack the defense minister, and grant promotions to junior officers, ending the uprising 20. Much of the top military hierarchy, however, remained in place until Conté's death, but were subsequently dismissed by the CNDD, key members of which have claimed to have played key roles in the May 2008 mutiny 21.
In mid-June 2008, police officers in Conakry attempted to launch their own mutiny over alleged non-payment of back-wages and a failure to implement pledged promotions. Military troops led by Pivi crushed the police uprising, culminating in a bloody shoot-out at a police headquarters in the upscale Camayenne neighborhood that left at least four police officers dead, according to an official tally. Pivi's troops also reportedly laid siege to and looted police facilities throughout Conakry, and the police counter-narcotics unit was also ransacked and its records destroyed 22. The confrontations reportedly left a rift in relations between the police and the army, and established Pivi's reputation as a well-known and much-feared figure in Conakry 23. These events reportedly allowed junior officers to gain control of substantial portions of state armaments and, given past incidents of violent military indiscipline, placed in question security conditions in Conakry. There were also reports that some military elements employed these weapons in common crimes targeting civilians 24.

1. The many ethnic groups who predominantly reside in the Forest region, of which the largest are Kissi, Guerzé (also known as Kpelle), and Toma (Loma), have acquired an ethno-regional identity, known in Guinea as Forestier.
2. There has never been a comprehensive independent investigation into the PDG's detention practices. The Association of Camp Boiro Victims, a Conakry-based organization that seeks the rehabilitation of former detainees and the disappeared, believes as many as fifty thousand Guineans may have died in detention, though international researchers generally cite a lower number. Amnesty International estimated that 2,900 prisoners had disappeared in Guinea between 1958 and 1982 (Amnesty International, Emprisonnement, ‘Disparitions' et Assassinats Politiques en République Populaire et Révolutionnaire de Guinée, Paris: Editions Francophones d'Amnesty International). One historian estimates 2,500 disappeared during Touré's presidency (Maligui Soumah, Guinée de Sékou Touré à Lansana Conté, Paris: L'Harmattan, p. 21).
3. A. O. Bah et al., “Les Guinéens de l'Extérieur: Rentrer au pays?” Politique Africaine 36 (December 1989): 22.
* Erratum. Col. Diarra Traoré was actually Prime minister, head of the government. [Tierno S. Bah — webGuinea]
4. For example, the anthropologist and Guinea expert Mike McGovern has written that “remnants [of Touré's regime] persist in bureaucratic habits such as the strict surveillance of foreigners on Guinean territory… and citizens' habits such as that of looking to the State to solve all problems, in lowering for example the price of merchandise such as gasoline and rice, or further in omnipresent rhetoric… considering merchants as greedy saboteurs rather than as entrepreneurs “naturally” seeking to conserve their operating margins amid market fluctuations. A certain nostalgia for the Touré era is equally perceptible, even if that period was one of suffering and privations.” “Sékou Touré Est Mort,” Politique Africaine 107 (October 2007): 134-5.
5. IFES, “Of Interest,” Election Profile (Guinea). 6. IRIN, “Guinea: Rights Group Slams ‘Caricature of Democracy,'” April 14, 2004. See also Maligui Soumah, Guinée: La démocratie sans le peuple, Paris: L'Harmattan, 2006.
7. In particular, Conté reportedly provided logistical support and a rear base on Guinean territory for the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (ULIMO) in the late 1990s, and later supported Liberians United For Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), a rebel faction that proved instrumental in unseating Taylor in 2003.
8. International Crisis Group, Stopping Guinea's Slide, 2005: 10.
9. International Crisis Group, Guinée: incertitudes autour d'une fin de règne, 2003: i
10. Conté's personal guard also reportedly included a portion of the roughly 800 elite commandos known as the Rangers who were trained in border protection by a United States military cooperation program in 2001-2002 (International Crisis Group, Guinée: incertitudes autour d'une fin de règne, 2003: 12; Arieff interview with security specialist, Conakry, February 2009).
11. International Crisis Group, Guinea: The transition has only just begun, March 2009: 4.
12. HRW, The Perverse Side of Things: Torture, Inadequate Detention Conditions, and Excessive Use of Force by Guinean Security Forces, April 22, 2006.
13. Coalition pour la Défense des Victimes des Evénements de Janvier et Février 2007 en République de Guinée, Rapport sur les violations commises en République de Guinée pendant les événements de Janvier et Février 2007 (November 2007): 4. See also HRW, Dying for Change: Brutality and Repression by Guinean Security Forces in Response to a Nationwide Strike, April 24, 2007.
14. HRW, “Guinea: Security Forces Abuse Population Under Martial Law” [press release], February 15, 2007.
15. E.g., International Crisis Group, Guinée: Garantir la poursuite des réformes démocratiques, 2008; Kissy Agyeman, “President Replaces Consensus Prime Minister in Guinea,” Global Insight Daily Analysis, May 21, 2008; and Michelle Engeler, “Guinea in 2008: The Unfinished Revolution,” Politique Africaine 112 (December 2008).
16. Arieff interviews, Conakry, February 2009.
17. Saliou Samb, “Guinea Meets Soldiers' Demands To End 2-Day Mutiny,” Reuters, May 27, 2008; RFI, “Guinean Soldiers Demand Retirement Of Army Generals,” May 29, 2008 via BBC Monitoring.
** Erratum. Former Prime minister A. Tidiane Souaré is a geological engineer, not a businessman ; Mamadou Sylla is the business person. [Tierno S. Bah — webGuinea]
18. BBC Monitoring, “Guinea: Mutiny leader explains reasons behind action [from Guinéenews]” June 8, 2008.
19. Kissy Agyeman, “Tension Mounts in Guinea in Wake of Army Revolt,” Global Insight, May 29, 2008.
20. Saliou Samb, “Guinea Settles Army Pay Dispute With Mass Promotion,” Reuters, June 14, 2008.
21. Claude Pivi, a CNDD member and junior officer who was promoted to Minister of Presidential Security in January 2009, styled himself the leader of the Camp Alpha Yaya mutiny. Pivi also led the crackdown on the police uprising, according to witnesses. After he became president, Dadis Camara stated he had played a key role in the mutiny and in the negotiations that ended it.
22. E.g., Aminata.com, “Affrontements Entre Policiers Et Militaires—La Bande De Pivi Et Des Gardes Présidentielles,” June 17, 2008; and Pascal Fletcher, “Bauxite-Exporter Guinea Faces Drugs Trade Threat-UN,” Reuters, July 12, 2008.
23. Many Conakry residents believe that Pivi possesses powers that make him bulletproof. Anxiety over Pivi's activities peaked in November, when Pivi reportedly ordered the arrest and torture of a group of Cameroonian nationals he suspected of having damaged his car. (E.g., La Lance newspaper, November 26, 2008.)
24. International Crisis Group, “Guinea: The Transition Has Only Just Begun,” March 2009: 16.