Sara van der Hoeven | 22 September 2021
The queue seems endless and is extremely slow. “If only you checked in beforehand…!,” I keep telling myself. We—the line of people who did not check-in online—spiral throughout the departure hall of Conakry Airport. We’re filling the no longer empty spaces. It’s like a dance. One step to the side to let a family pass by, one step back again for the floor manager. Then, we’re all pushed forward to fit even more people in line. Do I really mind? I’m lost in thought about the past few weeks: new friends made and the natural beauty of Guinea’s Fuuta Jallon. I am beating myself up over not booking my return ticket even a few days later. I just want to eat attiéké one more time and enjoy the warmth (and sudden downpours, it’s the rainy season, after all).
I’m strolling through the market at Brussels-Midi the next morning, waiting for my train, when I receive a message from Conakry: “There are shootings in Kaloum.”
We were there yesterday afternoon. We drove through the neighbourhood, sightseeing and visiting a friend who has a pharmacy in the market. The market was lively as usual. This morning, however, most people stay indoors and report continuous shootings near the Sekhoutoureya presidential palace.
I’m at Amsterdam Airport now without much connection all day. The next message reads, “Maybe there was a coup d’état in Guinea this morning.”
What?! And… “maybe”?
The “maybe” turned out to be “definitely” when Mamady Doumbouya and other members of the Special Forces Group appeared on national television in the afternoon. Broadcasting Live, Doumbouya annuls the constitution and announces the arrest and removal of President Alpha Condé (or “Professor” as he was often introduced), who controversially changed the constitution last year to run for (and win) a third term as president.
Over the next few days, I get little work done and continue checking the news. Government officials are summoned to the People’s Palace—Doumbouya considers no show an act of rebellion—for a Monday morning meeting, a meeting that will last six hours. Incoming photos and videos show people in Bambeto cheering “liberty” on the streets while accompanying military vehicles. Seventy prisoners who opposed Condé’s push for a third mandate last year now walk free, and the army barracks that Condé installed to respond to those protesters are dismantled. In most neighbourhoods, however, daily life quickly continues as usual and civil servants show up to work the following day.
Thus far, Guineans generally support the removal of Alpha Condé (but not necessarily the coup in itself), and no widespread protests have erupted. Of course, different actors within the international community have denounced the military coup, and ECOWAS and the African Union suspended Guinea’s membership.
Other news shows a delegation of ECOWAS, including Ghana’s and Burkina’s Foreign Ministers, arriving in Conakry on Friday to negotiate with the National Rally and Development Committee, as the junta now calls itself. The mediators call the first meeting “positive.”
Experiencing political change
Closely following and experiencing the coup shows how political change is both sudden and mundane. In just a few hours, the special forces turn politics in Guinea upside down by arresting the president. Yet, at the same time, most people barely feel any change going about their everyday business.
Message from Conakry: “No, we are still outside now. The army removed the 22-hour roadblock here. And oh, I went to the tailor today.”
Eventually, the everyday practices and actions of Guineans will prove to be the real change maker. Hundreds of people are involved in shaping the dialogue with military leaders in one way or another. Even the junta has to take one step at a time and maintain the support of the rest of the army and general public.
“Why now?” is a question many Guineans and I still struggle to answer. For all the reasons Colonel Doumbouya listed to stage the coup—corruption, Condé’s third term, and persistent poverty—a year of opportunities has already passed. Moreover, during 2020 the security and defence forces used excessive force against people protesting Condé’s constitutional reform and third term, causing multiple injuries and dozens of deaths. Others link the coup’s timing to Condé’s demand for a more substantial presidential budget while reducing the budget and wages of civil servants and security forces.
Meetings with political, regional, business, and religious leaders to form the promised transitional national unity government kicked off on 13 September at the People’s Palace. So far, the process has received mixed responses. Monday’s organisation was chaotic, and some politicians were unable to join the meeting.
Barely two weeks after the coup, one can’t imagine what the political landscape will look like in a year. What is clear, however, is that Guineans are closely following the next moves of the junta. These are different times, but no one has forgotten Dadis Camara or Lansana Conté. Meanwhile, Mamady Doumbouya states that their main principle is not to repeat past mistakes, “We will not make the same mistakes as our elders.” Will Doumbouya follow his own promises and transition to civilian rule and organise democratic elections within a short time-frame, or will the people of Guinea find themselves with the short end of the stick?
Sara van der Hoeven is a Ph.D. candidate in peace and development research at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. She holds an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights.