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Guinea’s president claims he won reelection. Thousands of Guineans disagree.

Electoral protests in Africa rarely end up ousting an incumbent who defies term limits

- October 30, 2020

Some Americans may be wringing their hands about the possibility President Trump might refuse to leave office if he loses the election. While that scenario would be unprecedented in the United States, Africa has some experience with presidents who refuse to cede power — like the current election standoff in Guinea.

Contested elections in Africa at times erupt into bloodshed. Presidents who reach their term limits step down only about half the time without trying to change the constitution — those who attempt to stay in power nearly always succeed, despite public outcry. Governments tend to respond to electoral protests with violent repression — as was the case in Burundi and Congo in recent years.

Over the past two weeks, at least several dozen Guineans have died in clashes between protesters and security forces, following President Alpha Condé’s Oct. 18 reelection. Condé claims a contentious referendum in March allowed him to run again and circumvent a two-term limit.

Many in Guinea disagree. People flooded the streets last week and the opposition declared the results fraudulent after Guinea’s electoral commission announced that Condé had won 59 percent of the vote. An Internet blackout and eyewitness reports of government security forces attacking civilians suggest that Condé is willing to go to extreme lengths to remain in power. Here’s what you need to know.

Why some electoral protests succeed — and others fail

It’s rare that African incumbents come up short in their efforts to bend democratic rules and instead bend to popular resistance. The 2014 uprisings in Burkina Faso forced President Blaise Compaoré into exile in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire — where the current president is vying for a controversial third term on Saturday.

Why do some elections in Africa turn violent?

What makes electoral protests more likely to result in pro-democratic outcomes, like the exit of an autocrat, rather than entrenched dictatorship? Research by Dawn Brancati suggests democratic transitions are more likely to occur in the year following larger protests as opposed to smaller protests. Erica Chenoweth adds that protests engaging at least 3.5 percent of a country’s population have never failed to bring about meaningful change, including and especially nonviolent protests.

International pressure can make a difference

Emily Beaulieu finds that electoral protests place greater pressure on incumbents to implement democratic reforms when those protests receive international attention, even if that attention falls short of outright support. What have outside observers said about Guinea’s election?

Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, tweeted Oct. 23, “The U.S. condemns the violence in Guinea & calls on all parties to end it immediately.” Nagy’s tweet echoed statements from Amnesty International and the United Nations. He has also recently tweeted in support of other African protests, including the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria.

Tournons la Page (“Let’s Turn the Page”) is a Pan-African activist group dedicated to strengthening democracy. On Oct. 23, it issued a news release calling on Western powers to sanction the Guinean government, denounce post-election violence and protect civil society. And national organizations in other countries, like Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”) in Senegal, which successfully thwarted a third-term reelection bid, are now extending solidarity to people in Guinea and elsewhere.

Some African leaders, too, are encouraging their counterparts to respect democracy. President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, once a close friend of Condé, publicly admonished the Guinean president for defying term limits. When the two met at a summit in October, Condé refused to shake Issoufou’s hand. Issoufou, on his part, has vowed not to contest his country’s December election, having served his maximum of two terms. If he upholds that promise, he will be only the second executive in Niger to peacefully transfer power to a successor.

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What happens now in Guinea?

Most of the protesters in Guinea seem to be backers of Condé’s opponent, Cellou Dalein Diallo. Diallo named himself the rightful winner of last week’s election, claiming to have won 53 percent of the vote, not the 33 percent reported by the national electoral commission. This statement contradicted monitors from the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which declared the election free and fair.

The turmoil in Guinea thus revolves around electoral transparency, and not just Condé’s third term. Tournons la Page dismissed the stamp of approval from election observers, tweeting, “The AU and ECOWAS said they are satisfied with the electoral process, while forgetting that an election is not defined solely by the calm that surrounds the actual voting. The representatives of these African bodies neglect weaknesses in voter registration, repression of the opposition and civil society, and defiance on the part of certain political and social actors toward the Independent Electoral Commission …”

Condé and Diallo have a long rivalry, having faced each other in two previous elections. Diallo would be Guinea’s first president from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Peul. Condé’s support base is primarily Malinke and Soussou. Peuls have long suffered discrimination, and are now being targeted in the electoral violence. Up until now, Guinea has remarkably avoided the scale of civil war and ethnic strife that has in the past beleaguered its neighbors Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Mali.

Guinea has, however, teetered on the edge of significant conflict. In 2008, a junta seized power after the death of longtime dictator Lansana Conté. The next year, government troops massacred and raped citizens who were demanding an end to military rule. Condé, Guinea’s first democratically elected president, survived an assassination attempt in 2011.

What’s happening in Guinea is one example of the fury and uncertainty that can follow a disputed election, particularly if an incumbent refuses to step down when their time is up. With a fiercely contested election of their own next week, will Americans find themselves in uncharted territory? Elections in Africa offer a reminder that a smooth and democratic result is nothing to take for granted.

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Lisa Mueller is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College and the author of Political Protest in Contemporary Africa” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).