A daily bulletin of news & opinion

15 October 2009

Following the massacre of more than 150 pro-democracy protestors in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, last month African leaders in the region wanted to send a message. The leader of Guinea’s junta, Moussa Dadis Camara, needed to be told that he couldn’t just take power by force, suppress the population and stand in elections run by his own people.

So the Economic Community of West African Studies (ECOWAS) decided to send Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso, to mediate. There was just one problem. Two decades earlier Compaoré had taken power by force, suppressed the population and stood in elections run by his own people.

African leaders have become less forgiving of coups. The old Organisation of African Unity, which was replaced by the African Union (AU) in 2002, was dubbed the “dictators’ club”. No sooner had a coup leader removed his military uniform than he was welcomed by his new peers with open arms.

The new AU vowed to promote “democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance”. Turning that promise into reality hasn’t been easy though. Many of the most influential leaders on the continent came to power via bullets not ballots. How serious can the organisation’s commitment be to democracy when its current chairman is Colonel Muammar Gaddafi?

Over the course of eight months in 2008 and 2009 four countries in Africa suffered military takeovers. Mauritania’s first democratically elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, was overthrown in August 2008. Four months later Dadis grabbed power in Guinea after the death of President Lansana Conté. March 2009 saw Guinea Bissau’s president, João Bernardo Vieira, killed and Madagascar’s Marc Ravalomanana ousted by the military-backed Andry Rajoelina.

African leaders have not sat idly by. The new presidents have had their countries suspended from the AU and been threatened with continent-wide sanctions. But the punishments have had little effect. This is partly because African countries still do very little trade with each other, making economic sanctions all but worthless.

But more importantly it’s because it doesn’t seem to take much to have the suspensions lifted. Mauritania’s coup leader, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz won elections in July. The AU endorsed the result. Dadis will be hoping for the same outcome when he holds elections in Guinea in January.

So if African leaders don’t have any influence in Guinea, what about Europe and the US? Hillary Clinton described the slaughter and violent rape of protestors as a “vile violation” of people’s rights, while her French counterpart Bernard Kouchner called for an international intervention.

What did Dadis do? He ignored the Americans and played the colonialism card against the French. “Guinea is not a district of France,” he said.

There is one country that could have influence over Guinea, but don’t expect them to use it. China, eyeing up the world’s largest reserves of bauxite and the potential of offshore oil, has just signed a $7bn mining and oil deal with Dadis’s junta. China prides itself on not “interfering” in the internal affairs of countries it does business with, something the leaders of Zimbabwe and Sudan have been thankful for. We can now add Guinea to that list.


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