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The security peril of Guinea’s transition: from military rule to weak policing

3 March 2014
by Guest author


Rally in support of Alpha Conde

Rally in support of Alpha Conde

Today’s post is by Erwin van Veen (Twitter @ErwinVeen) a senior research fellow with the Clingendael Conflict Research Unit of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, based on interviews conducted by the author during a recent visit to Guinea.

Over the last two-and-a-half years, a UN-supported stabilization package has helped put the ongoing transition from military to civilian rule in Guinea on a more sustainable footing. It largely took the form of a set of security sector reform interventions. While progress since 2010 has been substantive, Guinea today remains fragile. This highlights security as a critical precondition for development. It also demonstrates that initial security improvements must be followed up to become sustainable. Finally, it suggests what kind of results external money may ‘buy’ in a transition context. All three issues raise challenges for donors in terms of their policy focus (e.g. in the context of the post-2015 debate), their ability to commit long-term and their need to demonstrate clear-cut, ‘value-for-money’ results.

Between 1984 and 2009 the people of Guinea lived under a series of military and strong-arm governments that combined oppression with repression, plunging the country into a severe economic downturn. In 2010, the election of president Condé heralded a first step towards the return of civilian rule. However, the role and behavior of the armed forces continued to pose a critical challenge to political stability. The military retained a strong grip on political life and a visible position in society: theft, intimidation and violence were common. Citizens experienced the military as a daily, random threat on the streets.

In a rare show of unity, ECOWAS, the AU, UN and Government of Guinea recognized the instability of this situation in 2010 and jointly conducted a review of the country’s security situation. It led to a comprehensive, UN-supported, initiative to stabilize the security sector. Two-and-a-half years later both the results and the challenges look substantial. While Guinea’s poor governance and economic situation – exacerbated by its ‘bad neighborhood’ – still make for a combustible combination, the specter of another coup is fading. The military has moved from the streets into the barracks, weapons have disappeared from sight and civilian oversight improved.

A census of the armed forces that led to the retirement of 4000 out of roughly 24,000 soldiers – with dignity and a package – proved a critical part of the intervention. It helped reduce corruption in the military by weeding out ‘ghost soldiers’, reduced the potential for violence and increased the affordability of the military. Most importantly perhaps, it was a first step in restoring an ‘esprit de corps’ amongst the armed forces. Another key part of the intervention included the creation of a small, UN-led team to provide strategic advice on the security sector reform process to the office of the president. Leveraging the UN’s prestige, this team played an important role in maintaining momentum, building confidence and stimulating the re-instatement of critical institutional practices. Finally, additional interventions enabled difficult conversations to start on sensitive topics like democratic oversight and better protection of women against violence. The entire package came at the bargain price of $11 million out of a total Peace Building Fund (PBF) envelope for Guinea of $18 million.

What is remarkable is that in such a short time span a legal framework governing the security forces has been put in place, the previously prevalent culture of military secrecy has been reduced, the budget for the security forces is now publicly available (the government itself financed the retirement of the most recent contingent of soldiers in December 2013) and public consultations are going on about the role of the security forces (including the police) in society. No less important for the citizens of Conakry, soldiers now obey traffic laws like anyone else. The military is poised to contribute a battalion to MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) later this year, which will further increase its accountability, cohesion and esprit de corps.

These results may not seem transformative in Western parliaments – they are in Guinea.

Three factors played an important role. First, the UN leveraged the credibility it gained from staying in the country throughout Guinea’s crises – bilateral donors largely left – to advantage. Second, PBF funds were mobilized in a timely and flexible manner. It is worthwhile recalling that Guinea is neither post-conflict nor hosts a peacekeeping mission – the usual criteria for PBF support – and so this is a testimony to the catalytic role the fund can play. Third, and most importantly, the Guinean government recognized the urgency of the process and drove it hard, putting political capital on the line. Three decades of coups and military rule undoubtedly provided a useful reminder of the consequences of failure.

However, the devil is in the detail and this progress has, in a way, merely thrown up the next set of challenges. For example, now that the army has vacated the social space it used to occupy to the benefit of the police, the latter needs to step up to ensure public security. So does the country’s notoriously ineffective justice system. Yet, they are poorly governed, led, paid, trained and equipped. Reforming these organizations is also likely to command less political interest. For example, the 2009 ‘stadium massacre’ remains unresolved despite there being clear clues as to suspects and appropriate next steps. Finally, funds are becoming scarcer now that Guinea’s ‘success’ puts it at risk of seeing its PBF funding discontinued and donors in-country are few and not necessarily well-coordinated. Without further political and financial support the reform process may flounder, setting the scene for a slow erosion of what capacity has been created and increasing the potential for future violence.

Hence, paradoxically, if next steps cannot be taken, the success of the stabilization intervention may increase instability. A lack of prospects, basic services and poor governance continue to ensure that small incidents can spontaneously escalate and quickly lead to widespread violence. For example, a two-month long span of blackouts in some of the poorer suburbs of Conakry resulted in massive demonstrations leading to at least one death and several injured on 18 February. Police performance was poor. Such incidents are frequent.

In other words, given its help in achieving initial successes, can the international community now demonstrate it has staying power in accompanying the next step of the security sector reform process? Time will tell and yet the challenge is real.

Useful links

OECD work on Guinea

OECD work on peacebuilding, statebuilding and security

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