Another country that rarely gets coverage here has made it to the news this week. Guinea was suspended on Wednesday from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) following a military coup last weekend that removed president Alpha Condé.
Condé had been in office since 2010 and last year engineered a referendum to enable him to run for a third term – which he duly won in a somewhat dubious election in October, in which he was credited with 59.5% of the vote against 33.5% for opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo. But the men with guns have now accomplished what the voters could not.
Coup leader Mamady Doumbouya promises democracy and national reconciliation, but without setting any sort of timetable. Political prisoners have been released, Diallo and the opposition have offered their support, and public reaction so far appears positive. Life in Guinea is now said to be returning to normal. But even a cursory reading of history would recommend caution.
Even very imperfect elections are an improvement on military rule, and those who welcome, even cautiously, a military takeover as a path to democracy are usually disappointed. (Egypt’s 2013 coup is a case in point.) ECOWAS and the rest of the international community have made the right call. Even China, in a reversal of its usual practice, condemned the coup; Condé was one of its firm allies.
It would be nice, however, if international reaction did not wait until things got to this point. Where was the chorus of complaint when Condé decided to extend his tenure in office – or when a dozen other autocrats did the same thing? It’s all very well to call for the return of “constitutional order”, but in cases where that order was already being subverted it does no-one any good to sweep that fact under the carpet.
“We saw the situation deteriorating, we even saw the coup coming, but the international community said nothing,” according to West Africa expert Seidik Abba, who likened the current reaction to sending for a doctor when the patient was already dead. But although real progress has been made in the region, organisations like ECOWAS still have enough autocrats in their own ranks to force them to tread carefully.
Until the world decides to treat democratic backsliding with the seriousness it deserves, countries will continue to get into situations where military intervention comes to seem like the lesser evil.