Coup in Guinea: Implications for Liberia, Sub-region

Guinea President Condé surrounded by his captors from the Guinean military.

Coup in Guinea: Implications for Liberia, Sub-region

Could there be a dangerous precedent in the making?

The military coup d’étàt, which took place on Sunday, September 5 in the Republic of Guinea, has already begun to have a ripple effect on Liberia, with trade between the two countries at the Ganta border coming to an abrupt halt.

Ganta border is one of Liberia’s key revenue-generating ports of entry, due to the robust trade corridor enjoyed by the two countries, through which agriculture products, motorbikes, and other commodities are traded.  For most of the previous decade, the Liberian border with Guinea at Ganta was hailed by the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) as the highest revenue-generating port of entry in the country, next to the Free Port of Monrovia. 

It is not clear how long the border closure is expected to last.  However, for each day the border remains closed, Liberia stands to lose a significant amount of much-needed revenue from duties, taxes and other fees collected at the border. 

The border post at Ganta currently generates approximately US$150,000 per month in revenue, according to sources close to the LRA.  At the border, just after the abrupt closure was announced by coup-makers, dozens of cargo trucks and other commercial vehicles headed for Guinea for goods are now stranded at the Ganta side of the border, with no idea how long the impasse will last.

The abrupt closure of the border is likely to undermine economic activities on Liberia, which depends heavily on Guinea for agriculture produce. In general, Liberians and Guineans flow back and forth through this corridor every day for business, healthcare, as well as to visit friends and relatives. Guinea and Liberia have a long borderline, which sees a lot of trade apart from the Ganta border crossing point, although it is the busiest one.  The Tio Border, also in Nimba County, and all other borders with Guinea are closed.

Col Mamadi Doumbouya

The coup in Guinea, which took place on Sunday, September 5, 2021, was carried out by an elite national army unit in the Guinea military, deposing the country’s president, Alpha Condé, in an attempted coup, after heavy gunfire was heard near the presidential palace in the capital, Conakry, on Sunday morning.

The UK Guardian newspaper reported that soldiers announced the country’s leadership had been deposed in the latest political upheaval to beset the mineral-rich and impoverished West African nation, amid conflicting claims of who was in power. Col Mamadi Doumbouya, the head of the unit and leader of the coup attempt, sat draped in the country’s flag during a brief address on the national broadcaster, Radio Television Guinea, announcing that the country’s parliament and constitution had been suspended and the borders shut.

“We are taking our destiny in our own hands,” he said, further criticizing the state of the country under the 83-year-old president Condé. “The personalization of political life is over. We will no longer entrust politics to one man, we will entrust it to the people.”

But at the same time, the Guinean defense ministry said an attack on the presidential palace by mutinous forces had been put down, deepening a sense of confusion at the nature of the events. “The presidential guard, supported by the loyalist and republican defense and security forces, contained the threat and repelled the group of assailants,” it said in a statement. “Security and combing operations are continuing to restore order and peace.”

The status of Mr. Condé, who has managed to stay in power since 2010, has also not been confirmed, but pictures circulating on social media showed soldiers surrounding the president as he leaned back on a sofa in bare feet, in jeans and a partially open shirt and vest.

In the televised address, Doumbouya said elites in the country had mistreated the country and that there would be an 18-month transition period. In videos posted on social media, civilian supporters of the coup were seen hailing soldiers during the city, crying in French, “Guinea is free”. However, a few days before the coup, there was an unprecedented purchase of goods from Liberian markets in Ganta, especially rice and vegetable oil by traders from Guinea, which created concern among the traders and residents in Ganta.

A Western diplomat in Conakry, who declined to be named, suggested to AFP that the unrest may have started after the dismissal of a senior commander in the special forces — provoking some of its highly trained members to rebel. AFP was unable to independently confirm this account. The closure has also meant Guineans, who were traveling back home are now stranded at the border and were seen lingering around the border in confusion. Most of them are women and children who are going to visit their relatives in nearby towns such as N’zérékoré and even Conakry.

“We are stranded at the border and still waiting to cross,” a lady was overheard communicating by phone to a family member, apparently on the Guinean side. We are at the border and we are still confused about the situation in our country. We were told earlier that water is full (there was a flood) on the road, but now we are hearing different news.”

Security implications

The coup, which happened just a day ago, might have security implications on the ECOWAS sub-region if there happens to be resistance from forces loyal to Condé, or conflict between opposing factions within the Guinean armed forces. Any breakdown in the rule of law in Guinea right now could lead to uncontrolled migrations and subsequent humanitarian crises of insecurity in countries neighboring Guinea, including Liberia.

And with the Guinean constitution having been declared suspended by the military, there exists an 18-month window of opportunity for instigators to test the resolve of the military to hold the country together.

ECOWAS speaks

A statement by current ECOWAS chairman, Ghana’s President Nana Akuffo-Addo, condemned what it called “an attempted coup,” and demanded the immediate and unconditional liberation of Condé, who was detained by the soldiers.

ECOWAS notes with great concern the recent political developments which have occurred in Conakry, capital of the Republic of Guinea. ECOWAS condemns unreservedly the attempted coup of Sunday, September 5, 2021,” said the statement, signed by the Ghanaian President and Current Chairperson of the ECOWAS Authority. ECOWAS demands respect for the physical safety of the President of the Republic, Professor Alpha Condé, and his immediate and unconditional release, as well as that of all arrested persons. ECOWAS also demands a return to constitutional order.

“ECOWAS reaffirms its objection to any unconstitutional political change. We ask the Guinean defense and security forces to remain in a constitutional posture, and express our solidarity with the Guinean people and their Government.”

The ECOWAS communication did not however indicate what steps the regional body had begun to take or was prepared to take to ensure a return of constitutional rule in Guinea.  The coup d’étàt threatens an earlier commitment by West African states to the 2001 ECOWAS protocols on democracy and good governance which basically frowns on coup d’étàts.

And the disregard for the provisions of the protocol by the military in West Africa, as witnessed in Mali five months ago -- and now Guinea does not only undermine the democratic gains made over the last two decades but also increases the likelihood of being truncated. It remains to be seen whether or not the coup-makers will heed the advice of ECOWAS to release Condé and other arrested officials and restore the Republic of Guinea to constitutional rule. 

If ECOWAS does not succeed with the impasse in Guinea a dangerous precedent could be in the making that could encourage and embolden other would-be coup plotters in other member countries to take a similar path.

UN Condemns Coup

Meanwhile, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has also condemned the apparent seizure of power by the military unit. “I strongly condemn any takeover of the government by force of the gun and call for the immediate release of President Alpha Condé,” he said.

Alpha Condé 

The unrest in Guinea comes less than a year after Condé – a former widely respected activist and veteran opposition figure – won a third term last November, to widespread dismay.

Last March, Guinea voted on a controversial referendum approving changes to the constitution, allowing the president to serve a further two terms. The opposition boycotted the referendum and more than 40 people died in violent protests before the vote.

The upheaval in Guinea comes amid deepening political unrest in West Africa, and fears that democratic gains in many countries are regressing, with a resurgence of third-term bids and attempts to amend constitutions across the region, the West Africa sub-region.

Last year, Ivory Coast’s president, Alassane Ouattara, won a controversial third term, running for office after previously pledging to step down. Condé’s grip on power has sparked outrage in the mineral-rich coastal nation of 12 million people. The president has overseen a rise in economic growth and development yet Guinea remains highly unequal and impoverished, with much of its young population seeing its future outside of the country.

 Last week, Condé sparked further outrage after a bill was passed increasing his salary and that of the parliament, cutting the security sector budget drastically.