At a moment in which the tide of global democracy is seemingly in reversal, it is heartening to note the enthusiasm with which many voters in Africa are taking to the civic duties of participation in campaigns, building grassroots movements of popular support, and claiming ownership in the system. This year alone elections will be held in numerous countries, from Ivory Coast to Madagascar to Rwanda (obviously of varying levels of fairness), but one of the most optimistic presidential elections is coming up on June 27 in Guinea - the first truly democratic election in the country's 50 years of independence.
With a population of close to 10 million people and a booming mining sector with some of the largest deposits of iron ore and bauxite in the world, this election should be closely watched, not only by markets, but also democracy advocates as a barometer of the institutional environment on the continent. If a successful free and fair process can be undertaken here, it is hoped that other neighbors can be encouraged to follow similar rules and standards - including regional titan Nigeria, which is expected to hold elections in 2011.
In the past, fraud, vote buying, and outright manipulation marred Guinean elections. This time, however, things are looking quite different, according to a recent statement from Carter Center election observers: "The Carter Center observation mission in Guinea is encouraged by the positive tone of the electoral campaign in Guinea, including candidates' messages promoting reconciliation and transcending ethnic boundaries, and by the National Electoral Commission's (CENI) commitment to inclusive elections. (...) There is a palpable sense of excitement and expectation among Guineans, who hope for a meaningful democratic transition and civilian government."
That fact that Guinea is on the cusp of holding its first real election in 50 years is no small feat, especially considering the extraordinary violence and civil strife the country has suffered in recent years. Since independence, the country has been ruled by only two military dictatorships - the regime of Ahmed Sékou Touré (1958-1984) and Lansana Conté (1984-2008) - making Guinea one of Africa's poorest nations despite its abundant resource wealth.
However some of the very worst bloodshed came from the brutal military junta of Moussa Dadis Camara (2008-2009), whose self-appointed National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD) seized control of the country following Conté's death. The CNDD moved against all institutions of representative government, dissolving parliament and dismissing the government, resulting in travel ban from the African Union and a suspension from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The international isolation deepened the poverty of citizens even further, as trade ground to a halt and controversial interventions on mining companies ensued.
When society began to resist this oppression, and organized a mass protest rally at the main football stadium in Conakry on Sept. 28, 2009, the Camara regime dispatched the army to surround the rally and opened fire with live ammunition. This violence against protesters resulted in arout 150 deaths, scores of women raped in public, and the declaration of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Following Camara's serious injury in an assassination attempt, the interim military government has moved admirably and swiftly toward a transition to civilian rule with this election.
Out of the 24 candidates currently running for president (not one of them a military officer), one person stands out among observers as the potential new face of West African democracy. Cellou Dalein Diallo, a World Bank economist, former prime minister, and head of one of the leading opposition parties Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), happened to be present during the September 2009 crackdown and suffered significant injuries during the violence. His leadership of the civil society movement and personal sacrifices during the difficult Camara period has conferred upon him a certain mythic status among voters, while his campaign rallies have attracted more than 60,000 boisterous attendees in recent weeks leading up to voting day.
At the moment no candidate appears to have a clear majority, and Diallo faces close competition from other candidates such as Francois Lonceny Fall, a former prime minister and UN diplomat, Alpha Condé, who leads the largest party and was the presumed winner of a stolen election in 1993, and Sidya Toure, a respected long-time figure in Guinean politics. All four of the leading candidates appear to have consensus on some basic issues, such as respecting the result of the elections, re-examining previous mining concessions which may have been unfair (this could impact the interests of mining giants such as Rio Tinto, Vale, Rusal, and other Chinese interests), and working on rebuilding an independent judiciary to achieve national reconciliation. In large part, this difficult first presidency by a civilian in Guinea will rely on managerial skill and credible relations with allies, which is why many observers are placing their bets on Diallo.
This election is particularly interesting to me because it allows us to imagine a model of how elections can be held following a period of contentious dictatorship, when one or more parties feels deep grievances for deaths, thefts, and damages from another segment of the society. Naturally the first step for the next Guinean president will have to deal with establishing a functioning judiciary, and work toward the extremely ambiguous topic of reconciliation in order to move forward. It will certainly not be easy, but to see this optimism and enthusiasm on behalf of Guinean citizens to take part in the process, they stand a better chance than most to make an improvement.