As 2019 nears an end, a new and likely bloody political battle in Guinea is just unfolding. The West African country's 81-year-old president, Alpha Conde, is seeking to hold a constitutional referendum that would let him run in the 2020 election for a third term. The effort has already mobilized serious protests, setting the scene for more violent confrontations as opposition groups try to run out the clock on Conde's grand plan before next year's presidential vote. But as Guinea's president heads down the familiar path that so many of his African peers have trodden, it will come with similar pitfalls and likely ramifications for the resource-rich country's foreign suitors — and in particular, Russia.
What Guinea lacks in political heft it makes up for in vast mineral wealth. West African country had long drawn outside interest for its rich reserves of bauxite, gold, iron ore and other commodities. But its unstable and at times violent political history has long complicated its development goals, as well as its relations with foreign investors.
The Lure of Another Term
Conde’s moves ahead of 2020 follow a clear trend of other African leaders who have removed or altered term limits that restrict their power. But Guinean political opposition and civil society groups are both relatively strong, and this means efforts to undermine Conde's push for more power could be too. Per the existing 2010 constitution, in order for Conde to extend his term limits and pass other key constitutional provisions, a referendum must be carried out within six months of an election. The schedule for Guinea's next presidential election gives the opposition a clear timeline as it looks to throw a wrench into Conde's plans. But this also means that protests will need to be destabilizing enough to prevent the government from holding the referendum on time. Should this strategy fail over the next six months, his opponents will then aim to beat the referendum at the ballot box.
But efforts to derail the amendment will clash with a government bound to do everything it can to ensure the referendum passes. Conde and his allies have already arrested and imprisoned numerous high-profile opposition and civil society leaders. But while this was undoubtedly an attempt to blunt the protests by removing charismatic leaders from the field, the arrests have since only emboldened large-scale demonstrations in the country's capital of Conakry, as well as other major urban areas.
Mining Towns as Battlegrounds
As the political stakes increase, these opposing forces will clash in the coming months and likely intensify ahead of the election. This will include more marches and countermarches, deadly confrontations between protesters and security forces, and potentially more arrests. The bulk of these clashes will probably occur in Conakry as well as in opposition strongholds.
However, in light of the country's long nexus between political power and mining interests, additional destabilizing protests could also take place in key mining towns such as Boke, Sangaredi and Kamsar — all of which experienced notable levels of unrest in 2017 and 2018 that disrupted shipments of bauxite ore (the main source of global aluminum). At the heart of this turmoil were disputes related to local elections and the government's failure to deliver key services such as electricity that it promised as part of the new windfall from the mining investments.
In the eyes of many locals (especially unemployed or underemployed youths), mining operations in Guinea have largely failed to yield any real or even perceived promise of economic opportunity. As a result, Guineans now often now link these investments to corrupt institutions and predatory elites, as well as rising levels of pollution. In the 2017 demonstrations, protesters specifically targeted and destroyed vehicles owned by a Chinese majority-owned mining company in Boke. And as the country's political situation comes to a head over Conde's efforts to extend his term, mining operations could again find themselves a target, given their high profile — and sometimes controversial — status in the country.
The Russian Wild Card
The brewing term limit battle between Conde and the opposition could have implications for Guinea's growing ties with Russia as well. As with the rest of Africa, Russia has taken an increased interest in Guinea. Indeed, state-owned Rusal, the world's second-largest aluminum mining company, maintains a bauxite refinery in Guinea. But in addition to Guinea's resources, Moscow has also found a like-minded friend in Conde, who has made friendly relations with both Russia and China a key priority. Specifically, Conde has pushed to diversify away from Western alliances and the stricter conditions that come with U.S. and European aid.
Such positioning has naturally increased the country's appeal to Russia in the past (Guinea emerged as a Marxist-revolutionary state after breaking free of French rule in 1958). But this is especially true today, as Moscow pushes to bolster its sway across Africa by playing up its security, resource extraction and other comparative advantages. In fact, Moscow's renewed interest in Guinea has become so pronounced that the former Russian ambassador to Guinea publically endorsed the president's third-term aspirations, a highly unusual diplomatic move. And that same envoy is now the head of Rusal's mining operation in Guinea, further underscoring Russia's deep-seated political and economic interests in the country.
By giving citizens an opening to push for serious change, Guinea's president could become the next African leader whose attempts to extend his reign only expedited its end.
Given the Guinean government's close ties with Russia, it will be important to track Moscow's efforts — both overt and covert — to help Conde pass his referendum. A Russian boost could give him an additional advantage over the opposition by providing the octogenarian leader with key security or financial resources otherwise not as his disposal. Regardless of how much Moscow is willing to pour into its newfound West African ally, however, Guinea's internal political battle will ultimately remain the chief determinant of whether the president can make his third-term dream a reality. But by giving his country's relatively robust civil society an opening to push for serious change, Conde could instead find himself among the ranks of African leaders whose attempts to extend their reigns only expedited their ends.