Guinea’s Expression Of A Hopeful Future With The Ballot

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That must certainly be the most poignant moment of the election for me; an old woman, who must be over seventy-five years and supported by two young people attempting to cast her vote. It is Election Day, this Sunday, the 27th of June, 2010. Our team of journalists had been advised to arrive at the Novotel Hotel by six in the morning to join the ECOWAS election monitoring team that will go out early to witness the commencement of the voting process in selected polling districts of the Guinean capital, Conakry. On the eve of the polls, preparations had been feverish: election monitors from ECOWAS, African Union, the European Union, the United States, The Carter Center and the Organization of the Islamic Conference had filed out in all directions in the expansive land of Guinea to monitor the election. The interim military administration had also announced a curfew for the election as part of the preparations for the day.

At six forty we drove out of the hotel through the empty streets of the capital city and about seven minutes later arrived at the Marie de Dixin voting district of the city and already a queue had formed of prospective voters. The first thing one noticed here is the discipline of the Guinean people. The line was of men and women at first and since the electoral officers had not appeared, they stayed patiently, each clutching the voter card. At exactly seven o’clock, the election materials were brought into the compound. The queue was re-arranged with the separation of the genders; everything being done under the watchful eyes of the specially deployed security personnel who did not intervene, whatsoever. Party agents were also in the mix watching attentively the elaborate detail: the laying on the table of electoral materials like the inks; the voter roll; the lamps supplied just in case things dragged into the night as they eventually did; the voting papers carefully laid out and the construction of a polling booth. As these went on, the people on the two queues remained an example of disciplined attentiveness, waiting to go through the process of verification of their names on the voters’ list and then getting to vote.

I had remarked to Imoni Mac Amarere of AIT that the central thing about the electoral system, from what we are observing in Guinea, is the honesty to want to get it done. In the Nigerian setting, it was always implicit from the beginning, that the entire process had been rigged even before the polling day. The voters’ list is very faulty, even dubious in many districts; INEC more often than not, is part of the process of subversion of the electoral process; parties are not interested in letting the people express their preferences while we do not seem to have the civic discipline which obliges people to stay on long queues with each person taking his/her turn to be verified as a voter and then getting to cast a vote with the hope that it will genuinely count in the process of democracy. Even when all these processes run their course, groups of thugs might arrive shooting to scare away everybody to be able to hijack the box and when that is not done, INEC will announce a result other than what really transpired!

The Guinean process that we observed this morning at Dixin was over half an hour behind schedule but it eventually went well. The electoral officers displayed the box for all to see before sealing it; they then took their turn along with the party agents to be the first to cast their votes. That opened the way for the people on the queues to begin to move forward to become part of history as it unfolded before us in Guinea: the voter card is presented; verification is done and voter gets the ballot; she/he retreats into the enclosure to mark preference of candidate in seclusion and then comes out to put the ballot in the box with everybody a witness of the transparency of the process. It was working literally like clockwork, if ever things can, in this country that has gone through a lot in its recent history. But we had seen enough in one polling district to move to another place. It was when we were about to leave that the old woman at the beginning of this piece came into the frame.

Our next port of call was the stadium where the tipping point of recent events was arrived at. The 20 Septembre Stadium has entered Guinean history and its strivings for democracy. It was here that dozens of pro-democracy activists were gunned down by soldiers during the time of Captain Daddis Camara. The killings shocked the world and pressures came upon the regime to move faster on the route of transition to democracy. Camara was then shot in the head by his bodyguard and eventually removed from the Guinean political scene to pave way for the transitional administration headed by Brigadier (promoted General, a few days after the election!) Sekouba Konate who accepted the imperatives of a smooth democratic transition.

When we arrived at the stadium the process was getting underway just like we witnessed at Dixin. We left the scene and returned to the Novotel. But at 1135, the ECOWAS team headed by President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, former president of Sierra Leone and President of the ECOWAS Commission, Victor Gbeho returned to the stadium. It was a hot and humid afternoon and the crowd on the queues was becoming restive, because there was a logjam in the process. People have been unable to vote because the young lady in charge of the process took the decision not to allow votes when she calculated that the indelible ink supply she had will not be enough for the voters on the queue. She wanted to get a new supply before allowing the vote to continue. People on the queue will not accept that; the ECOWAS team appealed for calm while also making contacts with the officials of CENI, the independent electoral body, to move fast with the supply.

We left the stadium for other areas of the city to verify the process and discovered that by midday in many places more than fifty percent of the registered voters had cast their ballots. There is a restriction of movement and the only vehicles on the street carried the “Laissez Passer” tags that allowed them on the streets. So people who apparently had cast their votes were hanging around while young people turned empty streets into football fields; that is a major passion in this city as I also noticed when I came here last year. It is clear that the process means a lot to Guinean. A young lady that has just graduated from university in public law, Mariam told me that democracy was essential for Guinea’s future and she sees herself as that future. She dreams of doing a postgraduate study in international relations. A driver who took me from the Novotel to the Grand Hotel where I lodged, also spoke enthusiastically about the possibilities that the transition to democracy will unlock for the Guinean people. Frankly I do not envy whoever emerges as president after this process concludes. I spoke with the three presidential candidates that observers expect to lead in the elections: Sidya Toure, Cellou Dallien Diallo and Alpha Conde. While each one waxed lyrical about his plan for the country, I knew that managing the expectations of the Guinean people for what Nigerians call the “Dividends of Democracy”, might be the most difficult battle ahead.

The voting was expected to end by six o’clock in the evening, so the ECOWAS president went around again observing the counting of votes. The counting process was like a community event with the participation of party agents and members of the local community too present without any menacing security threat visible whatsoever. ECOWAS Commission president Victor Gbeho asked the officials and party agents how things went and without exception he was told that things had proceeded smoothly. He took a seat, listened and watched as the counting was done just as the sun receded overhead. The neighbourhood was a Sousou area and the counting saw that Sidya Toure was the preferred candidate. So while the ECOWAS team returned to the hotel, I went in search of an area of the city that was Fula dominated. These elections, as I had written in my earlier dispatch, have not really been an issues-driven process. Identity is the central point here and the votes seem to be going as predicted: along ethnic lines.

On the second day, the 28th of June, the ECOWAS Observer Mission to the Guinean Presidential Election issued its preliminary declaration on the process. It reminded that CENI registered 4, 207, 097 potential voters in the country and 122, 003 Guineans in the Diaspora; but owing to “technical challenges” CENI could not issue Voter ID Cards to 468, 562 registered voters, even though provision was made for that category of voters to also exercise their franchise. The declaration noted that “civil society organizations and the media demonstrated a rich variety of opinion and were vibrant, critical and informative on all aspects of the process leading up to the elections”.

Preliminary projections by ECOWAS put turnout at about 70 percent. The declaration added that “the vast majority of voters, who wished to do so, had ample opportunity to exercise their franchise in a transparent, tranquil and orderly manner. The voting process including the identification of voters, the secrecy of the ballot, reconciliation, counting, announcement and endorsement of results at the polling stations was free, peaceful and credible” Furthermore ECOWAS said there was no evidence to suggest “any deliberate intention, either on the part of the authorities or the electoral management body (CENI), to favour any candidate or manipulate the process”.

The general tone of acceptance of the validity of the Guinean election went through the preliminary assessments which came from the Africa Union (AU); the Carter Center whose observation mission was led by General Yakubu Gowon as well as the European Union and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Each of the reports noted logistic problems, as we have reported herein as well as the inadequacy of training for electoral officers and the failure to open polls on time in some areas. The observers sent around the country began to return by Monday in the main, and from the outlying areas of Guinea there were reports of significant turnout of voters and an admirable attitude of civic responsibility on the part of a population that has been shortchanged for too long in the political process in their country. As part of recommendations for future elections in Guinea, ECOWAS which was quite central to the political process in Guinea from the beginning of the crisis in the aftermath of the death of long-term dictator, Lansana Conte and the electoral process, argued for the “doubling [of] the number of polling stations, booths and ballot boxes, with a corresponding increase in polling staff at polling stations with enough space”.

Similarly, it was suggested that CENI and other relevant NGOs in Guinea should organize more capacity building workshops for polling officials, party agents and observers “in order to improve the voting and monitoring processes”. There was also a suggestion that the Electoral Code be reformed to allow the close of poll an hour earlier than the six pm that it currently is. However, as President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah read that part of the ECOWAS recommendation, I wondered to myself what will happen to people on a voting queue if the time was shortened and they still have not voted.

In reflecting on the Guinean electoral process, it struck me from the beginning that in conducting elections, the basic ingredient is the consensus within the elite to do the right thing. In Guinea, the transitional military regime was determined to achieve credible elections that were not manipulated and the election management body, CENI, went out to do the right thing and these were complimented by the political actors who largely kept to the letters of the code of conduct they had freely agreed to; then there was the Guinean people which was as responsible as it was patriotic and generally well-behaved.

If there is anything to worry about I believe they will be the groundswell of expectations amongst Guineans about the election outcome. This is in many directions. On the one hand is the belief that the emergence of a democratically elected president would almost automatically translate to the fulfillment of long-nursed aspirations for a better life; but we all know that things do not often work out that way in life or in politics. That might become the dampener for democracy into the future, especially if a democratic president finds it difficult to build the political alliances which will assist him to effectively govern or is slow in beginning to deliver on his promises because of the constraints and realities of the governance process. The second but more worrisome aspect of expectations is related to Guinea’s problematic ethnic divide; the Fulbe people who constitute 40 percent of the population have never held power in Guinea, but they are the strongest economic block. In previous times they suffered persecution in the hands of the founding president, Ahmed Sekou Toure. They believe this is their turn to rule and many among them say if Cellou Dallien Diallo loses the election, it meant that it was manipulated and that can be a source of trouble.

 

On the other hand, non-Fulbe communities are also worried that a win for Diallo will represent the consolidation of political and economic power in the hands of the most powerful ethnic community in Guinea. They feel apprehensive. By Wednesday, June 30th, rumors were beginning to spread about who won or did not win the election and there was some palpable tension in Conakry. The interim government, CENI and ECOWAS all played a part in dousing the tension. The Supreme Court eventually gave an extension of time for the release of results which had suffered delays because collation from outlying areas of the country did not come to the capital within the specified time. By last Friday, the provisional results were eventually released with Diallo polling about 40% while his close rival, Alpha Conde polled about 20% of the votes.

Since none of them won 50% plus one that was mandatory to avoid a runoff, it is clear that Guinea will still have to wait for a while to know who will be president for the next five years. But what came clear in the week that I was in Conakry, was that the people of that country, whose honesty and warmth, even near-naivety, reminded me so much of life in the Northern Nigeria of the 1960s, have made a choice to solve their political problems using the ballot and the democratic process. It is an incredible and tortuous journey to reach that point in Guinean national life. Guinea’s friends must assist it to stay the course of democratic renewal while whoever emerges as president will have his work cut out for him from day one!

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