This might be the calm before the storm in Guinea. President Alpha Condé, first elected in 2010, will reach the end of his second term in 2020. Although Guinea’s 2010 constitution stipulates a two-term limit, Condé’s supporters last month hung a banner from the National Assembly encouraging him to revise the constitution and seek a third term; many civil society activists and opposition politicians believe that he will do just that.
Guinea’s opposition parties have vowed to oppose a constitutional change, which requires either a referendum or approval by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly. “Prepare yourself for a fight, because it’s coming,” said Sidya Touré, leader of the Union of Republican Forces party on April 3, as opposition parties and civil society groups announced a joint platform opposing a constitutional revision.
Following contested local elections in 2018, a series of opposition demonstrations and strikes led to frequent and violent confrontations between protesters and the security forces. Demonstrators set up improvised checkpoints, burned tires, threw rocks, and used slingshots to fire projectiles toward security forces. Security forces used teargas, water cannons, batons, and, at times, firearms to disperse protesters. Twelve demonstrators or bystanders were killed in Conakry in 2018, while protesters killed a gendarme and a police officer.
The 2018 clashes led Guinea’s government, citing the need to protect public security, to restrict freedom of assembly by frequently prohibiting public protests, with opposition parties and nongovernmental groups accusing the government of imposing a blanket ban.
The government denies that there is an outright prohibition, and did allow a media freedom march by journalists to go ahead on April 2. Opposition parties have, however, since July 2018 shown Human Rights Watch more than ten letters in which local officials prohibit protests on public order grounds.
The severity of the 2018 violence also led the government in November to deploy army units to key trouble spots in Conakry, the majority in opposition neighborhoods. President Condé said that this was necessary to “protect the population against troublemakers,” and to, “dissociate demonstrators who are claiming their rights from hooligans whose only goal is to spread disorder.”
Guinean human rights groups contend that the deployment violates a 2015 law on public order, which limits the army’s role in law enforcement. “It’s a clear derogation from the law,” said Fréderic Foromo Loua, a prominent Guinean human rights lawyer. Loua also worries that the army’s presence deters legitimate peaceful protest.
Any deterrent effect is not likely to last. Were Condé to signal that he will seek a third term, widespread opposition demonstrations would force the government either to allow some form of protest or enforce prohibitions at the barrel of a gun.
The Guinean government should move quickly to improve respect for freedom of assembly.
First, it should state clearly and publicly that there is no blanket ban on public demonstrations, and that the government will only prohibit protests if there is no other alternative to protect public security. The government should then set out and publish the criteria, consistent with international human rights law, that local officials should use to determine when to prohibit protests.
Second, the government should reach out to opposition parties and civil society groups to form a working group, with key national and local government officials, security force leaders, activists, and political parties, to discuss how to organize and police peaceful demonstrations. Guinea’s opposition parties should participate in good faith and avoid any language, online or in the media, that could incite violent abuses.
Finally, to ensure that those responsible for abuses during demonstrations are held accountable, President Condé should announce a special judicial task force, composed of judges, police, and gendarmes, to investigate and prosecute unlawful conduct during protests. International donors should provide training and forensic expertise for this unit.
Guinea’s government should understand that a crackdown on freedom of assembly is not a sustainable solution to rising political tensions. It should make it clear that it respects the right to protest before it is too late.
Corinne Dufka is West Africa Director at Human Rights Watch.