The official government left over from the death of President Conté has given up and submitted to the new military government. The coup’s leader, Moussa Dadis Camara, seems to have been broadly recognised within the country as the effective ruler.
As far as it goes, it is at least good to see that things seem to be stabilising peacefully, rather than the people of Guinea being sacrificed to a power-struggle. At the same time, although it’s hard to know how things would have gone if the coup had not happened, Camara’s original promise of “elections in a few months” has now changed to “elections in two years”, specifically by the end of 2010. Given that the new government has also dissolved all political groups and trade unions, the prospects for any effective self-assertion by the people of Guinea seem low. Indeed, the biggest upsurge in democracy recently was the protests of 2007, in which Camara and a lot of soldiers played a big part, demanding the payment of their wages. So it seems that the most statist section of that democratic upsurge, the military part, has taken off from it and seized power.
That said, the ongoing outcry by people in power outside of Guinea are interesting: an idealist might think that the American government, happy to do business with election-rigging Conté while he was alive, was actually just biding its time, anticipating that democracy would triumph after the chain-smoker passed on. But it hardly seems like a safe or confident bet, and the track record of imperialism suggests that there may be something else at work.
Either way, the character of this new flavour of dictatorship remains to be seen. Ongoing updates are available at the Friends of Guinea blog, and my earlier post discusses a bit of the historical background. Also wikipedia, google news, etc.
What stands out to me is this: the reflex response from outsiders is to support ‘democracy’. We don’t particularly mind whether Camara or anyone else is president, but they should at least hold some elections. But this issues in arguments about whether the government should continue governing for 6 months, and then hold elections, or for 2 years. What does not seem strange, but should, is that such a thing is even possible.
What I mean is: if this democratic system that’s so great really is what it’s cracked up to be, if it really is ‘the rule of the people’, then there should be an inherent and obvious difference between democratic and undemocratic government. But there isn’t. A government that is working to set up elections in a month’s time seems to qualify as ‘democratic’, but for that one month it governs in just the same way as a government that’s ignored the popular vote for 20 years.
By analogy: if someone said that of two countries, one was a one-party state while the other was a monarchy, but when you observed the actions taken by politicians and civil servants and legislators, you couldn’t tell the difference because the monarch only intervened in exceptional cases (and I’d count once in 4 years as an exception) – in this case, we would amend our characterisation of the ‘monarchy’ and call it something like a ‘constitutional monarchy’: in substance, it is a one-party state like the other country, but it has this difference of form. That difference may sometimes have effects but those effects are occasional and external to the basic workings of the system.
What we have, and what western leaders claim to want to promote in Guinea, is ‘constitutional democracy’: in theory the people is sovereign, but in practice their role is largely ceremonial. I’m not saying that this system isn’t worth fighting for – certainly, it has major advantages over ‘undemocratic’ governmental systems. But it is more similar to those systems than it is different. It represents not a complete change from one sort of society to another, but the concession that a certain system of government has had to make to preserve its stability. This is why the shift can be relatively easily acheived: take a dictatorship, hold an election, hey presto it’s a democracy.
Real democracy would be obviously different in all aspects of its day-to-day workings. It would be impossible to confuse it with non-democracy. It would involve the people not in a single occasional decision but in the general decision-making of society – as befits the sovereign.