1980s throw-back

Multiple coups, a global virus and democracy on the ropes in many parts of the world. Nanjala Nyabola asks, have we gone back to the 1980s?

Supporters of the ruling military junta, the CNRD, stand in front of their headquarters the day after the 2021 coup d'état in Guinea. Credit: Aboubacarkhoraa/WikiCommons

There’s been a coup d’état in Guinea. After 10 years in power, opposition stalwart Alpha Condé had already unjustly amended the country’s constitution to extend his stay in office for a third term, sticking with it even after fierce resistance at home and international outcry. But in September 2021, he was deposed by the military.

This was the latest in a growing list of coups in the Sahel region, with Mali, Niger and Chad also having survived unconstitutional transfers of power since March 2020. Soon after the coup, hundreds of Guineans poured into the streets to celebrate the end of the Condé regime. Now the celebrations have somewhat cooled as people wait to see what will happen next.

Although in many ways we are living in unprecedented times, I’m still fascinated by the ways in which history repeats itself. We are in the middle of a global pandemic triggered by a novel virus, democracy is on the ropes in many parts of the world amid coups and authoritarian takeovers, along with ideological battles between powerful countries carving up the world into their spheres of influence. We’ve been here before, and it wasn’t that long ago. In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS emerged at a time when the Cold War and the proxy wars it generated seemed completely impossible to overcome, and coup after coup brought authoritarian leaders into power across the Global South.

Ousted former President Alpha Conde, speaking at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Kigali, 2016. Source: Paul Kagame/Flickr

The core question at the heart of these historical cycles is: What must human beings do to break out of destructive historical patterns? In the 1990s, political scientist Francis Fukuyama misguidedly declared ‘the end of history’ and the triumph of liberalism as the global order. But the first decades of the 21st century are telling us that not only does history march on, it is also re-treading its steps. It is telling us that liberalism, as construed by its own scholars, is hardly a perfect foil for authoritarianism or militarism. The idea of egalitarian liberalism sounds lovely, but in practice the inequality engendered by powerful countries, determined to stay powerful, triggers the collapse of whatever democracy we can aspire to.

Foreign influence is not far away in Guinea. Condé himself benefited from its patronage. But we also know that Mamady Doumbouya, the coup leader and former French legionary, was a product of military training in Israel, Senegal and Gabon. The putative new Guinean president was a colonel in Guinea’s elite special forces team, and received training through the United States Africa Command. There is at least some anxiety about the sources of the colonel’s military pedigree and career. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that a military man overthrew a questionable civilian administration only to turn into a far more brutal authoritarian.

It would be wildly speculative to suggest that Doumbouya was trained by foreign governments to take over from Condé. What is clear, however, is that self-determination remains elusive in Guinea. As in the 1980s, when there seemed to be a coup somewhere every few months, true self-determination based on the will of the people and not the interests of the military, political elite or foreign governments remains unattained.