How Do You Turn around a Failed State?


How do you turn around a failed state?

For the first time in a generation, Guinea successfully held free and fair presidential elections. The June 2010 elections were held shortly after the death of Guinea’s long time dictator, Lansana Conte, who ruled the impoverished West African country for almost a quarter of a century. While the transition period was chaotic—resulting in the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people—power was successfully transferred to the opposition leader Alpha Conde. With this historic milestone, the country starts to turn the corner from years of authoritarian repression and ethnic rivalries to the difficult process of building a sustainable democratic nation.

The difficult question for Guineans now is, how do you turn around a failed state?

There is no simple answer, just as there exists no ready-made template for a country that was little more than a “shell of a state.” Still, it is important to look at examples from Guinea’s immediate neighbors, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the difficult process they are going through to build sustainable democratic nations. Each of these traumatized countries is slowly building a system that can withstand the stresses and temptations of ethnic and regional rivalries. The conflicts in these countries had ethnic undertones, which were exploited for decades by autocrats with patronage. Even after the end of their civil wars, progress to building coherent democratic states is still hampered by the same ethnic and regional rivalries.

While Guinea did not go through a civil war, it suffers from the same legacy after decades of political unease between the two major ethnic groups, the Peul and the Malinke. This was made very clear during the transitional period as the majority of the population voted along mostly ethnic lines. The violence, which mired that period, had ethnic and regional undertones too, and it almost tore the country apart.

In addition to these ethnic and regional mixes, the poverty, corruption, collapse of institutions and infrastructure, and a tendency to roll back years of hard-earned progress with abrupt and sudden move towards violence, the country—not to mention its international partners—is presented with important tests. Liberia and Sierra Leone are all examples Guineans should really look at as they embark on a similar journey. For a critical look at Liberia’s experience with post conflict reconstruction, see this report by the Stanley foundation on the Wider Lessons for Peace Building and Security Sector Reforms in Liberia. For Sierra Leone, see this expert analysis on the Failures of Post-Conflict Reconstruction and the Threat to Peace.

So how do you really do this?

The entire process of building a nation based on democratic principles will be difficult, and it will take decades to go through all the processes. However, the new government, specifically the new president is presented with an excellent opportunity. President Conde should make fighting corruption a priority, work with international partners to reform the judiciary and the army, and make them truly independent. Guinea, before the death of strongman Lansana Conte was one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In fact, the new president told the BBC in a recent interview that the military junta that he succeeded stole more money in two years than the 50 years since the country’s independence.

Conde should diffuse the adversarial relationship between the government and the press, as was the case with his predecessor, and accept criticism when it’s due. He should reconcile the differences between Guinea’s major ethnic groups, especially those from the opposition. He made an important gesture by offering to share power with his opponent during the election but he should extend that to the party and ethnic group of the former president, Lansana Conte. The ethnic group he belonged to, the Susus are the third largest in Guinea, and will be very important in any drive towards reconciliation.

To avoid the same mistakes from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now Cote d’Ivoire, Alpha Conde, as in “the Alpha and the Omega” should represent a new beginning for Guinea. He should seize this moment.

Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2008, and currently pursuing and MPA at City College. He is a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.