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20.03.2020 Africa

Guinea to vote on new constitution amid coronavirus fears

By AFP
Opposition groups fear the new constitution is a ploy to allow President Alpha Conde to stay on for a third spell in office.  By Michael TEWELDE (AFP/File)
LISTEN MAR 20, 2020
Opposition groups fear the new constitution is a ploy to allow President Alpha Conde to stay on for a third spell in office. By Michael TEWELDE (AFP/File)

Guineans are set to vote Sunday on whether to adopt a new constitution, against a backdrop of mass protests against the move, coronavirus and possible internet cuts.

After being delayed last month, the referendum also caps months of tension, occasional violence, and arrests, as critics see the new constitution as a ploy to keep President Alpha Conde in power.

The government argues the proposed constitution will, among other things, codify gender equality in the West African state, and that holding a referendum is democratic.

But critics fear the real motive is to reset presidential term limits, allowing Conde, 82, to run for a third spell in office later this year.

He has not denied the possibility, and since October, Guineans have taken part in sometimes-violent mass protests against such an outcome.

At least 31 protesters and one gendarme have been killed in the unrest to date, according to an AFP tally. Allegations of police brutality are routine.

Sunday's constitutional referendum -- which occurs alongside a parliamentary poll -- takes place to questions about its fairness.

Conde postponed the referendum, originally planned for March 1, late last month after international criticism over millions of unaccounted-for names on the electoral roll.

Officials now promise those names have been scrubbed, but doubt still lingers for the country's embattled opposition.

"There is no basis on which to say this vote will be transparent, fair," said former premier and opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo.

"Guineans are invited to systematically refuse the holding of this constitutional coup d'etat," he added.

Major opposition parties have vowed to boycott Sunday's twin polls -- and have previously vowed to try to stop them from occurring.

Diallo's Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea -- the main opposition party -- along with protest organisers, is deeply suspicious of Conde's government.

Conde is a former opposition figure himself, who became Guinea's first democratically-elected leader in 2010 and was re-elected in 2015.

But activists have accused him of increasing authoritarian drift, after the arrest of protest leaders.

Conde appears determined to hold the vote this time round.

In state media this week, the country's territorial administration minister, Bourema Conde, said the vote should take place peaceably and accused the opposition of "Machiavellian schemes".

He added that those seeking to block the vote wanted "the worst for Guinea".

Lines down

Authorities argue that concerns about the electoral roll can now be laid to rest.

Last month, the International Organisation of French Speaking Countries said the roll contained millions of problematic names, pointing to duplicate names or people who had died.

After other international organisations such as the African Union echoed the concerns, Conde on February 28 postponed the referendum.

A team of ECOWAS election experts came to similar conclusions last week, and said that some 2.5 million registered voters out of 7.7 million lacked proper documentation.

Camara Djenabou Toure, an official from the Independent National Election Commission, said that those names had now been removed.

"It's not complicated," she said.

Compounding concerns about fairness, however, is the fact that Guinea is facing internet outages as it heads to the polls.

GUILAB, a company managing Guinea's internet connectivity, has said that works would take place on an undersea fibre-optic cable this weekend.

Telecommunications firm MTN also said some internet and phone services would be down.

Virus vote

Guinea is also going ahead with the vote even as neighbouring countries have limited public gatherings in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The former French colony has recorded two positive cases to date.

Amadou Oury Bah, the head of a small political party, said he thought the government was taking the threat lightly.

"The authorities are more interested in their electoral campaign," he said.

Guinea was badly hit by the 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak, which claimed some 2,500 lives in the country.

But Conde's ruling RPG party is urging voters to turn out on Sunday while obeying sanitary rules.

"We're insisting on strict hygiene, especially on this day," said Fode Cisse, the head of the party's health committee.

Polls are due to open at 0800 GMT on Sunday and will close at 1800 GMT.

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