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November 06, 2010

Voting Underway in Guinea

Voting is underway in Guinea to choose a new president. The vote is meant to end nearly two years of military rule.

Nineteen weeks after this presidential election began, the two remaining candidates are finally facing off in a second round vote to determine Guinea's first truly-democratically elected leader.

Former prime minister Cellou Diallo and long-time opposition leader Alpha Conde are members of the country's two largest ethnic groups. And violent clashes between their supporters have delayed this vote several times over the past few months.

Guinea's acting military leader, General Sekouba Konate, was on television ahead of this vote warning that the army would not tolerate any violence. It is easy to start, he said, but difficult to end.

There is a special security force in place for this election. Human Rights Watch says that unit should act with discipline, neutrality, and the minimum use of force.

"The tension in Guinea is extremely high," said Corinne Dufka, the West Africa director for Human Rights Watch. "There is a great deal of ethnic and political tension that has risen, particularly in the last two or three weeks. Now what we are calling on is for the security forces to remain neutral and disciplined and abide by regulations that call on them to use minimum use of force because we think the possibility for violence from one party or the other is quite high."

Following the first round of voting, security forces used tear gas instead of live ammunition. But Dufka says that discipline broke down at the end of October in response to clashes between Diallo and Conde supporters. As Guinea moves to complete a transition to civilian rule, Dufka says security forces must help lead the way.

"The roll of the security forces is to protect the population and in this case the electorate as they cast their votes. Guinea has for over 50 years been ruled by authoritarian and abusive governments," added Dufka. "And this very important and historic election signals a transition from that previous authoritarian rule into a democratic and civilian one. So it is very, very important that security forces maintain discipline and accompany Guineans on this very important transition."

In a joint statement, the U.S. and French governments expressed deep concern about pre-election violence and asked security forces to refrain from the use of excessive force. Washington and Paris say they support General Konate's efforts to ensure the army's neutrality and say everyone in Guinea must place national interests above their own personal, ethnic, or political considerations, refraining from provocations or harassment that could incite violence.