Putschists who seized power in Guinea at the weekend have pledged to release “political detainees” held under ex-president Alpha Conde and repeated a vow to hold talks on forming a new government. Special forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Mamady Doumbouya seized power in the impoverished West African state on Sunday and arrested the president, sparking international condemnation.

The shock move came amid increasing criticism of the 83-year-old for perceived authoritarianism, with dozens of opposition activists arrested after a violently disputed election last year. In an announcement on Monday evening, the military called on the justice ministry to do what it can to release “political detainees” as soon as possible. Guinea’s leading opposition coalition FNDC — many of whose members were arrested under Conde — said its activists had been expected to be released on Monday. The military junta had released 79 opposition figures by midweek.

Doumbouya on Tuesday also repeated a pledge, first made after the putsch, to hold talks on forming a new government in the troubled country. “The government to be installed will be that of national unity and will ensure this political transition,” he tweeted. Sunday’s coup triggered broad diplomatic condemnation — including from the United States, European Union, African Union and the West African bloc ECOWAS — with calls for Conde’s release. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in a virtual extraordinary summit on Wednesday suspended Guinea’s membership and demanded a return to the constitutional order and the immediate release of Conde.

Public discontent in Guinea had been brewing for months over a flatlining Covid-hit economy and the leadership of Conde, who became the first democratically elected president in 2010 and was re-elected in 2015. But last year, Conde pushed through a new constitution that allowed him to run for a third term in October 2020. The move sparked mass demonstrations in which dozens of protesters were killed. Conde won the October election but the political opposition maintained the poll was a sham. Doumbouya, hours after taking power, appeared on television and accused the government of “endemic corruption” and of “trampling on citizens’ rights”.

Conde’s whereabouts are currently unknown, although the military has guaranteed his safety. Ministers have been banned from leaving the country. Doumbouya has also sought to reassure the business community, alarmed over the potential for disruptions in commodity supply chains. Mining is the economic backbone of Guinea, one of the world’s poorest countries despite its abundant mineral resources, from bauxite and iron ore to gold and diamonds. Guinea will continue to uphold “all its undertakings and mining agreements,” Doumbouya said.

This coup is the third in Guinea’s history, a country whose only dalliance with democracy began in 2010 with the election of the now removed Alpha Condé. Empowered by weak institutions, Condé, a former opposition activist and politician, was able to force a constitutional amendment to end a two-term presidential limit and allow him to possibly seek two more terms in office. A few remote and immediate conditions made the 5 September coup d’etat possible: flagrant disregard for human rights, intimidation of opposition figures, corruption, poverty and a failing economy.

In an attempt to balance the budget in August, the government announced tax hikes and spending cuts on policing and the military, while simultaneously increasing funding for the President and lawmakers. This angered many Guineans and coloured the decision-making of the coup plotters as well as the relative support or lack of domestic condemnation they have received. One curious contrast to note is how the international community was quick to condemn the coup in 2021 as impugning democratic values but quiet when Condé sought to extend his term in office, jail opposition figures (some of whom died in prison) and clamp down on protesters just last year.

Regionally, West Africa has witnessed four military coups in the last 12 months – two in Mali, a thwarted coup in Niger a few days before the new president took office and now Guinea. No doubt these coups among neighbouring countries are partly a result of the contagion effect; Niger shares a border with Mali, which has witnessed two coups, and Mali shares a border with Guinea. Another interesting point to observe is how the coups carried out in Mali and Guinea were led by field/senior officers and not the generals or flag officers who are typically the most senior military officers.

In Mali, Colonel Assimi Goïta led two successful coups mere months apart and in Guinea, Lieutenant Colonel Mamady Doumbouya led the special forces that brought an end to President Condé’s time in office. This could be indicative that younger soldiers are largely driven by ideological considerations and did not partake in the corruption that possibly pacified the top-ranking officers. In all, given the ECOWAS’s demands, we hope that a quick political resolution is reached in Guinea as protracted instability could cause instability in global commodities markets, specifically hard exchange commodities like aluminium. Following the coup, aluminium prices climbed to a decade-high.

Finally, this coup is yet another referendum on the spotty track record of democratic governance and rising discontent with the delivery of socio-economic goods in the region. Three decades removed from the heyday of military dictatorships when the number of democratic governments in the region could be counted on the back of one hand, every West African leader should be worried that those familiar dark clouds may be gathering once again.