Voters in the West African state of Guinea began voting on Sunday in a hotly contested referendum which critics say is President Alpha Conde’s ploy to stay in power, which was almost immediately marred by violence sporadic.
Condé proposes an amendment to the constitution to codify gender equality and introduce other social reforms.
But opponents fear the real motive is to reset presidential term limits, allowing 82-year-old Condé to run for a third term later this year – a scenario his government has not overlooked.
Shortly after the start of voting at 08:00 GMT, young people attacked police officers deployed outside a polling station in a school in Ratoma, a suburb of Conakry, according to an AFP journalist and other witnesses .
In another nearby school, the voting equipment was vandalized.
Since October, Guineans have been mass protesting against the possibility of Condé extending his hold on power. At least 31 people and a gendarme have been killed to date, according to an AFP count.
There are also questions about the fairness of Sunday’s vote, which is also taking place against a background of growing concern over the spread of the new coronavirus in Africa, including two cases reported in Guinea.
“Take things lightly”
“I have the impression that our country takes things lightly,” said Amadou Oury Bah, banker and politician who suspected that the authorities were more interested in their electoral campaign than in the security of the country.
The ruling party called to vote as the leader, Fode Cisse, said: “We insist on strict compliance with sanitary measures”.
Originally scheduled for March 1, Condé postponed the referendum until the end of last month after international criticism of some 2.5 million questionable names on the country’s electoral list.
Some 7.7 million people were registered, out of a total population of around 13 million people.
The government says it has now erased the problematic names after a team of experts from the West African ECOWAS bloc urged it to do so last week.
But the besieged opposition of Guinea still doubts the credibility of the vote.
Cellou Diallo, former Prime Minister and leader of the main opposition party, the UFDG, said that the process of cleaning up the electoral lists had been opaque.
“It is an electoral masquerade,” he said, adding that the picture did not reflect the electorate.
His party, as well as the other major opposition parties, boycotted both the referendum and the legislative elections taking place at the same time.
In a deeply polarized political environment, opposition figures have also pledged to prevent votes from taking place.
Constitution would extend term
Sidya Touré, the leader of the opposition UFR party, said that Condé wanted to “convince the international community that he is open to criticism” while pursuing a third term anyway.
A former opposition figure imprisoned under hard-line regimes, Condé entered the records when he became the first democratically elected president of Guinea in 2010.
He was returned to power by voters in 2015 for his second and final five-year term under the current constitution, but critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian, citing arrests of protest leaders.
The draft constitution would also limit presidential terms to two, but would extend the term to six years, which could allow Condé to govern for another 12 years.
The Guinean government maintains that the new constitution would bring about much-needed changes in the conservative country, especially for women.
This would include prohibiting female genital mutilation and early marriage and granting spouses equal rights in the event of divorce.
Condé did not deny that he could use the new constitution to seek another term when his second ends this year.
Last month, he told French media that there was “nothing more democratic” than holding a referendum and that it was up to his party to determine whether he would run again.