Clashes as Guineans vote in disputed constitution referendum

Conakry (AFP) –


Police fired tear in clashes with protesters in Guinea's capital and other cities on Sunday at the start of a bitterly-disputed referendum that critics say is a ploy by President Alpha Conde to stay in power for a third term.

Conde, who became the West African country's first democratically elected president in 2010, is proposing a change to the constitution to codify gender equality and introduce other social reforms.

But his opponents fear the real motive is to reset presidential term limits, allowing Conde, 82, to run for a third spell in office later this year -- a scenario that his government has not discounted.

Shortly after voting began at 0800 GMT, young people attacked police deployed outside a polling station in a school in Ratoma, a suburb of the capital Conakry, according to an AFP reporter and other witnesses.

In another school nearby, voting equipment was vandalised.

Clashes broke out in Conakry suburbs of the Cosa, Hamdallaye, Dar-es-salam and Lambanyi where opposition youths tossed stones at police and gendarmes who responded with tear gas as they secured the voting stations, an AFP journalist and witnesses said.

Shots were also heard in some parts of Conakry, according to an AFP journalist.

Since October, Guineans have protested en masse against the possibility of Conde extending his grip on power. At least 31 people and one gendarme have been killed to date, according to an AFP tally.

Unrest also broke out on Sunday in Mamou in the centre, Boke to the west and in N'Zerekore, and protesters destroyed election material in regions to the south and northeast, according to witnesses.

Local officials did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment about the unrest.

"I hope all transpires in peace and calm and that the Guinean people, as in 1958, will show their maturity," Conde said after voting in Conakry, making a reference to referendum that opened the way to independence from colonial France.

- 'Taking things lightly' -

Critics also questioned the fairness of Sunday's vote, which is taking place amid mounting concern about the spread of the novel coronavirus in Africa, including two cases that officials reported in Guinea.

"I have the impression our country is taking things lightly," said Amadou Oury Bah, a banker and politician who suspected the authorities were more interested in their electoral campaign than keeping the country safe from the pandemic.

The governing party called for people to vote as one official, Fode Cisse, said: "We insist on the strict respect of health measures."

Originally scheduled for March 1, Conde postponed the referendum late last month after international criticism of some 2.5 million dubious names on the country's electoral roll.

Some 7.7 million people were on the register, out of a total population about 13 million people.

The government says it has now scrubbed the problematic names, after an expert team from the West Africa bloc ECOWAS urged it to last week.

But Guinea's embattled opposition still doubts the vote's credibility.

Cellou Diallo, a former premier and the head of the leading opposition party the UFDG, said the process of cleaning up the electoral roll had been opaque.

"It is an electoral masquerade," he said.

His party, as well as the other large opposition parties, are boycotting both the referendum and a parliamentary election that is taking place at the same time.

In a deeply polarised political environment, opposition figures have also vowed to stop the votes from taking place.

- 'Authoritarian' Conde -

Sidya Toure, the head of the opposition UFR party, said Conde wants to "convince the international community he is open to criticism" while pursuing a third term anyway.

A former opposition figure who was jailed under previous hardline regimes, Conde entered the record books when he became Guinea's first democratically-elected president.

He was returned to office by voters in 2015 for his second and final five-year term under the current constitution, but critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian.

The draft constitution would also limit presidential terms to two but extend the length of the term to six years, potentially enabling Conde to govern for another 12 years.

Guinea's government argues the new constitution would usher in badly-needed changes in the conservative country, especially for women.

These would include banning female genital mutilation and under-age marriage, and giving spouses equal rights in a divorce.

Conde has not denied that he might use the new constitution to seek another term when his second runs out this year.

He told French media last month that there was "nothing more democratic" than holding a referendum and it was up to his party to determine whether he would run again.