The longtime ruler of Guinea, President Lansana Conte, died on Tuesday, and the military seized on the opportunity to announce a coup.
Conte has ruled Guinea since taking over in a coup himself in 1984. Since then, he has not exactly shown himself to be a paragon of good governance, human rights and democracy. About the best outcome from a situation like this is for the military to appoint a broadly representative transitional governing council that would act as a caretaker government until national elections can be held. Ideally, the group responsible for the coup would take themselves out of the running.
Conte was clearly not an enlightened despot. Still, the political instability that coups manifest are detrimental to the economic development in a country like Guinea. In The Bottom Billion, the economist Paul Collier argues that one of the biggest indicators of whether or not a country is coup-prone is low growth and low income. He also shows how countries that experience a coup are likely to experience them over and over again. Thus, a poor and coup-prone country like Guinea can be caught in a “coup-trap” in which poverty and coups feed off each other in a vicious cycle of despair.
To escape from this trap is difficult. One option put forward by Collier is to offer democratic governments a credible guarantee of external military intervention, conditional upon internationally certified free and fair elections. This is certainly an intriguing prospect. Of course, for country like Guinea that has just experienced a coup, the first step is to ensure that the new leaders restore constitutional governance, backed by competitive elections.