GELI Stories: Moving fast and working with Unusual Suspects to Reform the Military in the Republic of Guinea

April 9, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

In the last (for now) of this series of podcasts with UN and other aid leaders making change happen on the frontline, I talked to the UN’s Anthony Ohemeng-Boamah.

Duncan: Welcome to GELI Stories. I’ve got with me Anthony Ohemeng-Boamah, who’s one of our participants in  the Dakar meeting of GELI influencing participants, and he’s got a really nice story from his time as UN resident coordinator in Guinea about how he worked to make sure the government implemented a reform of the army after the return to democracy. Welcome Anthony.

Anthony: When I was in Guinea, I was involved in the transition to democracy. After the elections and the inauguration of the president in 2010, I gave myself three priorities. One of them was to help with the reform of the security sector, building on past work by the UN.

If you know the history of the Republic of Guinea, it’s basically been under military control since the death of Ahmed Sékou Touré, the first president. So it was a very sensitive thing.

I thought through this with my colleagues in the office and a few partners, and we put together a concept note. I also tapped into my network including the UN. There was a general from Senegal who had trained some of the generals in the Republic of Guinea and also involved in the prior work on laying the ground for security sector reform.

So once I had all my networks and people to influence lined up, the issue became how to get the president on board on the implementation. The idea was that I would talk to the President with the backing of the generals who were keen on reform. Obviously, he’s going to push back. We’ve just initiated this democratic process. The president has just been elected. And the fear that the Army would not look kindly on this and that it could lead to anything, including a coup d’etat, was very much on his mind. And sure enough, when I went to talk to him, these issues came up.

But the whole idea was that I would bring this feedback to the generals, who would then go and reiterate my message and reassure him that they were in control of the soldiers and that this was the way to go to professionalise the Army and to actually reduce the likelihood of another coup d’etat, because the reform would encourage taking out those who were not meant to be in the Army in the first place… retrain, retool, and make sure that it’s a proper Republican Army.

And so I went to the President, came back, brought the feedback. The late chief of defense staff went back to the President, and he bought into the idea. To cut a long story short, six months, one year down the line, we were able to mobilise the resources that we needed and brought a lot of partners in on it. A couple of bilateral partners sent experts, and we started implementing the reform process.

There were three building blocks in the reform process. One of them was to inculcate international human rights law in military training. We looked at their old recruitment training manuals, brought in the gender lens – so we actually created a gender desk in the Ministry of Defense.

Then we had to reduce the size of the Army, which meant looking at their pension systems, age, cohorts in the Army, and making sure that it is reduced according to the parameters that the government has set for itself.

Then the third element involved training, professionalisation, and I’m glad to say that all this led to the Republic of Guinea Army being re-qualified to serve in actual UN peacekeeping missions.

Duncan: But how did you know which generals to approach both in Guinea and in Senegal? Are you a military man yourself?

Anthony: I’m not a military man but my father is from a military background so I grew up in the barracks and I have a nose for some of these things. But primarily, when I came to the country and the military were still in power, I built relationships with many of them, and the three generals that I worked with closely, I knew their point of view, particularly on the involvement of the military in the political process. The three generals I talked to most were against it, so I felt that these were people who could help me implement the project.

Duncan: So these were your allies within the military who were resentful about the politicisation of the army under the previous president?

Anthony: Exactly.

Duncan: And did the general from Senegal actually help this process?

Anthony: The general from Senegal was retained in the project as an advisor. He had background on the security sector in Guinea. And he also at some point was a commandant of the staff college in his country, which most of these generals had gone through. So, any time I felt that there was a teething problem, I could go to him, and he could speak to them and the political leadership and then iron things out. He was also very knowledgeable, being a commandant of the staff college, in terms of some of the content and substance that we should bring into the reform process. So he was extremely helpful.

Duncan: I love this story because it illustrates a number of the things we’re talking about on the course. Understanding the network, building relationships, understanding who people fear or respect and recruiting them as your messengers, and then taking advantage of a political moment, in this case, the new opportunities for reform, but also mobilising resources, which will enable the people who want to do the reform to complete it. So it seems like almost a perfect example to me. What do you think?

Anthony: Yes, I mean, speaking about it now, you know, it sounds like it was an easy, straightforward process. But there were a whole bunch of people to mobilise, including the UN itself. At first, my headquarters had the same view as the President that this was too early in the democratic process and that things could backfire. But I insisted that this was the moment.

Duncan: How did you convince headquarters?

Anthony: I told them about the history of Guinea and how every democratic process hasn’t succeeded because we always thought we had to wait. And the way I looked at it frankly was that once you have a democratic process, you take the military out of the political arena. You are redistributing power. Military in politics, they have the political power and they have economic power. Once you do a democratisation process, you take the economic power and they resent it. They feel it in the short term. I mean, their incomes or whatever they have access to are going down. And usually that’s when they react, either through a coup d’etat or something. You only have a short window and you have to act. That was the argument to my HQ.

Duncan: So now what I’m wondering if this is too good to be true… something must have gone wrong! So are there any things that were difficult, which you had to fix or was it just that it all went to plan and was a big success?

Anthony [laughs]: Everything didn’t go as expected. It’s money. In Guinea, for soldiers to be taken out, those who have reached retirement age to leave the army, they either have to go on a three-month leave or you have to pay them three months’ salary. And there were a lot of them! So the mobilisation of the resources was a bit problematic.

Duncan: And where did that come from in the end?

Anthony: It came from the UN, and from some of the partners, passing the hat around… we set up a steering committee, which I co-chaired with the Minister of Defence, and we put some of these issues together. Basically reiterating the importance of this reform for the democratic process, not just for the army itself, but if we wanted to sustain this democracy that they have actually paid a lot to install.

Duncan: Because that’s what donors are often criticised for putting all the effort into a particular moment and then not following up?

Anthony: Exactly. I think it was convincing for them. Some contributed technical expertise, some contributed money, and we were able to get the people out, which started the reform process.

Duncan: Okay, this was 2011 through 2013. How’s Guinea doing today in terms of demilitarisation?

Anthony: Unfortunately, when I left the Republic of Guinea, the politicisation we were trying to take out of the military came back. The President stood again, the precepts we had put in place in terms of recruitment into the army, promotions and that sort of thing were abandoned. And it ended up in a coup d’etat.

Duncan: I suppose the final lesson is that no victory is permanent.

Anthony: Sure, but I think also that sometimes our politicians have to stay the course, if they really want the countries to move forward.

Duncan: Anthony Ohemeng-Boamah, thank you very much. That was a fascinating story.

April 9, 2024
Duncan Green


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