How conspiracy theory shapes reality: an example from Guinea

A woman casts her ballot in Guinea’s presidential elections in the capital Conakry, in October 2015. EPA/STR

In Guinea, people are protesting in the streets against a reported attempt by President Alpha Condé to orchestrate a constitutional change that would allow him to remain in office beyond the end of his second term next year.

Police have responded violently to the demonstrations. At least eight protesters have been killed and many wounded. Protest leaders have also been imprisoned.

At this point, the story seems clear: a population is uniting against the threat of an authoritarian government. But as this situation develops, the way Guineans talk and act politically may not always appear so straightforward. The question of who holds power – and who ought to hold it next – may become subject to conflicting theories, interpretations, and suspicions, as it has in the past.

Nine years ago, when Condé was elected to his first term, theories of conspiracy circulated through the country. Many Guineans were convinced that high-level actors were plotting to fix the election. I was in Guinea at that time, studying migration, politics, and Islam.

In a recently published paper I examine how conspiracy theories about politicians and political events became central to the 2010 elections. I argue that popular theories of high-level electoral conspiracy shaped the emergence of new political orientations. These influenced individual actions and, sometimes, led to violence. In turn, this intensified suspicions of conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories are often dismissed as irrational paranoia, but they often reveal broader truths. This is especially the case among less powerful people in contexts of insecurity. And Guineans, who have experienced both colonial exploitation and socialist state repression, have reasons to be suspicious.

Far from being just an ignorant or irrational way of talking about politics, conspiracy theories make people feel that there is meaning to what happens in their lives. And that meaning forms the basis for actions and events.

Many of the players from the 2010 election remain on the scene. They could provide the material for fresh conspiracy theories around the 2020 election. This could have serious consequences.

Lead-up to 2010 elections

The 2010 presidential elections in Guinea capped a tumultuous two years. In that period a long-time president died and a junta of junior army officers took his place in a military coup. Months later, the junta led a brutal massacre of civilian protesters. Subsequently, an attack on the junta leader effectively removed him from power.

Following these dramatic events, elections were finally held in a long, fraught process that began with a first round in June and culminated in a runoff in November. The elections were widely viewed as the country’s first democratic presidential elections since independence from France in 1958.

Throughout these uncertain months, news about the elections was often difficult to obtain. Still, Guineans exchanged information gleaned from multiple sources. These included state-run TV news, international radio programs, phone calls with friends in the capital, and conversations in cafés. With no clear distinctions between fact and fiction, people speculated about the significance of particular events and actively sought to discern what powerful parties might be hiding from public view.

Amid accusations of fraud, repeated scheduling delays, and other setbacks, the existence of a conspiracy to fix the election seemed, to many, the likeliest explanation.

Living in Guinea’s Fouta Djallon highlands during this time when electoral conspiracies became increasingly popular topics of conversation, I witnessed particular shifts in how people talked. Ethnic identities seemed to grow both more important and more rigid. A formerly mistrusted politician was hailed as a saviour. For some, violence became justified as a regrettable but necessary response in the face of threat.

Changing reality

In my article, I examine two particular theories of conspiracy that circulated during Guinea’s 2010 election.

The first relates to a horrific event that took place on September 28 2009. On this day, leaders of several political parties held a demonstration at the national stadium to protest the military junta’s continued rule and to call for fair elections.

In response, soldiers barricaded the stadium and began shooting into the crowds. Over 156 people were killed and at least 109 women and girls were raped. Most Guineans I knew blamed Dadis, the junta leader and self-declared president, for the massacre. Confirming their view, a United Nations inquiry found Dadis and other junta members responsible for the atrocity.

One year later, the first round of elections had left two frontrunners to compete in a runoff: Condé, an ethnic Maninka, and Cellou Dalein Diallo, an ethnic Fulɓe. Around this time, the way people talked about the massacre began to shift in the Fouta Djallon. Instead of viewing the stadium massacre as a military crime against unarmed civilians, many Fouta Djallon residents, who largely identified as ethnic Fulɓe, theorised that Condé and other powerful Maninka figures had plotted the massacre expressly to eliminate Cellou Dalein, and, by extension, all Fulɓe.

A video of Dadis accusing Condé of organising the massacre to clear the field of his political competitors was widely circulated. People who had previously condemned Dadis for perpetrating the massacre began to view him as the victim of a conspiracy masterminded by Condé. Many in the Fouta Djallon grew increasingly anxious that a future President Condé would target them for persecution.

People who had previously deplored military rule now declared they preferred it to the prospect of a Condé presidency. People who had previously criticised Cellou Dalein for complicity in government corruption now spoke of him as a hero whose presidency would usher in a new era of greatness.

The second case of conspiracy theory involved allegations of poisoning. People attending a rally for Condé’s party got sick, and party members accused Cellou Dalein supporters of poisoning them. A series of violent attacks on ethnic Fulɓe houses and businesses followed.

In the majority-Fulɓe Fouta Djallon, people began to theorise that leaders of Condé’s party had poisoned their own supporters to incite violence against Fulɓe. Recounting theories of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy surrounding the suspected poisoning, people in the Fouta Djallon became more convinced than ever that, collectively, they faced a grave threat. Only uniting behind Cellou Dalein could save them.

Ultimately, when Cellou Dalein lost the election, many in the Fouta Djallon understood his loss as the consequence of a vast plot to keep the Fulɓe from gaining political power. This conviction motivated some people to violently attack their Maninka neighbours’ property.

It also led others to legitimise this violence as a form of justice. People talked and acted in ways that would not have been acceptable only a short time before. Reality had changed.

New social and political realities

Theories of conspiracy often seem paranoid and irrational, but they not infrequently point to larger —- if not literal —- truths.

Ten years later several individuals have been charged with responsibility for the atrocity. But none of them has been brought to trial.

Condé, who won a second presidential term in 2015 (challenged again, unsuccessfully, by Cellou Dalein Diallo), reportedly aims to amend Guinea’s constitution to allow him to seek a third term in 2020. In this effort, he appears to have support from Russia.

There is still material for conspiracy theory, which in turn may shape the emergence of new social and political realities.