Voters in the West African state of Guinea began casting their ballots on Sunday in a bitterly-disputed referendum that critics say is a ploy by President Alpha Conde to stay in power, and that was almost immediately marred by sporadic violence.
Conde 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 Conakry, according to an AFP reporter and other witnesses.
In another school nearby, voting equipment was vandalised.
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.
There are also questions about the fairness of Sunday’s vote, which additionally is taking place amid mounting concern about the spread of the novel coronavirus in Africa, including two cases that officials reported in Guinea.
‘Taking things lightly’
“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.
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 doing so 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, adding that the roll did not reflect the electorate.
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.
Constitution would extend term length
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 in 2010 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, citing arrests of protest leaders.
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.