THE FIRST sign was gunfire in the streets of Conakry, the capital of Guinea, on the morning of September 5th. Soon after unauthenticated videos spread on social media showing a dishevelled, stunned, President Alpha Condé surrounded by masked soldiers: “Have we touched a single hair on your head?” demands one soldier of the 83-year-old. Before the day was out soldiers draped in Guinean flags appeared on national television. “The personalisation of political life is over. We will no longer entrust politics to one man, we will entrust it to the people,” said one soldier, thought to be Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, the head of Guinea’s special forces and apparent coup-leader, as he declared the constitution and government dissolved. “If you see the state of our roads, of our hospitals, it’s time for us to wake up,” he added.

The coup appears to have succeeded. Yet the Ministry of Defence maintains that the “threat” had been put down. Mr Condé’s whereabouts are unconfirmed. If this is indeed the end of his rule it marks both a sorry finale to a presidency that once promised much but has long since soured, and a dangerous new moment for this long-suffering country of 13m people.

When he took office in December 2010, Mr Condé, once a prominent opposition figure, became the country’s first democratically elected president. Yet his commitment to democracy has since waned. In March last year, after two terms in office, he pushed through a new constitution that permitted him to run for another two six-year terms. Angry Guineans took to the streets in protest but were met with brutality by security forces, who killed dozens of them. After an election in October 2020 the electoral commission declared Mr Condé victorious. This was angrily disputed by his main rival, Cellou Dalein Diallo, and questioned by outsiders. Mr Condé responded by sending soldiers to surround Mr Diallo’s house for days and locking up hundreds of opposition members and activists. Protests broke out but were put down violently by security forces, who again killed dozens.

As news of the coup filtered out, some Guineans celebrated in the streets. Mr Condé’s growing authoritarianism is not the only thing they have been frustrated about. The country boasts the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, used to make aluminium, and for the past five years GDP growth has topped 5% a year. But more than 70% of the population gets by on less than the equivalent of $3.20 a day. In recent weeks the government has increased taxes and the price of fuel has jumped by 20%. Ebola, which ravaged the country between 2014 and 2016, resurfaced again early this year before being brought under control. For those celebrating, even change through the barrel of a gun represents hope.

Yet things could easily get worse. The soldiers have promised talks and an “inclusive and peaceful transition” but there is no clear indication of how long they plan to stay in power. Making vague promises of transitions to fob off regional and Western powers, while doing nothing of the sort, would fit closely the model established in Mali, where soldiers have recently staged two coups, and in Chad. The meek international reaction to those putsches may have emboldened Guinea’s special forces.

Western powers have few interests in Guinea, aside from bauxite. This raises the possibility that they will be more outspoken in condemning the coup than they were in Mali and Chad, where their narrow security concerns seemingly trumped democratic principles. The United Nations’ secretary-general, António Guterres, said he strongly condemns “any takeover of the government by force” and called for the “immediate release of President Alpha Condé.” Yet the West also has little leverage in Guinea. Conspicuously, it was Russia that provided the first covid-19 vaccines this year. The regional bloc, ECOWAS, has condemned the attempted coup and threatened sanctions, but may struggle to respond effectively, too. Unlike Mali and many of its neighbours, which share a currency, Guinea has its own money. After Mali’s coup, the bloc temporarily required the Senegal-based regional central bank to shut down all operations in the country. That will not be possible in Guinea.

Guinea’s recent history provides reason to worry, too. After a coup in 2009 the putsch’s leader broke his promise not to stand in the subsequent elections. As tens of thousands gathered in a stadium in Conakry to protest, soldiers opened fire, killing at least 150. They raped dozens of women and girls in the stadium, too. Few will be reassured by the latest coup leader’s pronouncement that “we no longer need to rape Guinea, we just need to make love to her.”