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With West Africa in its first weeks of confronting the coronavirus pandemic, nothing would have been easier, and more face-saving, for President Alpha Condé than to announce another postponement of Guinea’s National Assembly elections (originally due in April 2019) and its parallel referendum on constitutional changes. But the vote went ahead on 22 March, leaving Guinea in an uncomfortable, and potentially explosive, place.

The new law is certainly desirable, replacing the hastily drafted constitution that was introduced as Guinea turned its back on decades of dictatorship in 2010. It legislates for compulsory secondary education, an end to female genital mutilation and the death penalty, and enshrines other progressive measures into the country’s fundamental law. But in one respect it is a political disaster, as it effectively changes the constitution to allow Condé to stand for a third term in November, and potentially to stay in power for years to come.

Guinea should be grateful for elements of Condé’s leadership. A more outward-looking leader than his praetorian predecessors, his development agenda was backed by associates such as development economist Paul Collier and former British prime minister Tony Blair (AE 211/6). He can seem especially forward-thinking when viewed from abroad, but in Guinea the move has triggered considerable public discontent, which only Condé’s control of the security forces has allowed him to contain.

The opposition complains its activists are being kidnapped and arrested on a daily basis. The threat of wider splits is underlined by ethnic tensions in a polity where Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée leader Cellou Dalein Diallo has been the preferred Peul (Fulani) candidate, while Condé has strong Malinké support. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in late February warned that “ethnic divisions are deepening, with increasing incitement to hatred and violence on social media and at political rallies”.

Neither do third term ambitions fit with the West African trend towards governments respecting the ballot box, while old-school dictators have been consigned to history. The reversal of historic advances in Benin under President Patrice Talon are among causes for concern, but the trend has generally been positive. The 82-year-old Condé’s stubborn refusal to accept this has caused such concern that a heavyweight presidential delegation of his old friend and current Ecowas chairman Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, Ghana’s Nana Akufo Addo and Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Dramane Ouattara has made several efforts to descend on Conakry to tell Condé his time is up; Condé is believed to have declined to see them.

Ouattara was tempted to change the constitution to stand for a third term in October 2020. But as he observed in January, “I am 78 and I’m not [the late Zimbabwean leader Robert] Mugabe” (AE 409/18). On 5 March, he told an emotional parliament in the administrative capital Yamoussoukro: “I have decided not to be candidate in the 31 October presidential election and to transfer power to a new generation.” Hardly charismatic but a capable administrator, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly has been confirmed as designated successor (AE 407/1).

Opposition parties tried to cry foul, but African Energy’s mid-March soundings in Abidjan suggested general relief that constitutional conflict would not now precede a potentially tense election. In Guinea, meanwhile, tension is expected to mount further. Condé will try to buy off the opposition: just as the Chinese-built Kaléta hydroelectric dam came onstream just before the 2015 election, in which he trounced Diallo and Sidya Touré, so more power is expected from a start-up of the even larger Souapiti dam. Just in case Souapiti and Tè Power in Conakry do not come into service in time, the government has signed a costly deal with Turkey’s Karpowership. Isolated in the region, Condé will depend on opening the coffers to show Guineans he does indeed embody hope for the future.