GUINEA: Obstacles, omens and opportunities

Boston Drums

Recent History in Guinea



President Alpha Condé: Promising to steer a new course for GuineaDAKAR, 21 March 2011 (IRIN) - Alpha Condé, a former student activist, trade unionist, radical publisher, lecturer, political prisoner and exiled opposition leader, finally took over the presidency of Guinea at 72. 

Sworn in on 2 December 2010 before 13 African heads of state, Condé promised: "I say loud and clear: poverty and underdevelopment in the Republic of Guinea does not to have to be our destiny." 


But Condé admits to having inherited empty state coffers and daunting social and economic problems. The prices of key commodities have risen sharply in the markets of Conakry. A sack of rice that was about 175,000 Guinean francs (US$23) before the elections is now 280,000 francs ($36). The government imported 35 tons of rice, which sold for 160,000 francs a sack, but supplies were limited. There have been similar rises in commodities such as sugar and peanut oil. Ironically, as Guinea loses its pariah status and attempts to become a functioning democracy, living costs are increasing and patience is being severely tested. 


"There has been no change yet," says Mariame Sacko, out shopping in the market. "We are in a difficult position. You can see for yourself that everything in the market is expensive." 


Yolande Guilavogui agrees. "Prices have more than doubled, but you don't see any increase in salaries. If it continues like that, we find ourselves risking being put in the street." 


Blame game 


The price hikes have been blamed in some quarters on local traders, overwhelmingly from the Peul community, engaging in profiteering. But there have been warnings too of a dangerous simplification of complex problems. 


"People are engaging in a false debate," a local journalist told IRIN. "How can people say that it is bureau de change owners [accused of currency speculation] and Peul traders [one of the two big ethnic groups] who are responsible for inflation and rocketing prices in the market?" 


He accused Condé and his supporters of allowing Peul traders to be made scapegoats. He pointed out that Condé's election campaign had focused strongly on the poor governance and mishandling of the economy under previous regimes, but once in office Condé had chosen former ministers of the same discredited administrations. 


Ministers have also publicized budgetary problems from the previous administrations, hinting at profligacy and a lack of accountability on the part of the previous military leaders in charge. A Conakry-based diplomat acknowledged that "the financial situation is even worse than Condé and his colleagues had feared". 


Inclusion or division? 


The challenges go well beyond a bruised economy. While the elections won by Condé were markedly freer and fairer than any held previously, they were marred by ominous outbreaks of violence between the Peul and Malinké. Condé and his party, the Rassemblement du Peuple de Guinée (RPG), faced persistent accusations from opponents of playing the ethnic card and mobilizing a coalition to block the political advancement of the Peul, in this case represented by defeated candidate, former prime minister Cellou Dalein Diallo, leader of the Union des forces démocratiques de Guinée (UFDG) from the Peul heartland of Fouta Djallon, or Moyenne Guinée. 


While Condé's speeches have highlighted the need for inclusivity and an end to sectarianism, there has been no easy accommodation with the opposition. Diallo has repeated accusations that Condé is far from being a peacemaker and unifier, and has demanded wholesale changes in the Commission Electorale nationale Indépendante (CENI) before legislative elections can take place. 


Senior human rights activist Thierno Madjou Sow, who is president of the Organization Guinéene de Défense des Droits de l'homme (OGDH), acknowledges that Condé had inherited a country where education, health, infrastructure and public administration have been allowed to go into steep decline and was "starting from zero". 


However, for Sow Condé's pledges on change counted for little so far. "We are all used to speeches," Sow told IRIN. "But we have seen no real signals from Condé. We want concrete measures. 


Impunity is the norm; perpetrators of past violence and human rights violations have gone unpunished, including those responsible for massive human rights violations "It should be remembered that we came close to a situation of genocide in the last elections," Sow told IRIN. He cited in particular areas such as Siguri in the northeast, "where thousands of people whose families had lived there for over 100 years were forced to flee because they were no longer seen as Guineans". 


A report by the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide after a mission to Guinea in March 2010 offered a bleak account of past atrocities and the state's inability deal with them effectively. "Impunity is the norm; perpetrators of past violence and human rights violations have gone unpunished, including those responsible for massive human rights violations committed during the previous regimes of Sékou Touré and Lansana Conté." 


Sow said nothing had changed with the election of Condé. "Look at the events of September 28, 2009, when you had hundreds of people killed at the stadium, thousands more injured, women and girls raped and killed in public. But it's as if nothing happened." Sow says despite the interest of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the support of other bodies, the Guinean government was doing little to bring the perpetrators of the stadium massacre to justice. 


What to do with soldiers? 


A major concern for both civil society activists and international partners is the continuing strength of the military. But as the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted in a report, Reforming the Army, issued in September 2010, restructuring and scaling down the armed forces will not be easy. "The army's well-deserved reputation for indiscipline and resistance to democratic civilian rule is a product of its troubled past," the ICG warned. Successive regimes have built up their own patronage networks, often favouring troops from their own ethnic group and/or home region, or recruiting from outside. As the ICG pointed out, Guinea plays host to "multiple militias and irregulars". 


Where is the wealth? 


Despite the country's mineral wealth, Guinea came 156th out of 169 in the UN Development Programme's Human Development Index (HDI) for 2010. Development analysts are quick to concede there is no prospect of the country meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There is a unique opportunity to make more of Guinea's resources, particularly bauxite and iron ore. But there are obvious caveats about corporate interests and Guinea's own priorities and the extent to which partnerships that look lucrative on paper will deliver employment, amenities and major new revenue streams. 


Overcoming poverty 


The International Fund for Agricultural Development's (IFAD) Country Strategic Opportunities Programme (COSOP) for 2009-2014 highlights key priorities for the 75 percent of the population in rural areas: only 1.2 million hectares of land cultivated when 6.2 million ha should be available; the low levels of mechanization and agro-inputs; the small size and non-sustainability of farms; the high level of post-harvest losses and the weakness of local market systems. Condé's campaign speeches made frequent references to the need for food self-sufficiency in Guinea and a steady move away from food imports, but Guineans point out that that is contingent on significantly improving productivity. 


Helen Keller International People are hungry for change, and just plain hungry Child nutrition remains a major problem, as are maternal and infant mortality. Helen Keller International (HKI), a long-established NGO in Guinea, has attributed 18 percent of maternal deaths and 23 percent of peri-natal deaths to anaemia, and warned of the continuing dangers of Vitamin A deficiency. An under-resourced health service has struggled to work effectively against malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. The severe flooding in September 2010 exposed the fragility of the water system, leaving thousands vulnerable to water-borne diseases. 


Humanitarian headaches 


Condé's early focus on social and humanitarian issues has been applauded by Guinea's aid partners, but there are also longstanding concerns about capacity and funding. Speaking from Kankan in eastern Guinea, the head of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Guinea, Julien Harnais, said initial signals were promising. "On the positive side, there is a government that is concerned about the population," Harnais told IRIN. "The challenge the country is going to have is in converting good intentions into good results for kids." 


The wealth of Guinea's resources has been repeatedly documented. In addition to the huge reserves of iron ore and bauxite, there are large deposits of diamonds and gold, as well as titanium, manganese, copper, nickel, zircon, platinum and uranium. "There are a lot of companies coming in, but we must choose those that can really bring something to Guinea," Condé has emphasized. "It is for us to defend our own interests, to create competition between different interests and work out who is bringing most to Guinea." 


Condé has been circumspect about the government's approach to investors, telling reporters: "There will be three to five difficult months, since we've decided not to renegotiate contracts but instead to define a new mining policy." 


At a recent meeting in Conakry, the Publish What You Pay coalition argued for communities in mining areas to be directly involved in discussions on contracts. Civil society activists hope that Guinea's renewed membership of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) may help create more transparency and accountability. Whatever corporate players come and go, small-scale artisanal mining will remain a crucial, if modest, source of income for large sections of the population. 


Artisanal mining has been practised since at least the 12th century and offers a modest livelihood to hundreds of thousands of Guineans today, particularly in the northeastern gold belt region of Haute-Guinée and in the riverbeds and other alluvial sites in the southeast. Conditions remain precarious. A technical mission by the Blacksmith Institution and the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) in 2006 warned of serious safety and sanitation concerns and suggested artisanal mining in Guinea was a long way behind other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, describing the gold processing methods used as "the most primitive ones on the planet". 


Exploiting assets 


Guinea has the world's largest deposits of bauxite, accounting for more than one-third of the world's known reserves. Bauxite and alumina constitute about 60 percent of exports and generate a quarter of the country's tax revenues. Production was initially dominated by a French company, Pechiney Ugine, but others from North America, Russia, Australia and the Middle East have become involved. 


As the International Monetary Fund () has noted, "Annual production of bauxite is very low considering the proven reserves," while the sector's contribution to GDP and taxes has declined. Factors behind this under-achievement include: taxation problems, difficulties in relations between governments and corporations and a weak investment climate. 


Given that a ton of alumina (aluminium oxide) is worth more than 10 times a ton of bauxite, industry analysts have long argued for sustained investment in the domestic transformation of bauxite to alumina. Finally, this looks likely to happen, with several new projects at various stages of development. 


Guinea is reported to have more than four billion tons of high-grade iron ore. The main deposits are in the Simandou hills, near Nzérékoré in the southeastern Guinée Forestière region, and at Kalia, 360km east of Conakry, just north of Guinea's border with Sierra Leone. 


For gold, the open-pit Siguiri gold mine 850km northeast of Conakry has a proven reserve of about 60 million tons. Relations with the previous government proved difficult at times but South African group AngloGold says it is optimistic about the new administration. The other major gold-producing belt is the Lefa Corridor, 700km northeast of Conakry. 


Diamond production has risen and fallen in recent years, but Guinea can normally be expected to produce at least 500,000 carats, while total reserves are estimated at between 20 and 25 million carats. As with the gold sector, artisanal mining dominates, with thousands working in the riverbeds in the southeast. 


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Original story

The material contained in this article is from IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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