In-depth: Guinea: Living on the edge

GUINEA: Politics and Economy

Photo: IRIN
Downtown Conakry
NAIROBI, 10 January 2005 (IRIN) - The challenges of democracy

When unidentified gunmen opened fire on the motorcade of Guinean President Lansana Conte on 19 January 2005, there was little surprise.

Conte, who has ruled the West African country with an iron hand for more than two decades, had repeatedly warned of coup plotting by the opposition and dissidents in the armed forces. A crumbling economy has consigned most of Guinea's eight million people to a life of grinding poverty, and soaring inflation coupled with the collapse of basic public services have provoked outbursts of popular anger and resentment over the past year.

Conte emerged from the assassination attempt unscathed. His killing would have added yet another crisis in a subregion already grappling with the effects of a simmering civil war in Cote d'Ivoire while delicate peace processes are under way in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau.

Guinea borders on all four countries and civil strife there could have serious consequences for the subregion.

The Guinean government itself has been careful to nip outbursts of popular discontent in the bud, not only by deploying the security forces, but also by making strategic concessions where necessary.

When, in July 2004, gangs of youths attacked rice trucks, looted shops and beat up shopkeepers in Conakry, Conte immediately ordered the government to subsidise rice prices in the capital. The measure failed to prevent a steady rise in food prices in the longer term, but it succeeded in defusing the immediate crisis.

Similarly, when teachers went on an indefinite strike in January 2005 demanding a 40-percent pay rise, the government immediately agreed to negotiate after other trade unions and a coalition of opposition parties declared their support for their stoppage. As a result, the strike was called off after eight days.

It was ever thus. When dissident army units shelled the presidential palace in 1996, Conte doubled military pay, agreed to forgive the mutineers, and stayed in power.

Although the president is prepared to compromise when necessary with the population, his authority within the government appears absolute.

Francois Fall, a respected career diplomat, announced his resignation during an official trip to Paris in April 2004 after only two months in the job complaining that all his attempts at political and economic reform had been blocked by the president. He took the precaution of sending his family abroad beforehand to avoid possible reprisals.

Fall's departure was never officially acknowledged by state radio and television and it was another eight months before Conte named a successor. In December 2004, the president finally appointed Cellou Dalien Diallo, who had been a minister in several of his earlier cabinets, as prime minister. Diallo has been given the go-ahead to launch a fresh dialogue with the opposition, boycotted the last presidential election, held in December 2003, alleging that, like all previous polls, it would be rigged.

According to the official results, Conte received another seven-year term with over 95 percent of the votes cast. Official figures put the turnout at 85.6 percent, but the Republican Front for Democratic Change (FRAD), an opposition alliance, said less than 15 percent of the electorate voted.

Diplomats said that following the widely criticised election, Fall had been brought in as prime minister to bring a veneer of respectability to Conte's government at a time when it had lost the support of most foreign aid donors - particularly the European Union - and was desperately short of cash to pay for essential imports from one month to the next.

Photo: UN DPI
President Lansana Conte
Not much has changed since Fall's resignation and Guinea watchers say the country remains poised on a knife-edge.

"Violence can break out at any moment. There is famine, people cannot look after their families," Sidikiba Keita, coordinator of the Collective for the Defence of Rights and Liberties, a Paris-based human rights group, told IRIN. Keita was speaking at the time of last year's rice riots, six months before gunmen attempted to assassinate Conte by raking his car with gunfire.

Keita lives in exile in Paris, like many Guineans who fled the rule of Ahmed Sékou Toure, Guinea's first president, who led the country to independence from France in 1958.

The economy crumbles

For the past two years, Guineans have seen the price of rice, the country's staple food, rise steadily, while salaries have stagnated and living standards have fallen.

Corruption and economic decline have reduced government revenues, forcing the central bank to print more bank notes to cover the growing budget deficit. As a result, inflation has eaten away steadily at the value of the Guinean franc lacally as well as against the world's major currencies.

Inflation rose from 6.1 percent in 2002 to 14 percent in 2003 and doubled again to 28 percent in 2004, according to Prime Minister Diallo. He told reporters in January 2005 that it was still "galloping" out of control.

Photo: Pierre Holtz
Conakry port
The minimum wage of a government employee was 120,000 francs per month, the equivalent of US $36 per month at the black market exchange rate or US$ 42 at the official rate.

That barely covered the 70,000 to 90,000 francs required to buy a 50 kg sack of rice, the bare minimum needed to feed a family for a month. Many Guineans are forced to get by on less.

In an annual review of Guinea's financial situation published in August 2003, the IMF cautioned that the authorities had made "little progress" in tackling the country's economic problems. Diplomats say that the situation has continued to deteriorate since then.

According to the IMF, the economy grew only 1.2 percent in 2003, down from 4.2 percent the previous year, mainly because of a decline in manufacturing and construction, hit hard by water and power cuts.

Water shortages in Conakry

In Conakry, there have been serious water shortages and power cuts since the end of 2002, when a drought cut water levels in the hydroelectric dams that also provide the city with water. The underlying problem is that old machinery has not been properly maintained and the state-owned utilities have not invested in new plants to keep pace with increasing public demand.

Dozens of women and children bearing plastic containers line up daily for water. "In the evenings, the queue goes right down to the end of the street," said Souleymane, who distributes water from a standpipe in one decrepit suburb of downtown Conakry.

In January 2005, even in the most affluent suburbs of Conakry, residents could only expect electricity every other day, and water between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Guinea ranked 160th out of 177 countries listed in the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) 2004 Human Development Index, yet has large mineral deposits and agricultural potential.

Its subsoil contains a third of the world's reserves of bauxite. Remittances from the Russian and US companies that mine Guinean bauxite account for 80 percent of the state's hard currency earnings. Guinea also has reserves of diamonds, gold, iron ore and copper.

However, according to the World Bank, the value of the country's mineral exports slumped to $568 million in 2003 from $894 million in 2002, undermining its capacity to pay for essential imports.

Despite its good soils and abundant rainfalls Guinea, which once exported rice, now depends on imports to feed its eight million people and, according to UNDP, around 28 percent of the population suffered from malnutrition between 1999 and 2002.

One after the other, Guinea's main donors have withheld aid, concerned at the extent to which their money is being misused or syphoned off into the pockets of corrupt officials, but many Guineans feel it is they rather than the government which ends up being hurt most by this punishment.

The Forest Region: hit by crisis

"You don't solve political problems by loading the entire burden onto the back of ordinary people," said Fadama Kourouma, the community welfare official in Nzérékoré, the main town of the Forest Region in southeastern Guinea. "There are many ways of criticising a government without punishing the population and increasing poverty."

Photo: Pierre Holtz
Human activity in the Forest Region, including wood cutting and charcoal burning, takes a heavy toll on the environment
More than 800 km by road from the capital, the Forest Region is very exposed to the knock-on effects of the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire as well as the consequences of Guinea's overall economic crisis.

Foodstuff which was previously imported to the Forest Region from Abidjan has become scarce and has soared in price since Cote d'Ivoire plunged into civil war in September 2002. According to UN estimates, up to 100,000 Guineans migrants returned hurriedly from Cote d'Ivoire, fleeing the war and the rising xenophobia and leaving most of their property behind.

According to the prefect (government administrator) of the Nzerekore district, Major Algassimou Barry, the city, whose population has swelled to an estimated 500,000, has become a pocket of poverty.

"The town was built for 100,000 inhabitants, now it's completely choked," said Barry, who highlighted the decline in local infrastructure and a rising crime rate. "Nzérékoré is an economic pole which has drawn people who have fled conflicts [in neighbouring countries]," said Barry. "But we are now experiencing more and more armed robberies." He felt security had deteriorated throughout the Forest Region as a result of the civil wars in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire.

In June 2004 at least two people were killed in Nzerekore in clashes between Konianké and the Guerzé, one of the main ethnic groups in the Forest Region.

Ethnic tensions and neighbouring conflicts

The Konianké are related to the Mandingos of northern Liberia who fought on the side of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group during that country's civil war. The Guerzé, on the other hand, have links to the Mano ethnic group, to which former Liberian President Charles Taylor, LURD's sworn enemy, belongs.

Hundreds of former LURD combatants have drifted into Nzérékoré and many of them have sided openly with their Malinké cousins during local clashes with the Guerze.

In June 2004, the Guinean army was rapidly deployed to quell the clashes in Nzerekore. The local authorities said more than 200 people were arrested in the crackdown, many of them LURD combatants. The government troops also found and confiscated a large number of firearms.

Speaking to IRIN four months later, Colonel Lamine Bangoura, the governor of the Forest Region, dismissed the outburst of communal fighting as a "passing problem".

"Security has been strengthened along the frontiers," he said in October. "Measures have been taken to avoid trouble, but we have asked people to be vigilant to avoid a widening of the conflict and the destabilisation of our country."

Photo: Pierre Holtz
Guinea: Gogota village, 10 km from the border with Cote d'Ivoire
However, many diplomats see the Forest Region as a potential flashpoint that could spark a conflict that would plunge the whole of Guinea into chaos.

In a report on Guinea, published in December 2003, the International Crisis Group (ICG), warned that "the Nzérékoré region could constitute a centre of violence."

With a peace deal signed to end 14 years of civil war in neighbouring Liberia, the Brussels-based think-tank said the "eventual return of LURD combatants from Liberia represents a real danger in the months ahead". It added that "the large number of weapons and irregular combatants in circulation is one of the main sources of alarm."

Residents in Nzérékoré told IRIN that the former LURD combatants living in the town felt abandoned by the government in Conakry, which had given them support and arms to fight against Taylor when he was in power.

The Guinean government has always denied supporting LURD, which launched a rebellion against Taylor from rear bases in the Forest Region in 1999, but many diplomats and local residents in Nzerekore say that it was the movement's main backer.

Now, with Taylor ousted from power and living in exile in Nigeria, the LURD rebels have become a burden for President Conté.

Concerned about the instability is shared by the United Nations, which wants to develop a transitional programme to stabilise the vulnerable border regions of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and now Côte d'Ivoire.

"The population in the Forest Region cannot be allowed to live in an environment which is so difficult in terms of politics, economics and security," one UN official told IRIN. "It is a major worry."

Donors remain critical

Western governments have long called on Conte to allow greater political freedom and improve the management of government finances before full-scale aid flows are restored.

Key demands are that the government allow private radio and television stations to exist alongside the state media, engage in a genuine dialogue with the opposition to make elections free and fair and introduce more transparency in public finances to cut down on corruption.

This was the substance of the message delivered by a European Union (EU) delegation that visited Conakry in October 2004 to reopen consultations with the government for the first time since the EU suspended budgetary aid six years ago.

The EU has 221 million euros ($293 million) earmarked for Guinea in the European Development Fund. But none of the money has been released because the reforms required by Brussels have not been forthcoming.

The EU, the World Bank, the African Development Bank (ADB) and the International Fund for the Development of Agriculture (IFDA) have suspended aid to Guinea because of the non-payment of debt arrears and a poor administrative record.

The United States has become a key partner of Guinea since the country loosened its ties with Russia in the 1980s. American companies mine and consume much of Guinea's bauxite and US military aid has helped prop up Conte's armed forces.

Washington sees stability in Guinea as essential to avoid wider conflict in the region, but the Americans, too, are growing impatient for reform. "Guinea has been a good friend to the United States, but we are beginning to have had enough: they are not making any effort," one US diplomat in Conakry told IRIN.

"The current environment, notably the tensions in the southeast, provides new elements which could force a change of strategy," the US diplomat said.

Diplomatic sources say the United States is reconsidering support for Guinea's government, particularly since its strategic objective of removing Taylor from power in Liberia has been achieved.

Concern about the future

Given the weak state of the economy and the precarious security situation, there is much concern over what will happen to Guinea once Conte departs from the scene.

Conte is so weakened by diabetes that he can no longer walk unassisted. The 2003 presidential elections gave him a mandate to continue ruling the country until 2010, but it is not certain that he will survive in power until then, not least because of the state of his health.

Some fear that political change may not come peacefully through the ballot box. "There will be no change in Guinea through elections," said a member of the Guinean Organisation of Human Rights (OGDH). "Lansana Conté does not want to share power, no dialogue will work. He runs the country as his private fiefdom, all the institutions are under his control."

Other observers are more hopeful. In 2004, under pressure from the EU, the Court of Appeal dismissed charges against opposition leader Sidya Touré and three other officials of his Union of Republican Forces (UFR) party. All four had been charged with "attempted assassination and plotting against the state".

Photo: IRIN
Girls in a Conakry shantytown in front of an election poster of President Lansana Conte
Toure had served as prime minister under Conte from 1996 to 1999, a time fondly remembered by most Guineans today as one of relative freedom and prosperity. Today he is widely regarded as being one of the few opposition figures capable of commanding widespread support across Guinea's many ethnic and regional divides.

In July 2004, FRAD, which includes Toure's party and five others, published a blueprint for political change in response to the 2003 election. It called for a government of national unity, led by a consensus figure, to rule Guinea for a transition period of up to 18 months before fresh elections.

"A radical break is needed to if there is to be a legitimate state in Guinea," the document said.

Meanwhile, Guineans, who have known only two heads of state in 50 years of independence, each wielding immense personal power, have grown used to authoritarian leaders.

"Because of their violent history, Guineans have a respect for and unlimited fear of authority, particularly the military leaders who run the country," said a human rights activist based in the Forest Region. He added that people would rather live in misery than be killed by a soldier.

Many diplomats and ordinary Guineans envisage a transitional period of military rule when Conte eventually goes and some would welcome such a prospect if it ensured continued stability, but opposition leaders reckon that any new military regime would be short-lived.

"A military government will not be able to last more than a few months, because it will get no financial backing from the international community and will not be able to meet people's basic needs," said Jean-Marie Doré, who heads the Union for Progress in Guinea (UPG).

"There should be an agreement between the opposition parties on how to deal with Guinea after Conté," Dore said.

Yet, according to an exiled Guinean diplomat who refused to be named, such a solution is difficult to envisage, given the deep level of distrust between opposition leaders and the army.

He pointed out that the military hierarchy was dominated by the president's Soussou ethnic group and that people from the Forest Region, like Dore, are poorly represented in the military hierarchy.

The same diplomat noted that Conte had direct control over the security forces and plays on ethnic rivalries between his three main corps of elite troops: the presidential guard, known as "Red Berets," the autonomous battalion of airborne troops, known as the "Bata", and the US-trained rangers. This game of divide and rule would lead to complications in the event of a military takeover, he said.

"You could say that if the army took over, it would quickly play on ethnic criteria and that would lead immediately to internal problems," the diplomat said. "If power finally ends up in the hands of one particular faction or another, reprisals will be taken against those who have benefited from wielding excess power in the past."