Guinea slowly noses out of Soviet orbit

A magnificent new mosque on the road from the airport into Conakry is one ostentatious example of the sharply increased flow of Arab aid to this West African country.

An enormous, circular conference center on the seafront has also been financed by Arab countries. Next year's Organization of African Unity summit is due to be held there as is a later meeting of nonaligned states.

An ''OAU village'' of 50 luxury villas is being built alongside to lodge the visiting African heads of state. The architecture is Arab, the craftsmen Moroccan, and the flat-topped roofs are picturesquely crowned by pink Tuareg tents.

The Arab aid is a show of solidarity for a country whose president and 75 percent of whose population are Muslim. But it is also designed to wean ''revolutionary socialist'' Guinea out of the Soviet sphere of influence.

The ''supreme guide'' of the revolution, President Ahmed Sekou Toure, has in recent years grown disillusioned with the Soviet model of economic development.

The Soviet emphasis on military rather than economic aid has left the country poorer than when it gained independence from France in 1958.

For many years the spirited Guinean people have been subjected to political repression as Sekou Toure stamped out opposition.

Walking through the empty, rain-sodden street - taxis are virtually nonexistent - one feels that the city has been drained of life. Crumbling buildings reinforce the feeling of decay and decline.

The most serious challenge came with an abortive Portuguese-backed invasion in 1970. Thousands were killed or thrown into prison. Conakry's Camp Boiro became notorious for its tales of torture.

Tens of thousands fled the country after an abortive coup in 1976, and an estimated 25 percent of Guineans live in exile.

Sekou Toure alone among 13 Francophone African leaders said no to extended aid from France after independence. He considered French aid terms ''insulting.'' The French were the first to leave after independence. They withdrew ''lock, stock, and barrel,'' indignant to find they were no longer welcome.

Although the country's dignity had been preserved, Sekou Toure's pride and obstinacy have ruined the country's economy.

Guinea, with its immense mineral and agricultural resources, is potentially the richest country in French West Africa. But it has slowly stagnated and been left far behind by the poorly endowed Ivory Coast and Senegal, which maintained close ties with France.

Lack of roads, transport, fuel, electricity, water, and telephones make it virtually impossible to do business. ''Only the bauxite-mining enclaves have succeeded because they are big enough to be self-sufficent,'' a local businessman says. Rigid state controls and unrealistic pricing policies have crushed the private sector.

Most of the country's farmers - who comprise thK vast majority of the workforce - have reverted to subsistence farming. Those near the border often smuggle their crops to neighboring countries for payment in hard currency.

Agriculture used to be the country's main export earner, but now some $35 million is spent annually to import food.

Mr. Sekou Toure recently tried to improve this situation. The nation's collectivist farming experiment was abandoned and producer prices raised to give greaty4o/O ive to farmers.

Sekou Toure is also trying to attract Western investment and technology. The President visited the US last summer and a group of US agribusinessmen followed this up with a visit to Guinea this year, finding possibilities in shark fishing and rice growing. But there are still major investment obstacles, notably an overvalued local currency.

Some say it would be a mistake if the West failed to help this potentially rich country reintegrate into the political and economic mainstream. Party militants still chant ''down with capitalism'' at rallies, but there is a new spirit of pragmatism here.

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