In mineral-rich Guinea, can reform leader keep it together?

In the oft-ignored West African nation, President Conde is pushing civil society norms as investors eye potential. But it is an uphill effort.

By , Correspondent

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    Opposition protesters clash with police in Conakry, Guinea, May 23. In the slums of Conakry, the impoverished capital city of the resource-rich West African nation of Guinea, citizens are increasingly frustrated as their neighborhood has been rocked by a string of political protests, looting sprees and violent police crackdowns.
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Ibrahim Bah is trying to tell the story of how military police knocked down his steel doors, shattered his shop windows and threatened him at gunpoint. But the soft-spoken father of four is no match for his more vocal neighbor, Aissatou Bah, who interrupts to tell her own story of alleged police abuse.

In the slums of Conakry, the impoverished capital city of the resource-rich West African nation of Guinea, citizens like Ibrahim and Aissatou are increasingly frustrated. Over the last three months, their neighborhood has been rocked by a string of political protests, looting sprees and violent police crackdowns.

Since May, at least 50 people have been killed and close to a hundred injured as political partisans have taken to the streets to clash with each other and with military police.

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The uptick in Conakry's violence, which coincides with political paralysis across the often-ignored nation, has prompted diplomats and international investors alike to wonder if Guinea’s most recent troubles are the natural growing pains of a young democracy coming out of years of authoritarian rule, or symptoms of a more critical condition that may include the early warning signs of a power struggle along ethnic lines.

President Alpha Condé, who in 2010 became Guinea’s first democratic head of state since independence from France in 1958, is doing everything he can to assure outside investors that it is mere democratic growing pains. 

Investors are interested. Beneath its 70-mile long Simandou mountain range, Guinea possesses what is likely to be one of, if not the, largest deposit of iron ore in the world that remains un-mined. 

Yet is the country stabilizing or not?

During the five decades that preceded Mr. Condé’s election, Guinea was marred by chronic economic malaise, authoritarian mismanagement and systemic corruption. But Guinea’s current government has launched several ambitious initiatives, some of which have already yielded impressive results. In just a few years, Condé’s government has slashed the national debt, tackled inflation and stabilized food and fuel prices.

The government has also exceeded expectations in the area of security sector reform, reducing the size of the armed forces and, in the words of one Western diplomat, “getting them out of the streets and back in the barracks."

Condé, educated abroad and having spent years in exile, is well-connected on the international luminary circuit. He gives talks at Chatham House in London. He enjoys close relationships with Tony Blair and former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, and he has enlisted billionaire philanthropist George Soros and several prominent international firms to help revamp the country’s mining code and review existing mining contracts.

When compared to Guinea’s previous leaders, “Condé has a different background and a different vision,” says a Western diplomat in Conakry, “but he has no way to implement it.”

Condé likes to tell international audiences that he “inherited a country not a state,” and officials in his government are quick to emphasize that reversing 52 years of poor governance will take time.

“We have a management problem in this country,” says Abdoulaye Yero Baldé, first deputy governor of Guinea's central bank. “For a long time, we didn’t improve the capacity of the administration and this is a big issue.”

While government officials are urging patience, his opponents have taken to Guinea’s vibrant and highly-partisan local media to say, “enough is enough.”

Though international observers approved the 2010 election that brought Condé to power by a razor thin margin, his opponents insist the election was rigged. They cite voting irregularities, acknowledged by election monitors at the time, and rattle off well-honed narratives of outside interference.

The opposition is ostensibly led by Cellou Dalein Diallo, who finished second to Condé in 2010 and has spent much of the last two years locking horns with the president over the details of legislative elections. The polls were originally slated for July, 2012 but have been postponed several times, with both sides blaming the other for their perpetual delay.

Over the last three months, this political gridlock has manifested itself in the form of violent protests on the streets of Conakry, where running water is an exception and electricity is available for only a few, unpredictable hours per day.

The protestors who support the opposition and the “counter-protestors” who favor Condé are overwhelmingly males in their late teens and in their early 20s. While they pay lip-service to the minute details that dominate the discourse at the political level, it is clear that a different kind of rhetoric is beginning to emerge amid the tear gas and burnt tires.

Guineans are hesitant to talk about it, but they quietly acknowledge that ethnic politics is seeping into the political bloodstream.

In 2010, voting took place largely along ethnic lines, with ethnic Fulani, who comprise roughly 40 percent of the population, almost exclusively voting for Mr. Diallo. Condé was able to garner just over 52 percent of the vote by piecing together a coalition of predominantly non-Fulani communities.

“It’s unfortunate, but it is the [issue of] trust,” says Mamadou Bah, a retired teacher whose house was damaged during riots in June. “It’s the first time we’ve ever really been divided,” he continues.

Though he thinks reconciliation and compromise are the most likely outcomes, Mr. Bah is still very concerned about the most recent violence. “I am afraid I will wake up one day, and there will be civil war,” he says. 

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