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West Africa Rising: Why Guinea (yes, Guinea!) may be the region's surprise economic success story

Just five months after a disputed election, United Nations Special Representative to West Africa Said Djinnit says that there are signals that Guinea could slide into prosperity, or something like it.

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / March 1, 2011



Dakar, Senegal

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

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People in power have long whispered shocking things about the Republic of Guinea: that the West African country's former dictator, Sekou Touré, buried tens of thousands of innocents in mass graves; or that his successor, Lansana Conté was trying to have a similar number tortured in jails; or Mr. Conté's successor, Dadis Camara, ordered had hundreds shot and scores of women raped in a stadium.

Yet the current whisper going around might be the most shocking statement ever made on Guinea: That this nation may have just become West Africa's quiet success story.

Hold that thought to a whisper. Guinea's 10 million people are tiptoeing through a fragile reconciliation process following last November's elections, the country's first full vote in 50 years.

But it's certainly safe to say that this once brutality-inured nation was supposed to be 2011's giant emergency, not its emerging giant. And nobody seems more pleasantly perplexed by that upswing than United Nations Special Representative to West Africa, Said Djinnit.

As Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's point man in the region, Mr. Djinnit has more troubles than your average UN Special Representative. His region hosts more peacekeeping missions than any other corner of the planet, and the last time we spoke, Guinea, not Ivory Coast, was his biggest problem.

"When we last met," he told me via phone, yesterday, "there were signals in Guinea at the time that this country could easily slide into conflict."

Just five months after an election that observers thought may blow up into civil war, he says, there are signals that Guinea could enter into prosperity, or something like it.

Its capital, Conakry, has an "excellent port" which could serve landlocked nations like Mali that are clamoring for new corridors to reach the sea.

The country has "huge potential" for hydro-electricity which it could export to neighboring states like Senegal, which are dealing with their own economy-crippling power outages, Djinnit added.

Plus, it has the world's largest supply of the aluminum ore bauxite, which could help pay for generations of public improvements.

"In my conversations with [President] Alpha Condé,I've found he is determined to make Guinea's mineral resources available both to his people and to the people of the region as a means of regional integration," Djinnit says. "Thanks to the sense of responsibility shown by its political leadership, today, Guinea is emerging as a source of stability [and is] improving its infrastructure."

It's the UN's job, of course, to lavish praise on nations that survive the usually turbulent transition to democracy.

But the UN isn't the only multi-national institution swiveling an eye toward Guinea.

Mobile phone carrier Sonatel said yesterday that its mobile phone subscriptions grew 33 percent in Guinea last year – as sure an indicator of rising wealth as any on this continent.

The telecom's Guinea branch reached nearly a million customers last year – and finally turned a profit.

"We are all very worried about the situation in Ivory Coast, but we should not forget the overall picture of West Africa," Djinnit says. "West Africa is clearly moving."

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