Guinea: a promise to end the plunder of a country
The Republic of Guinea is a country of extremes. The poverty, to which half the population has been condemned, is extreme. The violent thunderstorms in which bolts of water drill relentlessly downwards from black clouds are extreme.
And the corruption, which has placed Guinea in 154th place in a global business transparency index, is extreme.
Guinea also happens to be extremely wealthy in natural resources: it is blessed with bauxite and diamonds and iorn ore, copper, uranium, nickel and gold. In recent years, it has also been extremely politically volatile. As investment targets go, it doesn’t just offer the opportunity to make a risky quick buck.
No – “corruption risk” here is off the scale: more like a few billion quick bucks. Allegedly.
Alpha Conde – Guinea’s first-ever democratically elected president – has promised an end to the plunder of his country. He says Guinea’s extreme corruption lies at the heart of its failure to capitalise on its natural resources and finance its own development.
He has set his sights on the lucrative mining sector, in which, for decades, corruption has been the stuff of legends.
Recent weeks have seen the opening salvos of a battle royale that in the months ahead will be watched closely by both predators and prey across the African continent. The first shots have been fired in the United States, where a grand federal jury investigation is right now taking testimony in a transnational investigation into accusations of epic corruption in Guinea.
The unfairness of the situation, whereby a handful of people can cream off vast profits from a national resource while most Guineans scrape by on a dollar a day infuriates Alpha Conde.
Guinea is, in fact, one of the ten poorest countries in the world. Four out of every five Guineans lives in what the UN calls “multidimensional poverty” – extreme deprivation. Infant mortality is very high; people die young and live on the edge. The average Guinean spends just one-and-a-half years in school.
The unfairness does not escape the attention of the poorest of the poor either. In a diamond mine at Forecariah, near the Sierra Leone border, I met labourers paid 40p a day to stand waist-deep in mud and sift for stones that will one day grace rings and tiaras. The alluvial gravel pits are ringed by stunningly beautiful mountains with vast proven reserves of iron ore. But few ever strike it rich.
Instead, they live hand to mouth and pray they’ll get lucky.
“If we don’t work, we don’t survive,” said Abdul Karim Mansaray, a gang boss in the mine. “The big companies come here to steal our minerals. We don’t have the machinery or the money to mine them ourselves, so we just sit and watch them. They come here, take our riches, and go.”
This might be the perception, but, of course, Guinea desperately needs the big multinational mining companies to come in and develop their mines and build their infrastructure. Some are already doing so, despite substantial political risk and the huge level of investment required. Others are circling.
The challenge for Guinea – and, indeed, all poor-but-resource-rich African countries – is how to police for the predators and profiteers.
“In the west, corruption is incidental,” says President Conde. “In Guinea, it’s structural. Contracts aren’t signed on the basis of capability to deliver but on the size of the bribe that goes with it. Corruption is the essence of the contract.”
President Conde has made many enemies. He faces violent revolt on the streets of the capital and strong political opposition. His security forces are believed to have shot dead as many as 50 protestors during his first two-and-a-half years in office. His enemies accuse him of corruption.
The political instability has put investors off and big mining operations have been put on hold until after parliamentary elections, scheduled for the end of this month.
The president, who is held up as a beacon of transparency by his supporters in the west, blames insurrection on the meddling of vested interests: those who feel threatened by his war on corruption.
“Are they rising up against me for political reasons, or are they just trying to destabilise Guinea because it has become an example in Africa?” he asks.
If an alleged act of corruption is measured by the value of the asset at stake, then the alleged corporate skullduggery over mining rights to a mountain of iron ore at Simandou, southeastern Guinea, could one of the biggest-ever corruption cases anywhere.
The high-grade iron ore in the Simandou range is thought to be worth as much as US$50-billion. What has happened at Simandou has come to encapsulate the failures of global business and governments in corrupt corners of Africa. The antics over Simandou is what I report on in my television piece, which you can watch below.
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