New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 274

Country profile: Guinea

Where is Guinea? There is a popular saying in Guinea that any visitor who fails to shop at the historic Madina market has not been to the capital, Conakry. Sprawling over a strategic central area of the city where trains, trucks, buses, taxis and shoppers struggle for space, Madina is an international trading centre as well as the popular choice of locals. Labourers as young as 12 years old skilfully manoeuvre wheelbarrows on shuttle trips through the crowds. Everything is for sale, from cars through black-market currency to cups of drinking water.

This bustling private-sector activity would be music to the ears of the IMF which, as in most African countries, has insisted since the mid-1980s on a structural-adjustment programme in return for new loans. The story is familiar: the state subsidy on rice (the local staple) has been removed and wage cuts have taken their toll on ordinary citizens. Thousands of workers have been made redundant by the State, the largest employer in the former French colony. Privatization has resulted in Guinea’s electricity system being controlled by a Franco-Canadian consortium involving Hydro-Québec.

At independence in 1958 Guinea was one of Africa’s showpieces. The revolutionary style of its first leader, Ahmed Sekou Touré, echoed throughout the continent. Touré was famous for refusing to accept independence on French terms: ‘We’d rather be poor and free than rich and enslaved,’ he memorably maintained, and for that alone he remains a legendary figure in the minds of most Guineans. Soon after independence Sekou Touré turned to the socialist bloc for succour but the country eventually slumped into virtual (and ruinous) isolation from the outside world.

A week after Sekou Touré’s death in 1984 there was a bloodless coup by soldiers promising a new deal. Hundreds of political detainees were released and many exiles were confident enough to return home. But the more telling statement of intent was the immediate decision to join the once-spurned French African monetary community.

Colonel Conté has metamorphosed now into a civilian president via elections in 1993 but in practice the activity of opposition forces is still limited by the military. The main emphasis has been on economic change and the IMF-inspired efforts to diversify the economy away from its dependence on earnings from bauxite have had mixed results. Guinea’s coffee industry is still throttled by the country’s poor communications, particularly during the rainy season, and now faces a new threat from other countries’ Arabica coffee, which is claimed to contain less caffeine than Guinea’s Robusta variety.

The gap between rich and poor is growing. In many areas slums surround towering villas and rich estates. Here there is an overpowering feeling of fear among the rich and of scorn from the less fortunate. The ghetto communities have a popular saying: ‘Our time will come when justice will be done’.

Michael Butscher

AT A GLANCE

LEADER: President Lansana Conté

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $510 (US $22,240)
Monetary unit: French Africa community franc (CFA)
Main exports: Bauxite, diamonds and aluminium – mining accounts for 25% of GNP and almost all export earnings. Guinea has huge deposits of unexplored mineral wealth.
Main imports: Foodstuffs, machinery, petroleum products.

PEOPLE: 6.3 million. Population growth rate 2.7%.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 133 per 1,000 births (Australia 7 per 1,000).
Doctors: 1 for every 46,420 people (US 1 for 420).

CULTURE: Mainly Fulani, Malinke and Susu. Formerly part of the Mali empire which flourished between the seventh and fifteenth centuries.
Religion: Muslim 85%, Christian 10%
Languages: French is the official language but there are many indigenous languages.

Sources: The World: A Third World Guide 1995/96; State of the World’s Children 1995; Africa Review 1995; The World’s Women 1970-1990, United Nations.

Previously profiled August 1984.


STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
90% of people are desperately poor, especially in the rural areas.
1984 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown]
At just 24%, the third lowest in the world.
1984 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Reasonable despite $2.9 billion debt. The strain of refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia is taking its toll.
1984 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Major improvement over Sekou Touré’s regime but government opponents are still detained and harassed. The death penalty is in force. Journalists are under constant pressure and radio and TV are government-owned.
1984 [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Girls’ enrolment in primary school as a percentage of boys’ is more or less unchanged since 1980. Women are marginalized throughout society.
1984 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
At 45 years, the sixth lowest in the world (Canada 77 years).
1984 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]


POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Lansana Conté won the election with a majority on the first ballot – but might well have lost in a second round had his party not had results in two opposition strongholds annulled for supposed irregularities. His pretence at multiparty democracy is enough for the West – but not for most Guineans, especially the poor who have borne the brunt of structural adjustment.


NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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Contents page
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NI Home Page

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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