Photo by Cheryl Morris
Upon landing in the evening in Conakry, the Guinean capital, it seems as though the country’s youth is obsessed with reading: scattered throughout the airport, a myriad of young men sit silently hunched over books; sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. The simple reason for this is that these young scholars have nowhere else to study: the airport is the only place for miles with guaranteed electricity after dusk. This sight is almost symbolic of Guinea as a nation: there are aspirations for a brighter future, but a serious lack of the organization and infrastructure to reach it.
The country is a challenging place to visit. The poverty is widespread and manifest. Rubbish is so abundantly strewn about that it is impossible not to walk on or through it in many areas. Barefoot children kick footballs through puddles of filthy water. Packs of military guards in the backs of pick-up trucks stare menacingly at passers-by. But it shouldn’t be this way.
Guinea is rich in natural resources, especially in iron ore and bauxite, the raw material for aluminium. It also has plentiful gold, diamonds, coffee, fish and agricultural products. Moreover, for all its troubles, it has avoided the conflict that has plagued its neighbours Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, and has consequently hosted one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Nonetheless, a history of conflict, corruption, political and economic myopia and mismanagement has impoverished the country to the extent that a European thinktank, the Crisis Group, recently warned that Guinea may become a ‘failed state’. This is perhaps not surprising, given the country’s turbulent history.
The first of France’s African colonies to gain independence in 1958, sentiments in Guinea’s Government were virulently anti- Western, and its first President, Ahmed Sékou Touré, turned to the Soviet Union for support. He was relentless in his hounding of those opposed to this move, and tens of thousands of Guineans were consequently tortured, executed or vanquished during his 26-year reign.
The supposedly socialist agenda did nothing to alleviate the crushing poverty most citizens lived under, but when General Lansana Conté took over in a bloodless coup in 1984, his reversal of Touré’s policies did little to improve the dire economic situation of most Guineans.
In 1998 Conté held and won national elections, and did so again in 2003, although both polls were criticized for their ‘irregularities’. Conté’s reign was generally unpopular, and his poor governance and cabinet corruption resulted in two large strikes, one in 2006 and another in 2007. When Conté died in 2008, another military junta, led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, took power and suspended the constitution, along with union and political activities, until the next elections – which have been indefinitely delayed.
Today, the country’s future is uncertain. Despite its rich natural resources, foreign companies have been reluctant to invest in Guinea, due to political instability, the population’s low level of literacy and shortage of job skills, and the country’s lack of electricity and other infrastructure. Furthermore, it has been repeatedly alleged that the Government demands bribes, and reneges on important contracts and concessions. The Chinese have been economically active in the country, but ordinary Guineans, resentful of the strong Chinese presence in their country and frustrated with their continually low standard of living, recently looted and vandalized Chinese businesses, thus worsening existing tensions between natives of the country and the growing Asian community.
Desperate to improve economic conditions, the Government has attempted to re-engage with the IMF and World Bank, which stopped assistance to the country after the last coup due to the rampant corruption and lack of democratic reform.