Friday, August 06, 2004

Focus on: Guinea

Guinea [aka Guinea-Conakry] is a country with a special place in my heart. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the country for two years in the mid-90s. Despite having been away for over 7 years, I still follow the country's affairs pretty closely since obviously all my Guinean friends still live there. The country is not doing well right now. The government of Gen. Lansana Conté is old and tired and corrupt. Having been in power for over 20 years, the regime is sclerotic, paralyzed by internal divisions and hamstrung by its refusal to countenance dialogue with the opposition. The general was head of a military regime for his first nine years so it's barely surprising he doesn't tolerate dissent well.

His first prime minister, appointed in 1996, is now an opposition leader (who was thrown in jail for, but acquitted of, plotting to overthrow Conté). His third prime minister, who resigned a few months ago because he wasn't allowed to do his job, is now consulting with opposition figures. The first National Assembly president, who helped found the ruling PUP party, denounced torture and other exactions carried out in Conté's name and became a de facto opposition figure even while he was still head of the legislature. Notice a trend here?

The general is old and sick with reported diabetes. The political situation will likely be paralyzed until he dies, though no one's sure if that will be followed by a defrosting of the political climate or chaos. There is constitutional successor, the new National Assembly president, is also head of the ruling party but he is contested from other elements of the PUP. The opposition is perpetually ineffectual and divided.

Essentially, everything remains to be seen

Food riots broke out in the capital Conakry in early July. Rice, the country's staple food, has exploded in price. According to L'Intelligent, the price of a bag of rice in Conakry exploded; in six months, the cost went from 27,000 Guinean francs to over 60,000 (from about US$13 to $29); though it's higher in other parts of the country in the interior.

Inflation is skyrocketing at 10.3%, according to the magazine (13% according to the UN). The CFA franc (FCFA*) was worth 2.4 Guinean francs (FG) in 2002. Last month, it was worth 5 FG. Over the last 15 years, rice and other staple-foods have seen a six-fold price-rise, while salaries for civil servants have stayed at the same level, notes the UN's IRIN service.

(*The FCFA is common currency for most of Guineans neighbors and much of West Africa)

The food situation was aggravated when it was learned that some local government officials were accused of stealing subsidised rice which was meant to be sold cheaply though local government offices to [Conakry's] poor, according to IRIN. The West African country once exported large quantities, but today its eight million people - especially the two million inhabitants of Conakry - are heavily dependent on imports.

The cost of rice is heavily subsidized by the government, but the regime's foreign currency reserves have collapsed in part because...

In late June, the World Bank halted loan disbursements to the Guinean government. The IMF also suspended Guinea's participation in its heavily indebted poor country program, designed to promote poverty reduction. Exiting donors have deplored bad governance, lack of transparency in the management of public expenses, corruption and improper economic practices. The European Union halted its direct-to-government aid program for similiar reasons and French Cooperation as well.

Former Guinean Prime Minister, Francois Fall, severely denounced those practices when he resigned in May, after just two months in the job. From the safety of exile in France, Fall was later highly critical of President Lansana Conte and accused him of blocking attempts at political and economic reform.

Fall particularly complained that Conte, a former army colonel who came to power in a 1984 coup, was an obstacle to economic reform, renegotiation of external debt and the prospects of launching a new dialogue with the European Union.

"[At least half of the Guinean budget comes from external loans, and most of the payments have been suspended so far," a World Bank official noted.

IRIN pointed out:

Public investment in local services, including hospitals, has failed to materialise over the past year, said government officials in both Conakry and the outer provinces.

In the remote Forest Region, in southern Guinea, the last public investment in hydraulic and electric services or highway infrastructures was in 1961. Since then, the population of the region has increased by five.

In addition to the many domestic problems caused by bad governance, Guineans face troubles aggravated by foreign conflicts. An influx of idle gunmen from [neighboring] Liberia since the country's civil war ended in August last year has made the situation in the [southeastern] Forest Region even more tense... diplomats and aid workers have long worried that the Region Forestiere is a powder keg waiting to explode.

[This is the region I lived in :-(]

Guinea's entire southern frontier borders Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries who spent most of the 1990s in the midst of two of Africa's most savage civil wars. Cross border incursions have caused a lot of damage and destroyed several Guinean villages, including one of a very close friend of mine. In the mid-90s, Guinea hosted some 500,000 refugees from the two conflicts, which gave it, at the time, the largest refugee population in Africa. This had devastating effects on both the economy and the environment of the refugee-heavy areas.

Adding to this is a huge influx of Guineans living abroad fleeing the civil war in neighboring Cote d'Ivoire

(Yes, Guinea's in a tough neighborhood. In the last 15 years, every single one of Guinea's six neighbors have had a total civil war or some lower intensity armed conflict. Guinea hasn't. Yet. Let's hope it stays that way.).

Between 75,000 to over 100,000 Guineans fled Cote d’Ivoire following a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment after a period of civil war between September 2002 and December 2003, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, notes IRIN.

Most of the returnees found shelter in tired-out local communities in the thickly wooded part of southern Guinea known as Guinee Forestiere, which includes the prefecture of Nzerekore.

In the communities along the border, returnees make up about eight percent of the total population, said OCHA. Of these, 50 percent are children, and their presence is placing particular strain on education services, especially in the smaller villages, they said.


While the increased population has put a strain on resources, incomes have also taken a battering as cross border trade has slumped.

“Before the coup in Cote d’Ivoire, trade between both countries was abundant,” Colonel Lamine Bangoura, the governor of the Region Forestiere, told IRIN.

“But now the trade has almost stopped and because we host all these people, we’re short of basic food and livestock,” he added.

Areas along the borders experienced close ties to the communities on the other side. Traders and agro-pastoral farmers attended markets on either side of the borders to buy and sell their mainly agricultural goods.


At 7:32 PM, Blogger Abiola said...

Thoroughly depressing stuff all round. By the way, have you thought about turning on your ATOM feed? That way I'll be able to keep up with your posts without having to manually check every now and then.


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