Features | Economy

Guinea: Coke, Bauxite, Corruption

Africa’s newest military ruler is a 44-year-old soldier, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, who now presides over Guinea, a poor and fragile West African country, but one with great potential wealth.

By Tristan McConnell for

The recent coup in Guinea was bloodless, but will the ultimate casualties be the drug barons or international companies who have a vested interest in the West African country? Tristan McConnell reports

Africa’s newest military ruler is a 44-year-old soldier, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, who now presides over Guinea, a poor and fragile West African country, but one with great potential wealth. The soil on which the impoverished people build their shacks covers a treasure trove of bauxite and iron ore, gold and diamonds.

That Camara’s coup was welcomed on the streets of Guinea’s sweaty seaside capital, Conakry, says more about the venal 24-year rule of former president Lansana Conte than about Guineans’ hopes or trust in the army.

Conte was a chain-smoking diabetic and thought to have been suffering from leukaemia when he died in December last year, aged 74. He would fly to Switzerland for medical treatment rather than risk visiting Guinea’s crumbling hospitals.

Conte died in office like his predecessor, Ahmed Sekou Toure, a paranoid nationalist and Marxist dictator who ruled Guinea for 26 years.

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Since the takeover in December last year, Camara’s junta has appointed a civilian prime minister, said it will hold democratic elections later this year, sacked and then arrested senior generals loyal to the dead president and promised to crack down on corruption. In a further bid for respectability, the military junta has dubbed itself the National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD).

The coup has split opinion among African leaders. President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi have met with Camara, while the junta hosted the presidents of neighbouring Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone at Conte’s state funeral in January. On the other hand, South Africa’s President Kgalema Motlanthe condemned the coup, and the African Union suspended Guinea. Conte’s rule was widely condemned – and despotic – but constitutional.

The regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), suspended Guinea and urged a return to civilian rule. ‘There is a need for us to speak with one voice, that in Africa, the era of making a distinction between a good coup and a bad coup is over,’ said Ojo Maduekwe, Nigeria’s foreign minister and chair of the ECOWAS security and mediation committee.

The European Union has been critical, and the United States has withheld aid until an elected government is installed. ‘We reiterate our call for a return to civilian rule and the holding of free, fair and transparent elections as soon as possible,’ said State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack.

The condemnation, however, is unlikely to have much of an impact. Regional analysts point out that widespread denunciation has not dislodged the junta that took over in the geographically much-larger but nearby Islamic Republic of Mauritania, ousting the elected government in August 2008.

The similarities between Conte’s and Camara’s coups are worrying – both were young army officers who were welcomed by the population when they took over from a dead president in a bloodless coup and immediately promised a crackdown on corruption and a return to civilian rule.

Conte, then a colonel, took over in 1984 after Toure died while undergoing a heart operation in an American hospital. Arguments among the new military leaders quickly led to splits and an unsuccessful counter-coup was launched.

Multi-party politics was eventually reintroduced, as promised, in 1990, but Conte won flawed elections two years later, defeating a disorganised and chronically divided rabble of opposition parties. His victory then and in the following election five years later was attributed more to political violence, arrests of opposition activists and military intimidation than to popular support.

Dictatorship behind the democracy

International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict prevention and resolution organisation, described this period as ‘brutal personal and military rule behind [a] democratic façade’.

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In 2001, Conte successfully changed the constitution, awarding himself unlimited seven-year terms in office and setting himself up as President for Life. However, discontent with his crooked rule grew as the perennially poor population watched Conte and his cronies grow rich. In 2006, global corruption watchdog Transparency International listed Guinea as Africa’s most corrupt country. In 2008, it was superseded in this dubious distinction only by Somalia and Sudan.

Unrest erupted into open protest in 2007, led by the popular trade unions. Nearly 200 people died during a series of strikes and protests in which the army, loyal to Conte, shot protestors without compunction. International human rights groups condemned the murders.

Few will mourn Conte’s passing, but his death left a vacuum that has been filled by yet more military men. But – and it is a big but – if the new military junta sticks to its promises, it could mark the beginning of the end of Guinea’s tragic tale.

Guineans have remained woefully poor while foreign companies stripped national assets and the ruling elite enriched themselves. Mining provides 60 per cent of Guinea’s export revenues, yet only 20 per cent of its taxes.

Little surprise, then, that the mining sector topped Camara’s list when he seized power. ‘We have blocked the mining sector,’ he announced a few days after the coup. ‘There will be a renegotiation of contracts.’

Despite this threat, it is, so far, business as usual. Multinational corporations such as Alcoa, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and RUSAL operate multi-billion dollar projects in Guinea alongside a host of lesser names. None has yet reported any disruption to their operations.

Bauxite, which is refined into alumina and then smelted to make aluminium, is Guinea’s key export earner. Guinea is the world’s biggest exporter and holds around one-third of the world’s reserves.

But aluminium ore is not its only asset. Industry insiders refer to the hilly and jungle-covered border area between Guinea and Liberia as containing ‘world-class deposits’ of iron ore. Already, Arcelor-Mittal is investing heavily in Liberia, with Australians BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto both keen to carve out a chunk of the market for themselves.

Rio Tinto has a huge US$6 billion iron ore mining project underway in the Simandou reserve and has already spent around US$400 million on feasibility studies and exploration work. It hopes eventually to extract around 170 million tons of bauxite a year, but those plans have been undermined by a dispute with members of Conte’s government, who in late 2008 threatened to withdraw part of Rio Tinto’s concession. The military takeover may then prove beneficial to some.

Companies such as Rio Tinto are understandably nervous about which way Guinea’s new military rulers might go, and the coup underscores, once again, just how risky business can be in this notoriously fragile part of Africa.

‘Narco state’ concerns

Another very real – if surprising – fear is that Guinea might become one of Africa’s first ‘narco states’. West Africa has recently become a key staging post in the global cocaine trade. The sheer value of drugs transported through the region dwarfs entire economies and corrupts security forces and political leaders alike.

Guinea is just one of 16 countries in varying states of disarray and poverty from Mauritania and Senegal in the north to Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Liberia on the rump of tropical West Africa, through Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria on the Gulf of Guinea and down to Equatorial Guinea on the equator.

Cocaine use is on the increase in Europe – the number of users has roughly tripled over the last decade – while it has stayed steady in the United States. Four million Europeans use the drug and street prices can be as high as $105 per gram. It is a booming market that South American cartels like because of its affluent populations, its borderless landmass and its strong currency.

Close monitoring of traditional trans-Atlantic drug routes via the Caribbean has forced the cartels to seek out new routes, and they have found the weak states of West Africa, with their poorly paid and therefore easily corrupted police, armies and customs officials, particularly attractive. Interpol estimates that as much as two-thirds of all cocaine – around 50 tonnes valued at about $3 billion – headed for Europe is now shipped via West Africa.

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODCO) says that the illicit cargo is carried out to sea on Latin American-registered ships where, in the mid-Atlantic, far from prying eyes, it is transferred to West African-registered ships that continue the journey to African ports. From there, a plethora of ‘drug mules’, small boats or light aircraft are used to get the drugs into Europe, often via Spain.

Activists pointed their fingers at senior members of Conte’s regime – and even his family – accusing them of being complicit in the cocaine trade. Guinea’s future may well depend on whether Camara and his leaders block the cartels or work with them.

It is still early days for Guinea’s new rulers, and it remains to be seen whether Camara and his junta can resurrect this potentially wealthy country or drag it further into the abyss.


. Population: 9.4 million, growing at two per cent per annum

. Capital: Conakry, population 2 million

. Average daily income: AU$1.67

. Life expectancy: 56 years

. GDP: AU$7.01 billion, projected to grow at 6.7 per cent per annum

. Main industries: mining (almost one third of the world’s bauxite reserves are found in thiscountry, which also exports gold and diamonds); agriculture

. Poverty: rated by the United Nations annual Human Development Index as 160 out of 177 countries

. Corruption: rated by Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index as 173 out of 180 countries

. Liberty: considered ‘not free’ by the annual Freedom House index, which ranks countries according to freedom of political rights and civil liberties

. Language: French, plus several African languages

. Religions: Islam, Christianity and traditional beliefs

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. Guinea won independence from France in 1958, one year after
Ghana became the first African nation to throw off the shackles of colonialism

. It was considered a ‘jewel in the crown’ of France’s African empire thanks to its stocks of gold, diamonds and bauxite, as well as its powerful rivers ripe for hydroelectric exploitation
. During the years of civil war that afflicted West Africa for large parts of the 1990s and early 2000s, Guinea remained peaceful in the iron grip of President Lansana Conte, although he was prone to meddling in the affairs of his neighbours by backing rebel groups