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Foreign powers have a lot riding on the 75-year-old former Sorbonne law professor who runs Guinea.
For the west, Alpha Condé represents a west African bulwark against the jihadists of the Sahara and the perennial eruptions of Guinea’s neighbours. For China, the president might prove a partner for a new infrastructure-for-resources deal of the sort that has spearheaded its thrust into Africa. For the multinational mining houses, Israeli tycoons and Russian oligarchs vying for Guinea’s mineral wealth, he is regarded as everything from a dedicated reformer to an asset-grabber.
It is a heavy burden for a life-long opposition activist who until he narrowly won elections in 2010 – regarded by many as both shambolic and Guinea’s freest since independence from France in 1958 – had never held public office.
In exile in France, he was sentenced to death in absentia by Ahmed Sékou Touré’s repressive regime. Once home, after twice failing to dislodge Lansana Conté at elections the long-ruling strongman was accused of stealing, he was thrown in jail. After two years of brutal rule by the military junta that took power on Conté’s death before giving way to civilians, Mr Condé took the helm of a country that was listing badly.
“It’s not easy,” Mr Condé told the Financial Times in an interview during a visit to Paris last week that included a meeting with a fellow francophone socialist, President François Hollande. “With 50 years of misrule, of corruption, bad habits have set in. But I think there is now truly the will to change things.”
Critics have suggested the old ways are creeping back. They point to what they say are sweetheart mining deals struck by Guinea’s new rulers, although most experts agree that nothing has emerged on the scale of the corruption that went before.
“Habits built up over 50 years are not changed in two or three days. But time is also against us,” says the president, whose energy, his aides say, belies his years. “People are impatient. They want to see something concrete.”
A pariah state for half a century, Guinea endures some of the world’s grimmest living standards. Of every 100 children born, 13 die before the age of five, twice as many as in Myanmar. Yet in terms of heavyweight foreign interlopers per head, the nation of 11m people ranks highly.
Mr Condé counts among his advisers Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, whose governance initiative is tasked with improving Guinea’s threadbare bureaucracy, and George Soros, the hedge fund billionaire. Mr Soros has been instrumental in making Guinea what Mr Condé acknowledges is a “laboratory” for a global campaign, led by the US and EU, to open up the oil and mining industries to greater scrutiny.
Under Mr Condé, the government has published mining contracts, overhauled the mining code and is nearing the completion of a review of deals signed under past dictatorships.
The contract review has made the president enemies, notably Beny Steinmetz, the Israeli diamond tycoon. BSG Resources, the mining arm of the Steinmetz family conglomerate, has responded to allegations that it paid bribes to officials in previous regimes to win rights to a $5bn iron ore deposit by claiming that Mr Condé’s “illegitimate government” is seeking to expropriate its assets.
Mr Condé steers clear of discussing his clash with Mr Steinmetz. Instead, he declares a target to bring in $30bn-$40bn in mining investment over the next five years – about five times Guinea’s annual gross domestic product.
It looks an ambitious goal, given that many in the industry believe that big miners such as Brazil’s Vale and Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto are more inclined to plant flags in choice deposits than to bring them into swift production.
Yet Guinea is already Africa’s biggest producer of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminium, despite an often fraught relationship with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s UC Rusal, one of the sector’s biggest investors. Abu Dhabi and Dubai this week agreed to invest $5bn in Guinean bauxite mining and refining.
While Mr Condé is keen to welcome investors from overseas – including Chinese state-owned groups, seen as the most likely to find the billions required for rail and port infrastructure to tap Guinea’s iron ore – he bristles at what he sees as foreign meddling in domestic politics.
Donors’ fiscal conditions imposed as part of a debt-relief deal frustrated his plans to invest in Guinea’s crumbling infrastructure, the president says.
Asked about the “breaches and irregularities” reported by foreign observers including the EU, UN and west African bloc in September’s legislative elections, Mr Condé says: “There was a great deal of interference by the European Union. Elections should be a symbol of a country’s sovereignty.” He adds that the results, which were approved this month by Guinea’s supreme court and left his party short of an absolute majority, give the opposition a larger presence in the national assembly than in other recent African polls.
Faultlines remain. Violent clashes during the election campaign were a sign that Guinean politics still runs on ethnic lines. Responding to reports that mercenaries, no strangers to west Africa, have been conducting covert recruitment missions for an anti-government mission to Guinea, Mr Condé says: “With the reform of the army that we are in the middle of doing, all the attempts at destabilisation – which are real – don’t worry me because we can cope with them.”
The difficulty of bringing to heel an army that slaughtered 156 opposition demonstrators in the national stadium in 2009 was underscored in July when Mr Condé survived an assassination attempt seemingly linked to the military.
The president believes he faces “a coalition of interests against us who do not want to see reforms”, especially in mining. But he pledges to press on. “That exposes me to a great deal of risk, politically and personally,” he says. “But in life you have to take risks.”