While the rest of the world had their eye on Gaza or the prospect of Russia turning off the gas flowing to Europe from Ukraine, there was a nice little coup d’état in the West African country of Guinea. As coups go the December 23rd affair was relatively simple and, so far, bloodless.
The seventy-something dictator, chain-smoking Lansana Conté, who had been seriously ill from diabetes for the last few years, finally died. The constitution called for the president of the parliament to take over temporarily and elections to be held in sixty days. This was not satisfactory to a logistics officer administering the army fuel distribution, Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara.
Camara organized a group of junior officers — later supplemented with some higher ranks — who rallied troops in the capital city of Conakry to take over the radio station and announce their new government. The next day thousands of soldiers peacefully pranced down the main street of the capital in celebration. By curious coincidence, Muammar Qaddafi was visiting nearby Sierra Leone and he quickly dropped in to meet the new leadership.
Pressure from France changed the junta’s two-year timetable of reorganization and civilian elections to one year. Nigeria, disapprovingly, meanwhile has sought to have Guinea suspended from the West African economic bloc, ECOWAS. Kabine Komara, a director of the African Ex-Im Bank in Cairo, was named interim prime minister, and business as usual, such as it was, continued in the government offices. So far, so good.
At this point the money power in Guinea began to worry about their investments — not that much of the income from the country’s mineral resources ever had filtered down to the people. Guinea is variously estimated to hold 25-50% of the world’s bauxite reserves, along with considerable iron deposits and some gold and diamonds. With a population of slightly over 10.2 million there appears little reason for the country to be as poorly off as it is. Its nominal per capita income is $417 per annum.
The foreign mining and processing companies that essentially determine Guinea’s economy are hoping that they can continue their operations unimpeded by the new military junta. In fact, World Bank sources have indicated that there would be little doubt that the traditional corruption and inertia that marked the Conté regime would continue. Hmm?
In African politics things are not always as they appear. To begin with, the so-called diamond mines actually consist for the most part of native diggers and their private operations known as “pot holing.” A large portion of the gem quality diamonds purportedly coming from Guinean “mines” is actually smuggled from Sierra Leone.
Although the diggers and smugglers are happy with their rewards, the real money is made by the European, South Asian, and Middle Eastern middlemen who buy stones in Guinea and sell mostly in Europe. Most of the gold mining is managed and operated by the famous Ghanaian firm, Ashanti Gold Fields.
The billions of dollars of investment said to be projected by the foreign mining groups of Rio Tinto, BHP Bilton, and the Russian UC Rusal is nonetheless a future plan and their existing operations trickle down comparatively little through their local hiring. The central government in Conakry has never been known for its fair and balanced use of their portion of the revenue.
Perhaps the best way to explain the past and future of Guinea is to focus on one example: As the story goes, an Israeli diamond trader, Beny Steinmetz, had been working the Guinea game for some time and developed effective connections during the Conté years. Reportedly driven by his desire to move up the business ladder as an industrialist, rather than as just another diamond dealer, Steinmetz arranged with his friends in the Conté regime to obtain the northern half of a major iron concession held by Rio Tinto. Rio immediately cut back its development plan, which is now awaiting total revision.
The junta will be lobbied most likely by new players seeking to realign various existing agreements. It can be expected that there will be a certain distribution of gratuities, known in English-speaking West Africa as “dash” — an activity equally well known in French-speaking Guinea. Nonetheless, if history is any guide, the major concessions will remain in place.
There will be some anxious months, but as in most of Africa the old expression will continue to hold sway: “The more that changes, the more remains the same.” It always sounds more sophisticated in French!