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A Test For Guinea’s Fledgling Democracy

A hotly contested parliamentary election could spell the difference between peaceful democracy and civil war for Guinea.

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Guinea, a mining capital in West Africa, faces great economic problems as it heads into parliamentary elections next month. The country faces ethnic tensions, threats to democracy and economic instability.

When it comes to resources, Guinea could be regarded as one of Africa’s richest countries. Rich in minerals, hydropower and agriculture, Guinea also holds almost half of the world’s bauxite as well as substantial amounts of iron ore, gold and diamonds. These resources remain under exploited.

Reforms are underway with tighter monetary policy and budget. According to the African Economic Outlook, in 2011 the Guinean economy progressed after the return to constitutional government. This saw real GDP peak at 4%. Despite government’s strict budget policy and determination to curb credit, inflation remained at a high of 21.2% in 2011. It is predicted to drop to 10.1% in 2013.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) have supported Guinea in its effort to gain debt relief. Combined, the IMF and IDA contributed $2.1 billion to the country in 2012.

In October 2011, the African Development Bank (AfDB) backed 77 Guinea operations which were worth approximately $818 million. These operations included: 58 projects, nine studies, seven institutional support operations and three non-project loans.

With the economic challenges faced by Guinea, this year’s elections will be regarded as a beacon of light for the country and will hopefully bring change to the nation. The eyes of the world will be on the country as they vote for their president.

President Alpha Condé, 75, was elected in 2010 in the first credible democratic elections since the West African nation gained independence from French rule in 1958, but parliamentary elections that would see Guinea’s full transition to civilian rule have been delayed for almost two years. The vote was originally scheduled for May 12 but elections have now been delayed until June 30, 2013.

In late February thousands of supporters of the leading opposition party, Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée (UFDG), took to the streets accusing Condé and his ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Guinéen (RPG) of attempting to rig the vote. Nine were killed in clashes with security forces and hundreds injured in the riots. The UFDG is backed by the Peul, the largest ethnic group in Guinea, whose supporters accuse Condé’s government of politically favoring the Malinke, the second largest ethnic group in the country.

With the opposition walking out of talks with the government that were organized in the aftermath of the violence, and calling for further protests and strikes, international observers are concerned that Guinea could further descend into violence and derail the nation’s journey to democratic rule.

Guinea’s main opposition leader, Cellou Dalein Diallo, who lost to Condé in a tight presidential run-off in November 2010, said the opposition would do everything to stop the election if it was held without them, according to a report by Reuters. Analysts say this is a troubling sign.

Vincent Foucher, a senior analyst for West Africa at International Crisis Group told FORBES AFRICA that the political standoff could setback Guinea’s economic gains.

“If they blow this one there is a very serious possibility that people in the armed forces could say, ‘You politicians are not able to handle those democracy things so we [will] step back in,’ and that would bring us back to 2008 which would be a real shame,” says Foucher.

He adds that basic consensus on the electoral process must be achieved for the elections to go ahead.

“The situation is so tense that I do not believe that full consensus is possible.”

Ahmed Sékou Touré, Guinea’s first president, was a firebrand socialist who rejected Charles de Gaulle’s offer of integration into the Franco-African community. Touré ran an authoritarian government for over 20 years in which torture, arrests and executions were commonplace.

After an unsuccessful invasion led by Portuguese Guinea, now Guinea-Bissau, Touré became increasingly paranoid, accusing the Peul population of attempting to overthrow the government. After his death in 1984, a group of army generals staged a military coup and Lansana Conté became president, and was followed by Moussa Dadis Camara in 2008.

Guinea came into the international spotlight in the aftermath of the September 28, 2009 massacre of some 150 opposition protestors and the rape of more than 100 women by security forces during the military regime of Dadis Camara. The International Criminal Court is currently investigating the case but Human Rights Watch has said the government needs to do more to bring those responsible to justice.

Due to mounting international pressure, Guinea held its first democratic presidential election in 2010. International observers deemed the elections free and fair but they were marred by ethnic rivalry and clashes between civilians and security forces.

Foucher says there have been significant moves away from the tyranny and turmoil of the past but that Guinea still has a long way to go.

“There are some interesting developments and you could say there is a dialog about electoral institutions.”

In addition to its bauxite reserves, Guinea has large iron ore, gold and diamond deposits and has long been on the radar for international investors and multinational mining companies. Upon taking office, Condé promised to redevelop the mining sector and review existing mining contracts signed under previous military dictatorships.

In 2011, Condé revised Guinea’s mining code to allow the government to take a minimum of 15% of shares in mining companies operating on its soil, with an option to buy a further 20%. The government has set up a review body to look into previous mining contracts and overhaul the mining code that determines the role the state plays in governing the industry.

Resources watchdog Revenue Watch Institute, funded by billionaire George Soros, is advising the Guinean government on transparency and how to better negotiate with large mining companies. Leading development economist Paul Collier is also an advisor to the government and Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative has a presence in the country.

In an interview last year with The Guardian, president Condé, a former pro-democracy activist, said he would be “The Obama and Mandela of Guinea” and that he would transform the nation into a stable and developed democracy. But analysts say Guinea’s future stability will largely depend on his ability to negotiate with the opposition and build trust around the electoral process.

Guinea is emerging from a long period of political instability and the socio-political situation remains uncertain. Political differences concern the future of the electoral process and financial and logistical problems.

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