Alpha Condé says he will be ‘Mandela and Obama of Guinea’ and has enlisted help from Tony Blair and George Soros.
The president of the one of the most impoverished, corrupt and mineral-rich countries on Earth has insisted he can turn it into a stable democracy and economic powerhouse, declaring: “I will be both the Mandela and the Obama of Guinea.”
Supporters of Alpha Condé after he became Guinea’s first democratically elected leader in 2010. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images
In an interview with the Guardian, Alpha Condé said Guinea had left behind half a century of military coups and despotic regimes and was on an “irreversible” march to democracy. He sought to assure investors that a country boasting the second biggest mining reserves in Africa and fifth biggest in the world, potentially worth $222bn (£137bn), was open for business.
Condé, 74, has enlisted Tony Blair and George Soros as advisers and was granted an audience with Obama at the White House. But sceptics question his treatment of political opponents and his ability to root out graft and keep a fragile peace.
Since independence from France in 1958, the west African nation has endured a series of autocrats and reached a nadir in September 2009 when security forces massacred more than 150 people and raped dozens of women at an opposition rally.
Three months later, the leader of the military junta was shot in the head – he survived, but fled the country.
Condé won the country’s first democratic election in 2010, the reward for long decades resisting tyranny from exile and jail. “I will be Mandela for what he did for freedom fighting and Obama for what he’s done for hope,” he told the Guardian in his first British press interview since coming to power, a Mandela “46664” charity silver bracelet on his right wrist.
“I’m a man of conviction, I have strong convictions. I also know that being in the opposition in Africa probably will require one to go to prison, so I had accepted that already.
“I had a clear goal: my goal was to change the situation in my country. I was hoping that this would lead to the presidency, as this would enable me to do so, but that wasn’t the important part. The ideal of the conviction was what drove me. The outcome, I couldn’t tell while I was in the struggle. It was sticking to my objective and my course.”
Today the sports stadium that witnessed the 2009 massacre appears unremarkable, with football-shirted students strolling by and a young trumpeter leading a band of musicians. But hot and humid Conakry is a capital city of dilapidated buildings, potholed roads and erratic power and water supplies. More than half of Guinea’s population lives in poverty and 70% are illiterate. It ranks near the bottom of global corruption, development and governance indices.
Last year, Condé himself was targeted by assassins who fired a rocket-propelled grenade into his compound, killing a bodyguard and raising questions over whether civilian rule could last. “It’s been 50 years so change will require some time,” he said. “We believe it is irreversible but it will require time.
“One must understand that changing mentalities and changing mindsets are very difficult. The challenges are many and there are many obstacles to change: there were many who benefited from the former system and will therefore resist the change process that we believe is irreversible because the youth wants it. We are looking to the youth.”
The prospect of an end to the chaos has triggered a scramble for Guinea’s vast mineral reserves. It is the world’s largest producer of bauxite, used to make aluminium, and boasts vast iron ore deposits as well as diamonds, gold and uranium. Rio Tinto, Vale and the Aluminum Corporation of China (Chinalco) are among the mining giants competing fiercely.
How to carve up the cake, and learn lessons from the past by ducking the “resource curse” that has wreaked poverty and conflict on many countries, was the central theme of the recent Guinea economic forum that included ministers, investors, the British ambassador, the World Bank, the IMF, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford University economist Paul Collier. The Guardian’s attendance was funded by the UNDP.
Condé turned to the billionaire investor Soros to help draw up a mining code that would reduce corruption and increase the government’s stake from 15% to 35%.
He said the World Bank had granted Guinea $20m (£12.3m) to hire banks and lawyers and set up technical and strategic committees to oversee the process. “We need to start engaging on an even footing with the mining companies. We still have much to do in terms of anti-corruption but we feel we have reached some important milestones already.”
The president is also receiving support from Blair, whose charity the Africa Governance Initiative has deployed advisers to Conakry to help instil sound leadership and attract foreign investment. Blair’s office has denied that he has any commercial interest in Guinea.
Condé said: “Mr Blair is helping the country in capacity building. We are the first francophone country he has come into. He has learned from his experience at Downing Street that it is not enough for a leader to have a vision; the centre of power should also be concentrated around the leader so he can empower himself to bring about his vision.”
The president’s vision is under scrutiny, however. A year ago three protesters were killed during clashes between police and demonstrators at a banned opposition rally. Amnesty International warned: “It’s deeply alarming that President Alpha Condé is resorting to exactly the same brutal methods as his predecessors.”
In July, Condé’s security forces clashed with villagers demanding jobs in the village of Zogota, where Vale and the Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz’s BSG Resources are jointly seeking to develop an iron ore mine. Local rights groups claimed five protesters were killed, while the government has launched an investigation.
Condé, who is bound by the constitution to serve no more than two terms, denies that he will join the African hall of infamy as a liberator turned tyrant. “Maybe, unlike others, I took 50 years to get to power,” he said. “I’m not a young man any more, or a 30-year-old, so I’ve reached a stage of maturity.
“When I was in prison, tremendous support arose throughout Africa and I feel I have a challenge to show the youth who believed in me then that I can bring about a new leadership for Africa – a leadership based on good governance, the respect of democratic freedom. It’s very important for me to live up to that expectation.”
Political opponents, however, accuse Condé of stoking ethnic tensions and excluding them from the new Guinea. Parliamentary elections have been delayed by wrangling.
Condé’s centralisation of power has raised eyebrows abroad. Ousmane Diagana, the World Bank’s country director, said: “He delivered on economic reforms but I think on the political aspect he is relatively slow when we take into consideration the type of new consensus that needs to be built around governance based on stronger political institutions.
“I think they need to have a frank debate. Guineans need to be around the same table to discuss the political agenda and how it can actually support the economic transformation.”
Diagana added: “We’re hoping the president is the right person to do that given his background and trajectory, but the fact this conversation is not taking place between the opposition and the government in charge is worrying.”
The scale of the challenge facing Condé, and Guinea, just two years into democracy is daunting. There was a timely reality check from Donald Kaberuka, the president of the African Development Bank. “Guinea has wasted too much time,” he told the forum. “At the time when the rest of Africa is moving on, this is time for Guinea and Guineans to come together through strong political institutions, to come together through transparent economic governance. The hard work begins now.”