President Obama’s visit to Africa at the end of July was greeted with considerable enthusiasm, but also with caution. In addition to promoting trade and diplomatic links, Obama served notice on countries that lag behind on democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. The countries that Obama visited – Kenya, Ethiopia – received wide attention in the wake of the visit. However, it is in Guinea – in strategically important West Africa – that U.S. policymakers should now be focused.
In October, Guinea will hold only its second-ever democratic presidential elections. It is a fragile democracy – and a fragile country, as witnessed by the devastating recent Ebola outbreak. A major reason behind Guinea’s democratic fragility is the incumbent President, Alpha Condé.
Guinea’s previous election, in 2010, was beset with allegations of corruption, vote rigging, and fraud. One of President Condé’s key lieutenants, Lounceny Camara, served a prison sentence for electoral fraud committed during that election: he was later rewarded with a ministerial position in Condé’s government. The danger is that the trick will be repeated in just a few weeks’ time.
Why should Washington policymakers care? Let me give three reasons. First, security; Second, economic opportunity; Third, values.
Guinea sits in a volatile and ethnically charged corner of Africa: in the region, Islamic extremists are already causing havoc in Mali, Nigeria, and Mauritania among others. Condé’s cynical use of ethnic and tribal politics has led to concerns from the International Crisis Group and others that Guinea is heading down an equally dangerous path. A factional breakdown in Guinea could have wider regional consequences.
The evidence of this can be seen already. As pro-democracy organizers protested on the streets of the capital Conakry earlier this year, following the repeated postponement of local elections, Condé’s security forces responded with a crackdown that led to multiple deaths and hundreds of injuries among opposition supporters. The repeated denial of democracy is leading to legitimate ethnic and political concerns, which are only being met with violence.
In such an environment, how can the coming elections ever hope to be genuinely free and fair? Human Rights Watch recently stated that, “members of Guinea’s security forces used excessive lethal force, engaged in abusive conduct and displayed a lack of political neutrality”. As Amnesty International has stated, “The use of such excessive force is deeply worrying”.
Beyond the regional security issues, Condé has also provoked concerns on the world stage. Guinea has recently renewed a 25-year agreement with the government of Iran to allow it to start producing bauxite. The Iranian and Guinean governments will conduct joint mining operations, with Iran as the senior partner with a 51 per cent stake in the project. The contract, which has run since 1992 – including for many years while Iran was under “sanctions”– is worth millions to Iran.
While Guinea’s government has embraced Iranian investment, its disregard for Western investment has become clearer.
Guinea is one of Western Africa’s wealthiest countries in natural resources. Diamonds, iron ore, and bauxite are plentiful under the soil: but little development has been achieved as reckless policies of seizing private property and rewarding favored allies have scared off major investors. Investors like BSG Resources have seen their licenses illegally expropriated and their staff harassed. The same goes for French and British companies including Getma and Alufer.
The losers in all of this are the people of Guinea. As investors flee, the promise of jobs, growth and infrastructure vanishes with them. Guinea is currently ranked 179 out of 187 countries in the United Nations’ Human Development Index: over 50 percent of its people live in poverty.
Democracy; human rights; property rights and economic freedoms. These are cornerstone values - not just for Americans, but also for millions in Africa, including in Guinea. Where they are being undermined, U.S. leadership is desperately needed to protect and preserve them for the future.
The Obama administration has made clear the strategic importance of Africa for both security and trade: on both of these metrics, it is clear that greater U.S. engagement is needed, to ensure free and fair elections in Guinea this coming October.
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