Trouble looming in Guinea, and why that matters

While Washington remains preoccupied with the results of its own midterm election and its aftermath, U.S. policymakers might be forgiven for not having spared much thought recently for polls elsewhere. Just in Africa alone — which the Obama administration has described in strategy documents as "more important than ever to the security and prosperity" of the United States — there are nearly a dozen national elections in the next 12 months, the outcomes of which can have significant implications for U.S. policy in the region and for the wider international community. Few places is this more true than in the small West African state of Guinea.

Hence it is not surprising that Guinea rarely receives much attention in Washington except when crisis erupts, as it did this year when the country, together with Sierra Leone and Liberia, became the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak. And while Guinea was a bulwark of relative stability as civil wars wracked those neighbors as well as Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s and early 2000s, it may not be as lucky as it heads toward local elections slated for the coming months, culminating in next year's presidential contest.

Recently, claims have emerged that the electoral victory of President Alpha Condé was rigged by South African intelligence. This come as current owners of the strategically important natural resource project Simandou — a large iron ore mineral development — claim their property rights were expropriated to reward politically connected allies. All while most Guineans live on less than a dollar a day and Guinea ranks 179 out of 187 countries surveyed in the most recent edition of the United Nations' Human Development Index.

As Guinea readies for local elections as well as next year's presidential vote, things may be coming to a head precisely because the country's lack of social and economic progress is directly linked to its dysfunctional politics. At independence in 1958, the country's first president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, severed ties with France and aligned himself with the Soviet Union, pursuing a Marxist revolutionary agenda that destroyed the economy while brutally repressing all opposition. During the dictator's reign, tens of thousands of people disappeared into the regime's African gulag, including the Roman Catholic archbishop of Conakry (the capital), Raymond-Marie Tchdimbo, who spent almost a decade in the notorious Boiro concentration camp.

After Sékou Touré died in 1984 — ironically enough, while receiving treatment for a heart condition at the private Cleveland Clinic — his onetime hangman, Lansana Conté, seized power in a military coup. While Conté abandoned his predecessor's socialist experiment and, over time, grudgingly opened up the political space in the country, his own quarter-century in power (he died in 2008) saw little relief to the grinding poverty which was the lot in life of the vast majority of Guineans.

Elections were eventually held in 2010, which brought the current president, Alpha Condé, to power. The polls, marred by delays, ethnic divisions and various controversies, were accepted by a weary international community. Condé, the winner in the second round, had won only 18 percent of the vote in the first round, compared to the 44 percent support for Cellou Dalein Diallo, a former prime minister who hailed from Guinea's largest ethnic group and who had an electoral pact with the third-place finisher, a member of third-largest ethnic group.

A political outsider, Condé came to power with little experience. He lived more of his life outside of Guinea than within the country, mainly in Paris, where he gave leftist university lectures on subjects like "an engaged African" (the title of one of his books) and "American neocolonialism" (the subtitle of another one of his works). And while the new president talked about "a new era" in Guinean politics, the makeup of his cabinet included several controversial figures from former juntas. Soon after his election, Condé turned to billionaire financier George Soros for help in rewriting the country's mining laws, but this has led to a vicious cycle of delays in tapping the country's extraordinary natural resources — among other things, it holds two-thirds of the world's largest reserve of bauxite, and prodigious amounts of gold, diamonds, iron ore, graphite, manganese and other mineral resources which make Guinea potentially one of the richest nations in Africa — to jumpstart its development and create shovel-ready projects that would bring about jobs and spur economic growth.

The situation since Condé's election has not inspired confidence. Members of former juntas have been welcomed back. Parliamentary elections, which were supposed to have been held within six months of the December 2010 inauguration, were repeatedly postponed. And now Condé is facing a multimillion-dollar action in a U.S. federal court seeking to enforce a May 2014 decision by the Common Court of Justice and Arbitration, the highest tribunal of a 16-member African regional body on commercial law to which Guinea belongs, ruling that the regime illegally ripped up a port management contract with French cargo company Getma International.

To be fair, Condé inherited a dismal macroeconomic situation. Both the civil service and military personnel have received multiple salary increases — the resulting budget deficits being financed largely by having the central bank increase the money supply, thus completing the vicious circle. After such a long malaise, Guinea desperately needs significant investment and sustained economic growth.

All of this sets the stage for 2015, when President Condé is expected to run for a second and final term. Not only will he face determined and well-organized opponents in a rematch of the previous tight race, but he will do so with not much better economic results — neither in terms of overall gross domestic product growth nor in poverty reduction (incidence of both urban and rural poverty have actually increased during the president's tenure, according to his own finance ministry's report to the International Monetary Fund) — than under the dictators who preceded him, exposing him to a real possibility of defeat notwithstanding the advantages of incumbency. Thus the battle will be hard-fought and, if the contest is not fair or if the winner fails to deliver on long-deferred promises of development, the situation will be increasingly dire not only for Guinea, where ethnic tensions are already being stoked, but also for a region whose borders were very recently shown by the rapid spread of the Ebola virus to be be extremely porous. (The outbreak, it should be recalled, is believed by researchers to have started in the Guéckédou prefecture of southeastern Guinea exactly one year ago.)

Given how Washington has lately become so keen on prioritizing improving economic and security ties with an increasingly geopolitically important Africa, policymakers need to pay more attention to the state of the rule of law and prospects for free and fair democratic elections in a regionally pivotal state like Guinea — either that or be prepared for the consequences should either of those basic governance conditions be found wanting.

Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.