Opinion | International

How American diplomacy can help Guinea's people

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Guineans, who have lived through coups, assassination attempts, stolen elections and Ebola, were hardly fazed when Mamady Doumbouya, an obscure colonel, announced on state television on Sunday that he'd usurped the presidency from Alpha Condé. Videos depicted celebrations in the streets of Conakry. 

Condé was elected in the country's first, and last, free and fair elections in 2010. His rule was marked by corruption, brutal repression, rigged elections and the mismanagement of the country's economic potential, while the Guinean people suffered under extreme poverty. Guinea has the highest per-capita income of any African country, but the wealth goes straight to elites: The majority of Guineans live in poverty, and a quarter are malnourished. Jubilation over the end of Condé's regime among ordinary Guineans was understandable. 

What comes next? Few, perhaps, had heard of Doumbouya until last Sunday, but there are no indications Guinean governance will change for the better under military rule. The colonel has promised an 18-month transition to "normal government," and the opposition has indicated it is open to participating. But considering Guinea's history and Doumbouya's grandiose public statements, the most likely outcome is an unchecked, indefinite dictatorship - at least until the next coup.

Guinea may serve as a test case for the Biden administration's approach to Africa. Generally, the U.S. follows the lead of African intergovernmental organizations, such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), both of which have suspended Guinea's membership. ECOWAS also sent a group of foreign ministers to press for a return to constitutional order, and the U.S. embassy called for the junta to "immediately restore democracy."

On the day of the coup, U.S. special forces were training the very Guinean officers who peeled off to take over in Conakry, leading to suggestions that the U.S. had advance knowledge of - or even supported - Condé's overthrow. This seems unlikely. President Biden thus far has avoided the mode of vigorous intervention that typified some earlier American engagements in Africa, preferring an indirect approach. 

"I've been clear that human rights will be the center of our foreign policy," Biden recently remarked with regard to the Afghan debacle. "But the way to do that is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support." Guinea's situation may seem hopeless, but there are several ways the Biden administration could pressure the new junta within the bounds of this philosophy. There are two clear imperatives: gain leverage with Doumbouya's regime and understand Doumbouya himself.

Guinea's national economy depends heavily on mining. Aluminum ore and gold comprise nearly 92 percent of the country's exports. In the aftermath of the coup, global aluminum prices rose to their highest level in a decade. This will heap more duress onto international businesses already reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, especially in the electronics sector, which will be loath to add aluminum price and supply issues to the existing semiconductor quandary. If the world decides Guinean aluminum ore supplies are too unstable, risky or unethical, and looks elsewhere, the country's economy could face collapse and Doumbouya's regime would rapidly lose popular support. Militant groups also might increase their control of the mining industry and use ore to finance their operations, as they do in neighboring Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. 

Guinea's vast mineral wealth has yet to be fully explored. For example, despite having the world's largest reserves of bauxite - the ore that later becomes aluminum - Guinea is currently responsible for only around 22 percent of the world's bauxite production, because of the country's poor infrastructure and corruption issues. Guinea also has massive stores of iron and diamond that are relatively untapped. 

U.S. support for the mining sector is a key potential mechanism for building soft power in our relationship with Guinea's junta. Investment in mining infrastructure could help to buttress the country's economy and make headway towards reducing poverty and unemployment. It could also help U.S. officials to gain leverage with Doumbouya, who as of now has no reason to hold democratic elections, tolerate political dissent, or respect the human rights of Guineans - to say nothing of developing the country to help end its cycle of starvation and suffering, rather than continuing to line the pockets of corrupt officials and elites.

It also will be important for U.S. officials to understand Doumbouya's personality and psychology. It's unlikely that any diplomats know him at this early stage, but military leaders have worked with Doumbouya as a French legionnaire and in U.S.-led training exercises and may have a better sense of what makes him tick. While the U.S. waits for our African partners to grapple with the coup's aftermath, the State Department can take preliminary steps toward our future engagement with the regime by identifying personnel who know him and perhaps selecting a few who could influence him directly.

Above all, Americans should not ignore these events. We're in this together: Some of the things we rely on every day - from cell phones and laptops to roses and chocolate - start in African nations such as Guinea, where, as the wealth of the nation is shipped away, the corrupt rich become richer, and the poor stay poor. We owe it to our African friends to treat every regime change as another potential chance to make things fairer.

Herman J. Cohen was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-1993), U.S. ambassador to Senegal and The Gambia (1977-1980), a National Security Council member (1987-1989) and a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service. He is the author of "US Policy Toward Africa: Eight Decades of Realpolitik." Follow him on Twitter @CohenOnAfrica.