Ebola en Guinée : une épidémie « politique » ?
Ebola en Guinée : une épidémie « politique » ?
Op-Ed / Africa

Blood Aluminum?

Most Americans would be hard pressed to find the Republic of Guinea on a map. Not to be confused with Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, or Papua New Guinea, this small West African country has rarely had reason to make international headlines. It does now.

When I visited Guinea five years ago, the country was experiencing relative stability in a fragile and explosive region. Guinea’s neighbors – Liberia and Sierra Leone – were engulfed in brutal civil wars, and hundreds of thousands of fleeing civilians found refuge in the outskirts of Guinea’s capital, Conakry, and in the country’s dense forest region.

The tables have now turned. Liberia and Sierra Leone are striving to restore stability and democratic rule, thanks in large part to sustained engagement from the international community and the deployment of UN and African peacekeepers, and many refugees have returned home. Now it is Guinea that poses a threat to its neighbors.

This January, more than two decades of frustration with President Lasana Conte’s reign of corruption, nepotism, and incompetence boiled over in a popular revolt as Guineans took to the streets in support of a strike launched by the nation’s trade unions. Although rooted in decades of misrule and discontent, the immediate impetus for the strike was the decision by President Conte to release from prison two members of his elite clique who had been indicted for embezzling $2.5 million from the nation’s Central Bank.

The Guinean government responded to the strike with inexcusable brutality. Security forces have killed well over 100 civilians since the strike began. When President Conte declared a state of siege on February 13 – imposing martial law and giving full powers to the army – troops went on a rampage and engaged in unlawful arrests, torture, theft and rape.

Recognizing the threat to the region, the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) stepped in to negotiate an end to the stand-off between the government and the army on one side and the trade unions and population on the other. President Conte conceded to a key demand of the unions by appointing Lansana Kouyate, a distinguished diplomat and former UN Under-Secretary General, to the new position of Prime Minister.  Kouyate’s appointment is a step in the right direction, but the crisis is far from over.

The recent unrest reflects deep problems: a repressive and ineffective government, widespread corruption, and vast poverty and inequality. More than 70 per cent of the population is illiterate, only one in five has adequate sanitation, one third of all children under five are stunted from malnutrition, and the Government spends ten times as much on defense as it spends on health for its suffering population.

Kouyate and his team of technocrats must be empowered through a constitutional amendment to make fundamental changes, and the Guinean people must be included in shaping the new government’s economic and political priorities through a national dialogue. Security forces who participated in the killing of civilians and their commanders must be held accountable for their crimes, in part to demonstrate to regime hardliners that there are costs for blatant disregard for human rights and international law.

The US government, the United Nations, and other international partners can help ensure credible reforms in Guinea by participating in a donor roundtable to identify a package of financial and technical assistance to Kouyate’s government, stressing immediate steps to reduce poverty, create jobs, re-establish the government’s credibility, and stabilize the region.

In exchange for Guinea’s support of American efforts to stabilize the region during the reign of Charles Taylor in Liberia, the US gave assistance to the Guinean army. Now, the United States must send a clear message to the Guinean government and high-ranking Army officers that a page has been turned and violence and repression against civilians must cease.

Why should Americans pay attention to the situation in Guinea? Beyond the clear humanitarian and democratic imperatives, Guinea provides more than half of US imports of bauxite, used to make aluminum ore. Continued instability threatens that supply, but in addition, if the Government of Guinea continues to use proceeds from bauxite exports to buy loyalty from its security forces in repressing its population, “blood aluminum” may soon join “blood diamonds” as a curse of developing countries.

Equally important, the United States has highlighted the hopeful trends in Sierra Leone and particularly in Liberia – following the triumphant election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa’s first elected female President – as a success story in the making. If Guinea explodes into civil conflict, the flood of refugees, small arms, and instability could easily sweep across the porous border and threaten that success. The shockwaves could extend as far as Cote d’Ivoire and beyond. This would be not only a national crisis but a regional tragedy.

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