Guinea’s Economic Junta

A year and a half after a military coup, Guinea will hold its presidential election in June. The man in charge may change, but the army's domination of lucrative mineral contracts won't.


CONAKRY—When Guinea’s interim prime minister, Jean-Marie Doré, briefed the local press last month on preparations for June’s election, he was cautious about discussing the military, which has dominated politics in his country for decades. "If you want to talk about the military, you’ll have to ask me a question. But if you don’t ask me a question, I won’t say anything," he quipped. A camouflaged officer in a red beret and dark shades stood menacingly behind him, a dagger strapped to his chest.

It was a surreal statement from Doré — one of several Guinean opposition leaders who were badly beaten during last September’s army crackdown on civilian protesters in a stadium in the capital city of Conakry. At least 150 unarmed civilians were killed and many women publicly gang-raped that day, having come to protest then junta leader Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara’s suggestion that he might contest in the presidential election that his junta had promised.

But approaching one year later, Guinea seems to have taken a miraculous turn for the better. Camara is now out of office, a date has been set for elections, and an interim government is doing a perfunctory job. The military, however, remain a pivotal force in Guinea’s politics, its interests entrenched behind the scenes in this small but mineral-rich West African country. That’s unlikely to change, even if the government does.

What happened to transform Doré from dissident to prime minister (and Guinea from basket case to a mitigated disaster) was something of a fluke. Just weeks after the massacre, in December, Camara was shot in the head by an aide-de-camp in an argument over who should take responsibility for the stadium killings. Somehow he survived and was evacuated from the country for emergency medical treatment. His regime was replaced with an interim government forged by political negotiations between the junta, opposition groups, and union leaders. The junta’s deputy leader, Gen. Sékouba Konaté, would take over as president, with Doré stepping in as prime minister. Both men have publicly insisted that a fresh election will take place on June 27 and that a new civilian government will take over.

But no one doubts that the military, through its affiliated networks of businessmen and political allies, will continue to overshadow the running of any elected regime. Guinea is the world’s largest bauxite exporter and home to vast iron ore deposits, and possibly even oil reserves — all of which the military is keenly aware. "The army is the biggest economic force in the country. They have developed a taste for riches and power" says Aliou Barry, a Guinean military expert. "It is not just a question of reforming the military; it is a question of dealing with habits and interests that have been entrenched."

That taste for wealth is all too apparent in a recent report by Gen. Lamine Cissé, a Senegalese military officer tasked by the United Nations, African Union, and Economic Community of West African States to put forward recommendations for restructuring the Guinean security forces. It’s sobering reading: Expenditure by security forces has escaped "all forms of external control" in recent months, and the armed forces have suffered from "grade inflation" to the extent that a mere 17 percent of the country’s 45,000 troops are privates. Basic salaries for the gendarmerie are now higher than for the country’s judges. And in this nascent narcostate, the army has swallowed up the function of drug control from the police, who were put down by the army in 2008 when they protested violently over pay conditions.

The penetration has been even more strategic. When Camara came to power in a December 2008 coup that followed the death of the country’s 25-year dictator, Lansana Conté, he swept aside and jailed senior officers loyal to the old regime. He installed many of his military allies to strategic posts, including on the boards of foreign companies operating in Guinea, where they were paid top-level international salaries. Then, just weeks after the stadium incident, when international condemnation had reached its peak, he announced a $7 billion mining-for-infrastructure deal with the Hong Kong-registered company China International Fund, giving the obscure foreign group access to vast oil and mineral licenses.

Even with Camara out, the military has continued to ratify major deals, despite opposition from civil society leaders and unionists who have insisted that mining deals should only be signed off on by an elected government. In March, Konaté ratified an agreement giving Beny Steinmetz, the Israeli billionaire, rights to export iron ore through neighboring Liberia. He ratified another production-sharing contract this month with Hyperdynamics, a Houston-based oil firm. One of Conakry’s most visible construction firms is also said to enjoy high-level military protection, according to army insiders and diplomats.

In some ways, this kind of military infiltration has been going on for decades. Conté’s regime relied heavily on the troops for its quarter-century of domination. And as Mahmoud Thiam, Guinea’s mines and energy minister, put it, the recently ratified mining and energy deals, some of which were first introduced in previous regimes, demonstrate the "primordial continuity of the state" from one government to another.

But some things have undeniably changed. Most alarmingly, serious splits have emerged within military circles. Last year, Camara brought in Israeli mercenaries to train as many as 10,000 new recruits for the army. They came mostly from Camara’s ethnic Geurzé tribe in the isolated Forestiere region. Konaté has since disbanded the training camp and broken up what was essentially a militia force, while sacking and sidelining many Camara loyalists. He has swapped body guards to ensure his protection. That makes at least two factions painfully apparent.

Those divisions could be playing out well beyond the barracks. Over the last few weeks, ethno-religious clashes have killed several people in Forestiere amid fears that Camara may be stirring up trouble ahead of the polls. He seems to have recovered, and military insiders report him calling Konaté from his hospital room in Burkina Faso and demanding that large sums of money be transferred to him.

If Konaté and Camara work things out, the polarized military could yet fuse back together. One source close to both Konaté and Camara, who was instrumental in training the ethnic recruits for Camara, says it is the military that will "designate" a winner in the coming election. "The voter lists are in such disarray; who will be able to tell the difference whether one candidate has won or not?" Meanwhile, Cissé has recommended that Guinea’s military should create new systems for stockpile management, promotions, and grades and dismantle its nighttime checkpoints. The much harder task for an elected government in Guinea will be getting the military out of business and politics.

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