By Guido Talarico for Eastwest
An old African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”. Four years ago, a small country in sub-Saharan Africa made headlines because it was at the centre of the Ebola epidemic that left more than 15,000 dead and deterred people from setting foot in the region. But that same country managed to hold democratic elections in 2010 and free itself from decades of military dictatorship. We are talking about the Republic of Guinea, which some distinguish from the other two Guineas – Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Bissau – by adding the name of its capital, calling the country Guinea Conakry. Ten million inhabitants from 24 ethnicities live in a territory without oil but rich in mineral resources, especially bauxite, diamonds and iron. These resources produced little wealth for the country until 2015, but in less than ﬁve years, this fragile nation has managed to perform what economists call a turnaround and the religious refer to as a miracle. One can debate whether the changes experienced by the Republic of Guinea involved divine intervention or wise political choices, but there is no controversy about the author of the change. The father of this revolution answers to the name of Alpha Condé, a character with a back story not dissimilar to that of Nelson Mandela, but who (in contrast to the South African leader) has not been particularly lauded in the international press. Before describing the life, work and ‘miracles’ of the current president of Guinea Conakry, however, it’s worth clarifying what has changed in the country over the last ﬁve years.
The most important change deals with money. A miniscule country afﬂicted ﬁrst by a ruinous period of dictatorship and then by Ebola has managed to attract investments from the international community in far greater quantities than that obtained by more promising countries. Guinea has signed various international cooperation and development deals, some of them quite signiﬁcant. Take the case of China, for example, a country that has been investing in Africa for many years as part of a long-term approach of economic expansionism (in contrast to the political or military form). Beijing signed an agreement with Guinea in September involving $20 million (€16mn) of infrastructure investment. But that was just the beginning. A few weeks ago, the Chinese multination TBEA closed a deal with Conakry to extract bauxite worth $2.89 billion (€2.32bn). Those are very large sums, but the deals also have huge strategic value. The agreement is, in fact, equivalent to a certiﬁcation of reliability. It is concrete proof for the world that the African country has re-established stability and deﬁnitively defeated Ebola. Along with the two Chinese deals, Alpha Condé also managed to close cooperation agreements for around $6 billion (€4.81bn) of aid, of which $500 million (€400m) came from France alone. It’s fair to say that investments are on the upswing.
The other major change has taken place on the domestic front. African history has taught us that post-dictatorial peace processes are often slow and marked by outbreaks of interethnic violence. Such clashes are almost always based on deeply rooted, simmering ethnic and territorial disputes. The Republic of Guinea is by no means immune to such tensions among the aforementioned 24 diﬀerent ethnic groups (with two main ones). The largest group is the Fula, constituting about 40% of the population, and the second largest group is the Mandinka at 30%. Alpha Condé belongs to the latter, and his success in bringing these two worlds together can be seen as a masterstroke. The historic divisions that were reignited during the military dictatorship almost represented a greater threat than Ebola. Alpha Condé, however, succeeded in mediating a solution. He made concessions, tamed the more extreme factions and showed balance. That he did so during a period in which the population was being devastated by Ebola (and the resulting isolation of the country) made his achievement even more remarkable and underlined the emergence of an extraordinary individual.
Alpha Condé has a personal story that reads like a novel. Descended from an ethnic group that was ravaged by the slave trade, his background is somewhat heroic. Condé was a refugee in France for 15 years. He has been involved in politics since he was young but was exiled from his homeland. His name appears again and again in the history of Guinea over the last 50 years, ﬁrst as a youngster, later as an adult and then as an old man. He has always been on the front line, has taken part in various elections and, until relatively recently, always lost. The military controlled the country and Lansana Conté, who seized power with a coup in 1984, resisted every attempt at change. Year after year, the goal of democracy became increasingly distant. Alpha Condé continued his battle and was arrested in 1998 following another controversial election that saw the undisputed victory of Lansana Conté. Alpha Condé was taken to jail along with 47 members of his party. A ferocious legal battle ensued that further split the country. Condé refused to answer the accusations, claiming that they were false and created as a pretext for his arrest. He was not freed until 2001, and then began his long march to victory and the ﬁrst free elections in 2010. The dictator Lansana Conté had died in 2008 but another military leader was his heir apparent. Nevertheless, Alpha Condé won the 2010 ballot with 52.5% of the votes. Tensions and unrest followed, but international observers declared the election to be legitimate. Condé became president at 72 years of age. It had taken a lifetime to achieve his goal, but from that moment on, all of his acumen as a politician and economist emerged but not without some stumbles along the way.
On 19 July 2011, Condé’s residence was bombed. He survived, but three of his men died. Just as he was beginning to tackle the economic issues, Ebola struck. But Condé didn’t give up. He appealed to the international community, confronted the epidemic and won. Following his re-election in 2015, he began to focus more intensely on the issue of paciﬁcation as well as economic questions. He also turned his hand to something at which he proved particularly adept: foreign policy. Mining scandals threatened, but he emerged unscathed. In January 2017, Condé was elected president of the African Union, a kind of international coronation. From that seat of power, he endeavoured to take the continent by the hand and walk together with it. His presidency had many positive features, but most notably, he provided a more widely shared political vision for the African continent, a legacy that he passed on to Paul Kagame in 2018.
I met Alpha Condé in 2015 in Djiblojo, where he was a guest at the inauguration of the new capital of Equatorial Guinea. In 2016, I was called upon as chairman to introduce him to the Italian business community during his state visit to Rome. He struck me as a man that never gives up. Thanks to him, it appears that Guinea Conakry has been reborn: free from Ebola and with an economy that is growing at an annual rate of 6% and inﬂation that has shrunk from 21% to 8%. It remains to be seen what this 80-year-old Mandinka former guerrilla will do in the latter stage of his life. It is not a simple choice because remaining in power would involve altering the constitution while leaving would risk the country going backwards. There is another African saying that states, “The young walk faster than the old, but it is the old that know the way”, and the roads of Guinea are not without hidden dangers.