Previously a French colony, Guinea (or The Republic of Guinea as it is officially known), is a small country of just over 10 million people located on the West coast of Africa. Declared independent in 1958 its history since then has been dominated by autocratic rulers, human rights abuses, economic instability and corruption. Following a coup d’état in 2008 the military junta eventually agreed to hand over power to civilian rule but it took another two years before elections were actually held. Alpha Condé, of the Rally of the Guinea People Party, became president in 2010 and was given the mandate to deal with corruption.
Guinea stands 154 out of 174 in the most recent Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (2012). While this is a slight improvement on recent years it is plainly not good and from what I witnessed Condé’s got a long way to go. Admittedly, my experiences (more on those below!) were small fry compared with the corruption that has been stifling the country’s huge economic potential. Despite being hugely rich in natural resources including diamonds, copper, uranium, gold and, most significantly, iron ore, these raw materials have yet to be utilised and this is largely considered to be due to the extremely corrupt nature of high level officials. The scandal relating to mining rights to the Simandau Mountains – home to one of the largest iron ore deposits in Africa and which could be worth 140 billion US dollars over the next 40 years – is a case in point. It is alleged that following illegal payments to government officials, a large share of the rights were stripped from Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto and handed to the Israeli-owned BSG Resources – a strange move since, unlike Rio Tinto, BSGR had extremely limited iron ore mining experience. BSGR subsequently sold a large share of the rights to Brazilian mining company Vale for a huge profit. President Condé is trying to cancel the contract saying it was obtained by corruption, but BSGR denies any illegal payments were made. The FBI are currently investigating. The resources remain largely unexploited.
It is clear that Guinea has long suffered from corruption at the highest level, but during my recent trip to Conakry I realised that the corruption extends all the way down to the lowest level. Arriving into the airport at Guinea’s capital, Conakry, in the early hours I was quite relieved to get through immigration without too much hassle, having read stories of immigration police denying people entry who have a perfectly good visa. However, on my way out of the airport an armed man in uniform approached me saying he would escort me to the car park. I told him it was unnecessary but he insisted. He then also tried to insist I give him “20 for customs”. While I have been asked for ‘tips’ following unwanted help countless times when travelling, this felt more menacing -I was being told, not asked. Nevertheless, I had noticed that people in the car park were watching so I took my chances and walked past him. He didn’t take it further.
Since my airport pick up from the hotel hadn’t appeared I had to use one of the dubious-looking taxis available. I had been told that generally Conakry is safe during the daytime, but that at night it can be quite dangerous and driving from the airport to the hotel there was certainly an uneasy feel about the place. We passed a security checkpoint where it is customary for the police to ask drivers for a bribe if they don’t want things to become difficult. While this is nominal it apparently increases five-fold if the ‘law enforcers’ have been drinking. My driver paid up.
As we approached the hotel, located at the tip of the peninsula on which Conakry lies, the streets became very quiet but suddenly a man came from nowhere running towards us, shouting in French. The driver stopped the taxi and the next thing I knew we were surrounded by five armed guards in military uniform pointing their guns at the car, shouting orders in French. At this point I was wishing I had paid more attention to languages in school. It transpired that the driver had entered a no-go zone next to the ‘head of state police building’. After 20 minutes of the taxi driver reasoning with the guards they let us go on our way. I have been in some uncomfortable situations before during my trips, but that was definitely the first time five guns were pointed towards me.
The rest of my trip to Guinea went relatively smoothly, apart from when my driver ran out of petrol on the way to the airport, which was another first for me! Conakry is a vibrant port city teeming with colour and activity, and I found the local people to be incredibly friendly and welcoming, even if a lot of the time I couldn’t understand what they were actually saying. As with a number of large cities in West Africa the choice of imported goods available in the shops is better than you might think and the supermarkets, although expensive, stock many of the international brands typically purchased by expatriates. There are even some high-end boutique shops, where I found a genuine Mattel branded scrabble board game, although it would set you back $110US. Finding a specialist item like this in West Africa is always strangely satisfying, although you do wonder how long it has been sitting on the shelf!
Unfortunately when leaving Guinea I was reminded of the ugly side to the country: Both when going through security and leaving immigration I was asked for some ‘pocket money’ and threatened with being held up if I didn’t comply. It’s a sobering thought that the officials searching bags at security are not only taking but actively seeking bribes, but unfortunately corruption seems to be deeply ingrained within Guinean society.
To read more about the negative impact that corruption at all levels can have on a country’s economy I recommend reading my colleague Andy’s blog post: The many costs of corruption.
Hugh is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.