November 2, 2006 | World Defense Review

The Coming Chaos in Guinea

Getting the outside world to focus on the current terrorist and other security challenges in Africa is a difficult enough task (see last week's discussion of the ongoing Somali crisis). Directing any significant attention to possible crises, irrespective of their potential for global impact, is an almost quixotic quest. Yet a minimal investment in early warning systems and conflict prevention, even if they are only ultimately activated in a small portion of cases, yields a solid return for international order in general and the national interests of the United States in particular in an increasingly strategic part of the world.

An example is the West African country of Guinea. While most Americans have probably either never heard of it or confuse it for Papua New Guinea, chances are that there are more products in their homes containing inputs from raw Guinean materials than those of almost any other nation.

Guinea not possesses only some of the world's highest quality bauxite ore, but almost one-third of the world's total recoverable bauxite deposits.

Guinea supplies nearly 50 percent of North America's bauxite imports. Bauxite ore contains aluminum oxide (alumina), which is extracted through a refining process. Refined alumina is the primary ingredient for aluminum smelting, approximately two tons of alumina producing a ton of finished aluminum. Given the metal's light weight, resistance to corrosion, high strength, and environmentally-friendly recyclability, aluminum is a humble, but utterly essential, component in modern economies.

Last Friday's closing spot price on the London Metals Exchange of $2,761 per metric ton represents a 40 percent increase over the previous year, an astonishing, but not surprising, growth given the insufficient worldwide production capacity and the increased in demand in developing economies like China's, where alumina imports have increased tenfold in the last decade.

Consequently, after a number of years of industry consolidation in which stalwart American firms like Kaiser Aluminum and Alcan divested themselves of alumina assets, leaving Alcoa the only major U.S.-based player, American companies are again jumping back into the competition for this strategic material. Last year, for example, GAPCO (Guinea Aluminum Products Corporation) of New York began construction of a $2 billion alumina refinery near Boké, Guinea, which will produce 2.6 million tones of the oxide when it comes on line in 2008.

Despite all of this – or, rather, perhaps because of all this – Guinea is, as I testified to a Congressional subcommittee earlier this year, both the most ignored country and, potentially, the most critical one in the West African subregion as it faces the end of the long tenure at the helm of President Lansana Conté, a septuagenarian military officer who suffers from acute diabetes, leukemia, and a host of other known maladies, and who nowadays rarely ventures from his stronghold in his native village of Dubreka.

One month ago, for the first time since he seized power twenty-two years ago, General Conté missed the October 2 independence day festivities, unleashing speculation about the his future and that of his country.

The wealth of its alumina-rich bauxite deposits notwithstanding, Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than half of its 9.7 million people subsisting on less than $1 a day. Over the course of the last year, rampant inflation has pushed the prices of such imported commodities as are still available in the markets of the capital, Conakry, out of the reach of most families. For example, a 50-kilogram bag of rice, the basic staple, currently costs about 180,000 Guinean francs (approximately $33), roughly the equivalent of a mid-level civil servant's monthly salary.

Complicating the situation, the collapse of a bridge on the only road linking the major commercial center in the country's southeastern forest region, N'Zérékoré, with the capital has effectively cut off its 2 million inhabitants from supplies of bananas, palm oil, and other domestically produced food products.

The regime has responded to unrest caused by the rising cost of living with brute and occasionally deadly force. As the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted in a report released in August, security forces have fired directly into crowds of unarmed labor unionists, students, and other demonstrators while scores of bystanders were severely beaten and robbed at gunpoint by soldiers and police. The report also detailed allegations of mistreatment and torture of those taken into police custody.

Meanwhile, increasingly erratic actions on the part of the government seem to betray an underlying sense of insecurity on the part of those around General Conté. For example, just after the October 2 independence day ceremonies missed by the president, Minister of Information Aboubacar Sylla suspended indefinitely Ibrahima Sory Dieng and Alhassane Souaré, respectively managing director and editor-in-chief of the state-owned Horoya newspaper for failure to run a photograph of General Conté alongside a speech he ostensibly delivered in commemoration of the 48th anniversary of the country's break with its French colonial rulers.

Ten days later, an October 14 presidential decree recalled ten of Guinea's ambassadors abroad, including those in Canada, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Ghana, Iran, Japan, and Switzerland. Add to this list the vacancies at the embassies in Beijing, Brussels, Rabat, and Washington, and one wonders at the “logic” behind increasing diplomatic isolation at this critical moment in the country's history.

A day later, another presidential decree dismissed Minister of Economic and Financial Control Kemo Charles Zognelemou and Minister Youth and Sports Fodé Soumah. While no explanation was given for this cabinet shuffle – the second since relatively reform-minded Prime Minister Cellou Dalein Diallo was sacked in April – many see the hand of the increasingly powerful Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Fodé Bangoura.

While the situation should be relatively contained as long as President Conté lives, all bets are off for the power vacuum that is expected to follow his eventual demise. Analysts are divided on whether having the largest standing military in its neighborhood will exacerbate or mitigate the coming chaos. Guinea is, after all, a prime target for one or another insurgency group because of long-simmering ethnic tensions between the currently ruling Sousou (20 percent of the population), the Malinké of its eastern forest region (30 percent of the population), and the Peul of its northwestern Fouta Djallon highlands (about 40 percent of the population). The latter, in particular, having been essentially cut off from sources of power since independence, have in recent years become increasingly radicalized by Islamist clerics imported from the Middle East courtesy of the same Muslim “charities” that have sown the seeds of conflict across the globe.

Part of the problem is that General Conté's personal political strategy has consisted primarily of a Machiavellian balance between ethnic favoritism and cynical manipulation of competing forces within his privileged inner circle.

In all likelihood, this delicate balance will come undone when he dies or becomes permanently incapacitated and the country will face three concentric waves of conflict. First will come personal competition for power among members of the ruling civilian oligarchy, including those allied with Conté's two most prominent wives, Henriette, a portly member of Guinea's small, but influential, Catholic minority (her uncle is the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Conakry), and Kadidiatou, a Muslim former Miss Guinea on whose behest her husband has banned beauty contests (lest anyone succeed to her title).

Then there will be a contest of military strength between 400-strong Presidential Guard (the “berets rouges”), based in the capital, and two 800-strong “ranger” battalions, one trained and equipped by U.S. Special Forces between 2000 and 2002 and based in N'Zérékoré, and one trained by the People's Republic of China in 2003 and based in Kankan.

While observers generally favor the U.S.-trained unit in any direct confrontation, that battalion is now physically cut off from the capital with the bridge collapse compounding the 1,000-kilometer distance. Finally a third power struggle will pit the berets rouges and other elite units as well as the military high command, almost all of whom are ethnic Sousou and indeed from the president's extended family and village, against others who have seen their economic, political, and military advancement blocked because they are not Sousou.

Given cross-border ethnic solidarity – for example, the interrelations of the Guinean Malinké with the Liberian Mandingo and Ivorian Dyula – once the post-Conté conflicts begin, they could quickly spiral into a national and regional conflagration, threatening progress in other countries in the subregion, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, and exacerbating ongoing conflicts in others like Côte d'Ivoire.

There are no easy solutions to problems which run as deep as those of Guinea, the roots of whose malaise reach past the current regime back to the brutal Marxist independence leader Ahmed Sékou Touré's rebuff of the West in favor of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

While grappling with this little-known, but very complex, situation cannot be done on the cheap, the U.S. and its international partners (including the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States) will find that the costs of having to deal with another massive humanitarian crisis will require far greater resources than a modest amount of preventive engagement today – not just in terms of human costs, but also in terms of shocks to the global economy of even greater increases in spot prices for a commodity vital to modern industry like alumina.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.