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The multiple dimensions of the Guinean crisis
Jean-Bernard Veron

Guinea has frequently found itself at the centre of complex humanitarian agendas, essentially linked to crises in the neighbouring countries of Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. But in recent years, the country’s own internal fragility has come to the fore. Whereas sub-regional crises appear to have been resolved, apart from Ivory Coast, Guinea is at the crossroads.

For years, the Gulf of Guinea sub-region suffered from internal conflict of the most horrendous kind: child soldiers in Liberia, political amputations in Sierra Leone, etc. Guinea appeared to be a haven of calm, providing refuge to hundreds of thousands of refugees. But the political heritage of the Sékou Touré period and the difficult road towards development left the country more vulnerable to crises so that it remained on the humanitarian radar long after the refugees had gone, while the development sector began to have doubts about the effects of its practices in this country which spans Fouta Djalon, extensive forests and mangrove coasts.

Guinea is currently at a difficult turning point in its history. There is great hope on the part of the Guinean population and the international community that there will be a successful crisis resolution. At the same time, there is uncertainty both about the short term future and how the political transition will unfold and about long term prospects and the numerous and difficult challenges of economic and social development.

A number of immediate risk factors exist. These are: political, in connection with electoral campaigns; security-related, due to the indiscipline of certain sections of the armed forces; ethnic, due to the fragmentation of the country; and, related to popular discontent, due to the very poor standard of living. It is very positive that these have not, as yet, destabilised the country.

That said, the current focus on short term features of the Guinean crisis means that the country’s fundamental characteristics, which can only be dealt with in the long term, are not being addressed.

* The first of these fundamental characteristics is lack of development. Despite favourable natural conditions (good hydrography and climate for agriculture and mineral resources), the country has failed to find a way of exploiting them to achieve robust economic growth and improve people’s standard of living (more than half the population lives below the poverty line). GDP per capita has been stagnant for a long period as the rates of economic and demographic growth are almost the same.

What is more, in addition to performing poorly, the economy is unbalanced and badly coordinated between sectors. Though three quarters of the population are involved in crop and livestock farming, these only represent a quarter of GDP. Productivity and, by extension, average income, are low. By contrast, only around 15 000 people work in the mining industry, but it represents another quarter of GDP. Its impact on the rest of the economy is weak, apart from producing currency and generating income for public finances. Moreover, the fact that the state budget depends so heavily on this activity creates macro-economic instability when prices fall on the world market.

* The second fundamental characteristic of the country is the major social inequality that exists alongside economic inequality. Firstly, there is inequality between cities and the countryside. Though half of the Guinean population lives under the poverty line, the rate is 24% in cities and 60% in rural areas. Secondly, there is inequality between the different regions that make up the country, to the detriment of Upper Guinea, which is on the border with Mali, and of Guinée Forestière which is bordered by Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Thirdly, access to basic services (energy, water, transport, education and health) is not only poorer than in the other countries of the sub-region, there is also a clear disparity within the country to the detriment of rural areas and peripheral provinces.

These inequalities, which leave people feeling “abandoned” by the central government, create frustration and lead to violent protest, therefore increasing political instability. This was the case in 2006 and at the beginning of 2007 when protest movements became insurrectionary.

Inequalities also lead to a continual stream of migrants from rural areas to the cities (and particularly to Conakry) which do not have the capacity to meet the needs created in terms of employment or services. This results in a high level of urban unemployment and under-employment and the marginalisation of the newly arrived population, the majority of whom are young. It is clear that such absence of socio-economic integration could be a major destabilising factor in the long term.