Semi-trucks in Guinea usually have some sort of good luck or inspirational phrase hand painted on the back of them, “God is good”, “Don’t forget Your Mother”, “Wide Load”, but the other day I saw one that really struck a chord with me: “Guinea is back”.
Since I arrived in Guinea almost a year ago, I’ve seen some remarkable changes in the country, especially in Kankan. And I started thinking maybe Guinea (whose GDP is currently less than my university’s endowment fund) really is back. To put this into context, allow me to briefly go over Guinea’s political history since independence. For those of you already familiar with this, feel free to skip my amateurish account of the past half century. Or read Designing West Africa by Peter Schwab, which does a much better job of this with fewer pop-culture references.
Guinea, or Guinea-Conakry, as it was referred to then, was one of the many French colonies in West Africa until 1958, when It gained its independence. In that year Charles De Gaulle, then President of France, offered French colonies political independence, on the condition they be basically cut off from paternalistic French aid, not unlike a young 20-something in the plot of many a 90s-sitcom. Guinea, under the leadership of Sekou Toure, was the only colony to accept these terms. The French left in a haste, bring their investment and infrastructure with them. Note that his is meant in the literal sense, as there are reports of power lines and railroads being ripped up and shipped out of the country with the French.
In a sitcom, this is when the newly independent, rebellious offspring would learn how to cook and do laundry with the help of a gang of wise, street-smart friends. Unfortunately, Guinea found itself friendless, although it did end up allying (to little gain) with communists states, most notably Cuba, bonding over their shared socialist governments. Led by Toure, who became increasingly paranoid and authoritarian as the years went on, Guinea started to fall behind its West African neighbors, who were being propped up monetarily by colonial powers in exchange for natural resources and markets where they could sell their products of industry. Neighboring Senegal, to go back to the overdone sitcom metaphor, was the prodigal son, attending an Ivy school on the parents’ money and emerging a refined socialite with all the opportunity in the world. So favored was the country, there was a time that Senegalese born in Dakar, the capital, were eligible for French citizenship.
Eventually Toure, who at this point was resembling more notorious African leaders (i.e. Mobutu, Moi), fell ill and passed away in Cleveland, Ohio. This was the first time Cleveland let down a crazed, egotistical leader, the next being in 2011 when Lebron left for Miami. Toure’s death left an inevitable power vacuum that was filled by a string of corrupt heads of state, leading to Alpha Conde, who is so far relatively clean, but not without his faults. Since his election, things have been somewhat stable, encouraging foreign investments and allowing Guinea to makes some major progress.
Anyways, back to my ‘semi’-inspired revelation that Guinea is back. As I said, there is a whole wave of change happening in the country. When I got to Kankan, I lived off a dirt road, used candles at night, and got my water from a well or borehole pump several houses away. Now, I can get almost anywhere on a paved road, have a fairly reliable 12 hours of electricity each night, and fill my buckets at a spigot right outside my house. There have been lots of other infrastructural improvements too: solar-powered street lights, street signs and “traffic cops” (pre-teen boys with rubber whips that stand at intersections and enforce the rules), renovations of the university and agricultural school, better cell phone service, WIFI at the local internet café. There has also just been a lot of general construction around. Someone once told me that construction sites are a sure sign of economic growth and I never took economics in school, so I’ll have to take their word for it. Regardless, it does seem to create opportunities for unskilled, paid labor, giving subsistence or smallholder farmers (generally one of the poorest demographics) a chance to earn a little extra something during the off-season.
For Kankan, I think the most important development in electricity, however not because people have a lot of appliances or electronics (most just have a light bulb and maybe charge a cell phone). I’ve heard that Kankan is a lot like Bamako, the nearest, comparatively developed commercial center and capital of Mali, but ten years ago, before electricity. With electricity, manufacturing and industry enterprises appeared in Bamako and a booming tourism industry started up. Now there are hospitals, grocery stores, and international universities. This has already started in Kankan, with the opening of a new, more mechanized and hygienic bakery. With the coup in Mali, study abroad groups have discussed moving their Bamako programs to Kankan, and one already has! To say that a university believes Guinea stable enough for its students is a lot, not to mention it helps put Guinea on the map (and not as the partner isle of Papua in the Pacific, which is where most people, including the US Postal Service, believe it to be).
*I wanted to put a picture of the electricity in my house here, but the Google server in Guinea is being uncooperative.
Guinea is clearly in a stage of growth, pretty amazing considering the current global economy, but it is not in the clear yet. The country is still waiting for its parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2011, pushed back to July 2012 and currently under a deadline for the end of this year. the delay has the opposition party, and some members of the international community, crying unfair play and it is still unclear whether elections will actually happen before the end of 2012. Nto to mention charges of corruption sprinkled through all levels of the government, alleged ethnic nepotism and increased military presence.
As unfortunately tends to be the case in many countries, the two main political parties are strictly aligned with the two larges ethnic groups, the Peuls (opposition party) and the Malinke (currently in power under Alpha Conde). This makes it infinitely easier for politicians to whip people into a fervor and carries the added risk of political action quickly turning into simple ethnic violence. A lesser form of this has been taking place in Conakry over the past couple weeks, which protests and boycotts by the opposition party, culminating in riots and the death of an opposition protester. The Washington Post had an article on the protests, (although its focus on the ethnic issue is a bit much, in my opinion) for those that are interested.
This is not to say Guinea is on the verge of political revolution. Not at all. If anything, the fact that opposition protests are allowed to happen shows Guinea is giving democracy a fair chance. Given that things calmed after the riots, when they could just as easily have escalated following the death of a protester further proves this point. For the moment, Guineans want to remain a stable country, enabling them to continue this progress they are enjoying. In the end, it seems the real question is not if Guinea is back, but if it is here to stay.