Guineans find themselves poorer under democracy

The Associated Press
Monday, March 7, 2011; 10:20 AM

CONAKRY, Guinea -- Even as a dictator plundered the country's mineral wealth for years, Karim Conte still could afford to buy medicine for his sick relatives and a new outfit for his wife to wear during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

So when Guineans chose their first democratically elected leader ever last year, Conte thought life could only improve. Instead prices have since spiraled out of control, adding to the misery in this West African country where people have long suffered through colonialism, despotic rule and coups.

"I've banished meat, fish and chicken from my diet because these staples have now become luxuries for Guineans," the 62-year-old father of 14 said. "When my wife asks me if I feel like eating meat, I pretend like I didn't hear her. If she insists, I pretend to be sick because I don't want her to know that I can't afford it."

Analysts blame previous misrule by a military junta that seized power in 2008 and printed extra money just to pay the government's bills. Others say price-gouging by worried merchants is only making matters worse.

Now the financial despair sweeping Guinea threatens to further inflame the country's ethnic tensions that were exposed during the election and its aftermath: Some blame the skyrocketing prices on members of an ethnic group whose candidate lost the historic vote, although misrule and theft by past leaders is a major factor.

Even new President Alpha Conde has said he will fight the Peul businessmen who funded his opponent's campaign, calling them "an economic mafia that is impoverishing our country."

Rare are the families who eat three meals a day now. A sack of 50-kilogram (110-pound) sack of rice used to cost 150,000 Guinean francs ($20) before the runoff election.

That has spiked by 60 percent to 240,000 francs ($32) since Conde took office on Dec. 21. A 30-kilogram (66-pound) carton of sugar now costs twice as much - rising from 250,000 ($34) to 500,000 francs ($67).

Ibrahima Keita has two wives and 10 children to feed and send to school on a monthly salary of 680,000 francs ($91) working for a private security firm. That won't even buy him three bags of rice now.

"I told my wives they must go to work if they want to feed their children," he said dejectedly. "Me, I can no longer do it."

Guinea is the world's largest producer of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum, and also produces diamonds and gold. Yet its mineral wealth has been siphoned off through misrule since independence from France in 1958.

And like many former colonies in Africa, Guinea's economy is still dependent on importing even basic goods after decades of trade designed to benefit only the economies of the European colonizers. That has left Guinea vulnerable to currency fluctuations.

The country's finances were left in ruins after nearly a quarter-century of rule by Lansana Conte, who pillaged state coffers to make his family fabulously wealthy. In 2006, Guinea was named the most corrupt country in Africa by watchdog Transparency International.

After Conte's death in late 2008, a military junta seized power and fueled inflation by printing extra money. The country's military strongman ordered the central bank to send a truck full of cash each week to the barracks from which he ran the country before he went into exile after surviving an assassination attempt. An interim government paved the way for November's historic vote.

"The catastrophic management of the transition killed the Guinean economy," said financial analyst Thierno Saidou Diakite. "Our money is drying up ... The military took all the currency reserves."

Oumar Barry, financial controller at Pride Finances Guinee which extends microcredit loans to many Guineans, says the food price crisis is leaving many unable to repay their debts.

And in some cases, that anger is being targeted at Peul tradesmen, whose candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo was defeated by Conde in the November vote.

"The price is lowered if it's a Peul client who has come to buy, but if it's a Malinke, a Soussou or a Forestier the Peul merchant triples the price," complained Cheick Oumar Keita.

Mamadou Taha, a Peul businessman who imports electronics, said his fellow merchants fear Conde's new government is anti-Peul and so they're simply trying to protect themselves against financial uncertainty.

"They have sold the merchandise that they had stockpiled and have put the money in foreign banks," he said. "It's not malicious - it's to protect the goods."

In an attempt to avert chaos, the new Guinean government is importing rice and recruiting people to sell it until things stabilize though it's unclear how long they can keep that going.

"The change promised by President Alpha Conde will come somehow or other. Nothing is going to stop us," Commerce Minister Mohamed Dorval Doumbouya declared on national radio and television.

Meanwhile, Guineans skip meals and dread having to turn down requests for help from those who depend on them.

"Now when a member of the family sends me a medical bill, I run to borrow money so that I can save face so that I don't lose the authority I have within my family," Karim Conte confided. "It's not easy."

© 2011 The Associated Press