The European Union and Guinea signed a deal on Friday to turn the spigot on EU aid for the first time in four years, but transparency and economic issues still dog the country’s creaking post-socialist economy, and the aid will not dent the main concerns of powerful unions that called strikes twice this year.
EU aid to Guinea was frozen in 2002 over concerns about the state of democracy in the poor West African country, and blocked completely after roundly criticised presidential elections in 2003 returned septuagenarian President Lansana Conte to power.
In 2005, the government ended decades of state control over information by setting up independent media outlets and earlier this month founded an independent electoral commission, meeting two of the EU’s main criteria.
On Friday, it was agreed that 117 million euros - the ninth tranche of Guinea’s European Development Fund (EDF) money - will hit Guinea’s accounts next year. A tenth, larger disbursement, depends on Guinea’s meeting the final EU condition by holding “free and fair” legislative elections in spring 2007.
|Map of Guinea
"Ninety one percent of this money will go into infrastructure development", Mamady Conde, Guinea’s foreign minister told IRIN, and almost all of that will be ploughed into roads.
"We also attach priority to water and electricity because they are essential to improving the peoples' lives" he said, but added that Spanish and Japanese development assistance would be tapped for those sectors.
Development officials have compared Guinea’s run-down public infrastructure to that found in post-conflict countries. The disintegration of the only road which links Guinea’s second largest city Nzerekore in the remote southeast to Conakry triggered a major protest in the 500,000-strong city in November.
In the capital Conakry, a sprawling palm tree-fringed maze of shacks, gutted buildings and rutted tracks, things are not much better. Electricity is rarely on even in government buildings. Hunger, violent crime, diseases and unemployment are all soaring among ordinary cash-strapped Guineans.
Transparency still a problem
The EU's democracy-tied money will not address the governance problems that diplomats, donors and civil society blame for Guinea’s economy barely registering 2 percent growth this year, despite billions of dollars of investment in the country’s valuable iron and bauxite mines, and for worsening living conditions for the poorest.
“The real priority is to fight corruption and increase the level of governance, then the economy would work better and there would be more money for education and health services,” a senior western diplomat said.
Since March 2005, when the government liberalised its foreign exchange market, the local currency’s value has plummeted, meaning prices for imported goods like rice and textiles have soared. Even small purchases now require armloads of cash.
High global oil prices have contributed to a tripling of pump prices and inflation is still hovering around 31 percent.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2000 offered to drop US $545 million of Guinea’s debt under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. However, the IMF’s offer is tied to the country’s financial management and transparency - conditions which the Fund deems unmet.
“Our objective is to make sure some of the resources flow to the poor,” the IMF’s Guinea representative Alvin Hilaire said.
Strikes could turn nasty
Striking Guineans protesting inflation and high oil prices ground the capital city Conakry to a halt twice in 2006. The main plank of the union’s demands to the country’s government is that energy prices should be cut and inflation curbed.
“An ordinary worker still cannot afford to have an education, or to educate his children, or have running water in his house,” Rabiatou Serah Diallo, secretary-general of the National Federation of Guinean Workers and a mastermind of the strikes, told IRIN in an exclusive interview in late November.
|Rabiatou Serah Diallo, union leader, doesn't rule out more strikes
Union leader Diallo refused to rule out the possibility of more strikes, while other civil society leaders have warned that as the strikes appeal has extended far beyond union members, there is a risk the movement could easily spiral out of control.
A strike in November 2005 turned violent when protestors clashed with security forces and smashed up cars and taxis. Then in June 2006, the government confirmed 11 dead across the country after strike-related clashes between college students and police. International human rights groups put the toll at between 13 and 21 dead.
“The corruption and failure of public services we see in Guinea now looks very much like what we saw in the pre-conflict period in Liberia and Sierra Leone,” warned the Conakry-based secretary general of the Mano River Union regional organisation, Aliou Diallo.
“If the government continues to ignore civil society, it is completely plausible that there will be an uncontrollable uprising because everyone agrees this situation cannot go on.”
Diplomats say another question mark hangs over how the government and the military will orchestrate a transition when the ageing and ailing Conte dies.
“Other countries have come undone over far less,” a second western diplomat in Conakry told IRIN last month. “Guinea is a country on the brink, but of what we are not sure.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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