As regional leaders gathered in Conakry on 2 October to celebrate Guinea’s 50 years of independence from France, on the other side of the capital, doctors emerging from a ten-day strike said when it comes to healthcare, there is little to celebrate.
“There has not been much progress in the health sector in Guinea over the past few decades. Health centres and hospitals still do not have enough equipment or staff. And we experience frequent difficulty in acquiring even basic life-saving medicines,” said government health adviser Dr. Sékou Doukouré.
“The public health sector lacks support staff such as nurses, lab technicians and midwives, and this has dire consequences on the population,” Doukouré added.
Even the few ambulances for use by the nations’ hospitals are in poor repair, or simply not running because hospitals cannot afford to fill their tanks.
In the capital’s Donka hospital, many patients said bribes are the only way to get care; health workers did not deny it and have said their salaries are too low.
Thousands of Guinean government health workers went on a 10-day strike on 8 September calling for salary increases and months of back-pay.
Union leaders have warned strikes can resume if the government does not improve working conditions for the country’s more than 7,000 public health workers.
“After 50 years of independence we do not understand why we are lagging behind neighbouring countries, Senegal, Mali, even Cote d'Ivoire or Liberia, which are emerging from war. Each Guinean should ask why are we not advancing, why is [development] blocked and ask what we can do about it,” said Hadja Rabiatou Serah Diallo, Secretary-General of the National Confederation of Workers of Guinea.
When it comes to other basic services, more than 60 percent of Guineans do not have access to running water, and about 40 percent of the country does not have regular electricity according to Guinean Electricity Board (EDG) figures.
Guinea ranked 160 out of 177 countries in the latest UN index measuring living conditions around the world.
Where is the money?
With up to half of the world’s known bauxite reserves, bauxite mining and aluminium operations bring in up to 80 percent of Guinea’s foreign exchange, and the World Bank estimates investments US$20 billion in the industry in Guinea over the next decade.
But most Guineans have not benefited significantly from the revenue thus far, according to Helage Suriba Sylla, president of the rural development committee in Kindia, 80km from the capital.
And some of this money may be swallowed by corruption. The 2008 international non-profit Transparency International’s corruption index ranked Guinea as the country with the seventh most corrupt image in the world.
The UN says this corruption is leaving the country open to international drug cartels cutting through its jungles and airport to reach North Africa and beyond.
Strikes have regularly rocked the country.
A nationwide work stoppage in January and February 2007 claimed more than 100 lives. The strike ended with the appointment of Prime Minister Lansana Kouyaté who was dismissed by the President in May 2008.
A year and a half after those deadly protests over the cost of living, residents are actually paying more for rice, which at 95 US cents a kilo as of early July 2008, was higher than almost every other city in West Africa, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).
Teachers went on strike in June 2008, while youths marched through Conakry in early September, burning car tires in protest of months of blackouts.
Thierno Diallo, student at the University of Conakry told IRIN most Guineans are tired of violence, and simply want their leaders to listen. “If [leaders] take this opportunity to tell the truth and to pull lessons from the past, things are sure to change here,” he said.
President Lansana Conté in a televised speech on 1 October recognised the country needed to take a new path, but stopped short of making promises or prescribing solutions. “Let’s act now, let’s take a stand to make our people happy…Gone are the days of speeches and promises. Today begins the record of achievements.”
But 68-year-old filmmaker Moussa Kémoko Diakité told IRIN Guinea has a long way to go to catch up with its colonial past, “During colonialism…Guinea produced enough rice to feed its entire population. We exported bananas, coffee, orange essence. Now, we are one of the most poor and hungry countries in the world.”