“I think Conde is being pulled between his nationalist development agenda and the growing realization that he can’t take investor confidence for granted,” said Alexandra Reza, an analyst at consultancy Africa Practice.
However, international advisers say Guinea still stands to benefit by repudiating bad deals made under the “big man” rule of Conte, who seized power in a 1984 coup and died 24 years later, leaving an already impoverished Guinea even poorer per capita than he found it.
“By cleaning up, the government will gain credibility with reputable companies,” said Paul Collier, director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University and an occasional adviser in Guinean affairs. “The objective is not to get as much ore out of the ground as fast as possible. The Republic of Guinea’s objective is to ensure that when it does come out, it provides as much benefit as possible.”
Meanwhile, Guinea, with one of Africa’s richest natural endowments of iron ore, gold, bauxite and diamonds, remains shockingly poor, its treasures still mostly buried and its entire economy producing only about US$1.50 per person per day.
During half a century of one-man rule, first by former Guinean president Ahmed Sekou Toure and then by Conte, the authorities issued hundreds of overlapping mining permits, covering 110 percent of Guinea’s territory. Few of those projects ever materialized.
The Guinean Ministry of Mines, which oversees about 80 percent of the country’s mineral exports, is a four-story block decaying in the tropical heat along one of Conakry’s main avenues. On the street outside, scores of young people eke out a living hawking everything from batteries to bread.
Surrounded by piles of paperwork in one of Conakry’s rare high rise blocks, the head of Guinea’s newly formed state mining company does not hide his frustration.
“Over 1,500 firms have permits in this country to carry out mining activity in one form or another, but only about seven are in production,” former Guinean minister of mines Ahmed Kante said, speaking through power cuts that repeatedly plunged his corner office into darkness.
Appointed last year to head Soguipami, a holding company for state mining assets, Kante said only six mines had begun operating since Guinea became independent from France in 1958.
“We will not succeed if things continue like this, especially if only one mine comes onstream every decade,” he said.