THE main road from the Sierra Leone border to Guinea’s capital is lined with more than just potholes. Armed men sit in the shade at makeshift checkpoints and take turns to extort money from passers-by. Despite all the correct paperwork, your correspondent was robbed eight times in under an hour. “Your bag looks suspicious,” said one guard, clasping his Kalashnikov. It was just a bag full of dirty laundry, but the guard shook his head. Clearly stinky socks were a threat to national security. Fortunately, he had a solution. “Give me 40,000 francs ($4.50),” he said.
Despite appearances, Guinea has grown less corrupt under Alpha Condé, who has been president since 2010. In the year he was elected the country ranked a woeful 164th out of 178 countries on an index of corruption compiled by Transparency International, a watchdog. Now high-level graft has ebbed a bit. By 2017 Guinea had moved up to 148th, grabby border police notwithstanding.
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Cleaning up has not been easy. A graft-busting treasury chief was assassinated by men in military uniform in 2012. And activists complain that high-ranking officials are never prosecuted for taking backhanders. “The only people [in prisons] have stolen chickens,” says Frédéric Loua, founder of Same Rights for All, a human-rights group.
Surrounded by ornate swords in his palace, Mr Condé says his country is a better place. The former dissident and political prisoner has a point. Guinea’s previous leaders were a brutal bunch. They included Ahmed Sékou Touré, a deranged despot who ruled for 26 years, and a string of grotesquely corrupt military juntas whose soldiers raped and massacred opposition supporters. Civilian rule under Mr Condé has been more peaceful.
Economic growth is picking up, too. It hit 6.7% last year, helped by a boom in mining as well as the government’s genuine efforts to attract investment. Even so, despite vast mineral wealth, Guinea is desperately poor, with a GDP of little more than $800 per person, about half the region’s average.
People are losing patience. Thousands have taken to the streets to complain about poor pay, a lack of electricity, police brutality and allegations of voter fraud in the recent local elections. At least 15 people have died in clashes in the past two months.
Given Guinea’s ethnic tensions, this is ominous. The president’s party, the Rally of the Guinean People (RPG), is dominated by the Malinké group, who are about 35% of the population. The largest opposition party, the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), mainly come from the Peul group, roughly 40% of the country. Many Peul feel they have been discriminated against by the Condé government. The UFDG says that dozens of Peul have been killed by the security forces. Instead of calming tensions, some politicians are encouraging their supporters to “break the mouths” of the opposition.
Mr Condé dismisses such concerns: “Flemings and Walloons in Belgium…find it hard to live together but nobody talks about it. They talk about ethnicity only for Africa.” Some worry that Mr Condé will try to change the constitution so that he can run for a third term in 2020. That would surely provoke violence in the street. Yet Mr Condé refuses to scotch the rumour. It is “the Guinean population’s decision, not mine”, he tells The Economist. He also argues that African presidents should not have term limits, because these get in the way of them carrying out ambitious long-term projects. Ordinary Africans have heard this line before.
Outside the palace, a car trundles past with loudspeakers singing presidential praise. “Alpha Condé is the father of the nation. Alpha Condé is the husband to all the women.” Mr Condé has indeed moved the country on from its dark days. But he should know when to let go.