So I'm in Guinea this week.
Guinea is a small French-speaking country in West Africa, and it's not someplace I'd ever really planned on going. But that's the nature of this business, and (sometimes) its charm. The work is unexpected, too -- I'm contracting to the US Department of Defense this time, as part of a team that's assessing the needs of the civilian Ministry of Defense. (Turns out the Ministry of Defense has a lot of needs.)
My impressions of Guinea are pretty light, because this has been one of those assignments where I go from airport to hotel and then back and forth from hotel to Ministry, period. Well, sometimes that happens. The Embassy is discouraging Americans from wandering around Conakry alone just now.
Guinea is a poor place even by West African standards. That seems to be mostly for historical reasons. Way back in 1958, DeGaulle offered independence to the French colonies of West Africa... but on France's terms: monetary union and continuing French influence on their military and political structures. Most of the new nations -- Senegal, Mali, and the rest of them -- said yes. Guinea said "Non!" De Gaulle promptly withdrew all French assistance and colonial bureaucrats and technicians (who, by all accounts, sabotaged a fair amount of Guinea's infrastructure on the way out). Guinea was thrown on its own devices. It became sort of the Albania of West Africa -- Communist, isolationist, and fiercely nationalistic. Africa nerds may be aware of some of the odd bits of subsequent Guinean history (the Portuguese raid from nearby Guinea-Bissau in 1970, with the goal of killing the Guinean President), but we'll skip over a lot of that. They had a dictator for 26 years; he died; they got another dictator; the USSR collapsed; after 1991 their economy hit the skids; the second dictator abandoned socialism in the middle 1990s and gradually moved towards a mixed economy.
Then in late 2008 the second dictator died. A military junta immediately took over. The junta lasted a couple of years but couldn't stay in power, so they held elections. A guy who had been in opposition since forever -- like, the Nixon administration -- unexpectedly won. He's been president for a couple of years now. Guinea still doesn't have a legislature, but they do seem to be well embarked on a fragile, tentative transition to something like democracy.
So, the poor part: Guinea had all the standard socialist mismanagement problems on top of the usual African stuff. Like most West African countries, it exports just a couple of things (bauxite ore, corundum, a bit of coffee) and imports almost everything. It's not a member of WAEMU, the West African monetary union, and the Guinean franc is not exactly one of the world's harder currencies. Only about 10% of the country has electricity, and much of that irregularly. (The lights go out in our little hotel several times a day. There's a generator.)
To make things more complicated, Guinea is in one of the world's nastier geopolitical neighborhoods. Guinea has six neighbors and they all either have major problems, or have had them in the recent past. Senegal has a nasty separatist movement in its southern provinces, which border Guinea. Mali, as you probably know if you watch much TV, is having a civil war right now. Ivory Coast had a civil war the year before last. (France intervened in that one, too.) Sierra Leone and Liberia both saw protracted civil wars and horrifying bloodbaths in the last decade. And little Portuguese-speaking Guinea Bissau is basically a narco-kleptocracy, a corrupt and violent ministate run by gangsters and drug lords. So, a rough neighborhood.
Remarkably, despite all these regional problems, Guinea has remained a relative -- I probably should emphasize this -- relative island of peace and stability. There have been some unpleasant episodes, most notably in 2009 when the military junta responded to proests with mass shootings, lootings, and rapes. But compared to the last 20 years in Sierra Leone or Liberia, Guinea has on the whole been pretty pacific.
So what's it like? Well... tropical and hot. Conakry seems to be a vast sprawl of city without any perceptible downtown. (There are some big socialist ministry-looking buildings, but around them it's the same sprawl.) The people seem friendly enough. Everyone speaks French. The coffee at breakfast is pretty good for coffee in Africa. (Many African countries export the good stuff.) My hotel room doesn't have a toilet seat but one gets used to that. The hotel is owned by Lebanese; one of my teammates thinks they're likely Hezbollah folks doing a bit of money laundering. (My teammates are all former military intelligence guys and don't seem much given to macho fantasizing; this particular guy spent several years in Lebanon. So, maybe. He didn't seem too worried about it, so I guess I'm not either.)
I flew down here via Casablanca. Was recovering from a really nasty head cold (antibiotics, go), so the first day or so was a little blurry. Wish I had more chances to walk around, or at least look at a clear night sky -- I miss the tropical stars. But I have seen a lot of cool-looking lizards, and some no-kidding bald-headed vultures hanging out on the beach waiting for garbage, and those neat little West African weaver birds that make the little hanging ball-shaped nests.
I've been spending a lot of time every day with the Guinean military, who are, under the circumstances, pretty professional. They're surprisingly cool about the fact that they were running the country a few years ago and no longer are. (Yes, I understand that they may not be telling the foreigner how they really feel. But for the most part, they just don't seem that nostalgic for the golden years of junta rule.) They all shave their heads and speak good French. Most of them seem pretty sharp. Certainly they've been very patient with me.
I leave late tomorrow night, so if you have any questions about Guinea, ask now.