I have a soft spot in my heart for countries with Guinea in the name.
Being poor and small is hard enough. To then have to share a name with a notoriously docile rodent and ethnic slur for Italians just doesn’t seem fair. It’s as if the universe doomed these countries to failure.
First, there’s Papua New Guinea. This Pacific Island nation is a place of rugged beauty, decorative penis sheaths (Google “koteka” if you’re curious), and extreme cultural diversity. There are more than 800 native languages in Papua New Guinea — roughly 10 percent of the world’s languages.
Yet Papua New Guinea is known to most of the world, if at all, for cannibalism.
Then there’s Equitorial Guinea. This tiny country in West Africa’s geographic armpit has one of the highest per capita GDP’s in the world, yet one of the lowest standards of living in the world. Why? Because a corrupt tiny elite have become gazillionaires from the country’s oil while the rest of the population lives in pre-modern poverty.
Up the coast a bit is Guinea-Bissau. A Portuguese colony until 1973, its primary industry, if you can call it an industry, is cashew nut production. It shouldn’t surprise you that the International Monetary Fund ranks Guinea-Bissau as the fifth poorest country in the world. The coffee mug full of coins on my desk contains more money than most residents of Guinea-Bissau will earn in a year.
Immediately to Guinea-Bissau’s south is another Guinea, the Republic of Guinea (known as just Guinea). A former French colony, Guinea is roughly seven times as large as Guinea-Bissau. It’s also much wealthier. It has gold, diamonds, terrific farmland, and plenty of fresh water. It’s also home to the world’s largest known reserves of bauxite, the mineral ore from which aluminum is extracted. If you drive a car, ride a bicycle, eat a burrito, or make foil swans, you’re supporting the Guinean economy.
Sadly, you’re not doing much to help the Guinean people.
Just like pretty much every other country whose economy is dominated by natural resources, Guinea’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small few. The U.N.’s 2008 Human Development Index, which ranks countries by health, wealth and education levels, ranks Guinea 160 out of 177 countries. It ranks just above Rwanda, aka the country that recently had a genocide that left approximately 20 percent of the population there dead.
On Oct. 2, 2008, the day Guinea’s government commemorated the 50th anniversary of its independence from French Colonial rule, the BBC people in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, were shouting “50 years of poverty!” Sensing the country was ripe for revolution, a group of junior officers from Guinea’s military pulled off a successful military coup upon the death of longtime military dictator Lansana Conté.
Led by the handsome Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara, the coup leaders were popular at first — in part because they promised democratic elections in which Camara vowed not to run. The captain also did something fans of Judge Judy would appreciate: He dragged officials from the prior regime onto national television and interrogated them about their corruption. Among other gems, Camara got the son of the previous dictator to reveal the nuts and bolts of how Colombian drug cartels use Guinea to smuggle cocaine to Europe.
Like it always seems to do, however, power quickly went to Camara’s red-beret-covered head. He now says he’s gonna run for president to do God’s work. And last month, soldiers from Camara’s guard massacred pro-democracy protesters in Conakry’s football stadium. About 150 people were killed, and there are multiple reports of soldiers raping female protesters in the middle of the stadium.
In an interview with France 24 news that was reminiscent of Barbet Schroeder’s ultra-creepy documentary about Uganda's ultra-creepy former dictator Idi Amin, Camara declared himself “father of the nation” and blamed the massacre on rogue elements within the army. He also made it clear that he has no intention of giving up power.
And why should he? With firms like the China International Fund signing multibillion-dollar mining deals with the government, president of Guinea is a good job to have.
It’s hard out there for a Guinea.