Often referred to as Guinea-Conakry to distinguish itself from nearby Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea, as well as the Pacific Island nation of Papua New Guinea, the West African nation of Guinea has an abundance of the world’s most valuable natural resources. Even though the country has “natural affluence,” it is one of the poorest and least-developed nations in the world.
Guinea has struggled with political instability and endemic corruption since its independence from France in 1958. Despite the country’s poor infrastructure, there is a significant foreign presence in Guinea. Countries are mostly competing for its mineral resources, such as gold, diamonds, bauxite, and iron ore. The United States, along with other foreign powers, vies for access to these resources and for the ability to influence the country’s government.
Tamakènè: A Microcosm of Foreign Competition
The village of Tamakènè, located in northwestern Guinea, is a classic example of foreign competition in Africa. Located six kilometers north of the city of Boké and between the profitable bauxite mines at Kamsar and Sangaredi, Tamakènè is home to L’Institut Supérieur des Mines et Géologie de Boké (ISMGB), Guinea’s mining and geology university. The region is known for bauxite, the main ore used in the production of aluminum. Over a quarter of the world’s high-grade bauxite reserves are in Guinea, and in 2017, Guinea surpassed Australia as China’s primary source.
There are over 20 foreign companies conducting mining operations in Guinea, but three companies dominate the industry: Chinese-backed Société des Mines de Boké (SMB), Russian-owned RUSAL, and Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG). CBG is 49 percent owned by the Guinean government and 51 percent owned by the international (American and Anglo-Australian) consortium Halco Mining. France’s Alliance Minière Responsable (AMR) also joined the foreign companies vying for a share of the profits from Guinea’s vast bauxite reserves, starting bauxite production operations in 2017 and agreeing to sell the entirety of its output to Chinese SMB. In addition, the French transportation and logistics company United Mining Supply (UMS) is an SMB stakeholder, along with Singapore’s Winning Shipping.
While the People’s Republic of China is currently the principal global competitor of the United States, Beijing is not the only foreign presence in Guinea, or the rest of Africa for that matter. The Russian Federation does not wield the same economic clout on the continent as China, but with its private military companies/contractors (PMCs) and increased military presence, Moscow has the potential to negatively affect U.S. national security. A growing Turkish presence in Africa also raises security concerns. France’s longstanding hand in the affairs of its former colonies, along with its counter-terrorism efforts, contributes to instability in countries such as Guinea.
Guinea: Forever Influenced by Foreign Actors
Guinea has a tumultuous political history, beginning with a period of frosty relations with France when it became the only former French colony in Africa to reject Paris’ offer to integrate into the French overseas community. At the time, Guinea was widely “considered to have the richest potential of France’s African colonies” due to its fertile land and plentiful natural resources. Former French President Charles de Gaulle, enraged by Guinea’s audacity, withdrew all French civil servants and destroyed domestic documentation, isolating the new nation.
In response, the country’s first president, Sekou Touré, said, “It is better to be poor and free than to live in opulence and be a slave.” Touré began as a communist-leaning grassroots organizer but is remembered for instilling in his people a strong sense of nationalism and an extreme fear of the state. He died in 1984, and shortly thereafter, his successor restored relatively cordial relations with Paris. Guinea then became the “second-largest recipient of French foreign aid,” with projects set to revitalize infrastructure, training, and education. France once again held the power to influence nearly every aspect of Guinean life, particularly through economic means. The legacies of French colonialism are still felt today in Guinea. Between 1984 and 2010, Guinea experienced three coups and had only four presidents. In many cases, France’s continued presence has perpetuated political instability and domestic turmoil, notably in the Sahel, which threatens to spill over into greater West Africa.
In 2010, Alpha Condé became Guinea’s first democratically elected president. His first term in office was chaotic, largely due to the 2013 Ebola epidemic. He used the deadly virus to excuse his lack of progress in improving the economy and infrastructure and won a second term in 2015. He also served as the Chairperson of the African Union from 2017 to 2018. In October 2020, he was re-elected for a third time—this time, violently contested—after pushing through a referendum to extend the country’s two-term limit. While his reelection caused a rift in U.S.-Guinea relations, the leaders of China, Russia, and Turkey publicly supported and congratulated him.
China: Mining and Infrastructure
Guinea was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1959. Since then, the two nations have enjoyed over 60 years of “representing an epitome of Africa-China friendly cooperation,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. China’s influence in Guinea is felt most in the mining and infrastructure sectors.
In 2017, China agreed to loan Guinea $20 billion in the form of an infrastructure-for-minerals concession. The deal guarantees three Chinese bauxite mining projects whose revenues will repay the loan over 20 years. This arrangement presents direct competition to American-backed CBG, which, in exporting some 14 million tons of bauxite each year, tends to dominate the industry. In addition, this resource-backed loan model—often referred to as the “Angola model” because of Chinese investment in Angolan projects backed by petroleum—is criticized for the unequal gains reaped by the Chinese. Mining in Africa has proven valuable for China, whose declining domestic mineral resources have forced companies to pursue international mining deals. Between 2005 and 2015, Chinese-headquartered mining assets in Africa increased twenty-five-fold, from less than 10 to over 120 operations. This surge is representative of China’s broader economic aspirations and the depletion of its local mineral reserves.
In terms of infrastructure, Guinea was an early signatory of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), introduced by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2013. Since the program’s implementation, the Chinese have been welcomed into many of Guinea’s cities and villages, but positive attitudes have diminished. Guineans have grown frustrated by Chinese companies abandoning incomplete projects at the end of their contracts, and their reputation for hiring few (if any) Guinean workers often leaves local communities without the training or resources to finish the projects.
BRI projects have been criticized by several advanced industrial economies for their lack of transparency, their commercial loan terms pushing already struggling countries further into debt crises, and their inadequate safeguards for mitigating both environmental and social impacts on local communities. In addition, China’s predatory lending practices leave their patrons with unfulfilled promises of social and economic development.
To counter China, the United States must emphasize the importance of approaching African nations as partners to address specific local needs. According to an anonymous Guinean mining worker, of all the foreign mining companies in Tamakènè, CBG has the best general reputation for treatment of Guineans, but employment is relatively inaccessible due to language and technical qualification barriers. As a remedy, the United States should invest in training programs—including the introduction of environmentally friendly mining practices compliant with the Paris Agreement—to create a local workforce that is already more culturally and linguistically equipped to live and work in Guinea than their American counterparts.
Instead of looking at the Chinese presence as a threat, Washington should acknowledge that in most cases, Chinese and American organizations in Africa are involved in different projects that fill different needs. In those areas where they are in direct competition and where U.S. national security interests are threatened, Washington must seek to outbid Beijing on projects while upholding American values.
Russia: The Past is Prologue
Guinea enjoys friendly relations with Russia, with especially close relations between Presidents Alpha Condé and Vladimir Putin. After severing ties with France in 1958, Guinea’s status as a Marxist socialist revolutionary state made it ideologically and geopolitically important to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. President Touré even turned to the Soviet Union for support in building the nascent country’s economy and infrastructure, beginning a long legacy of cooperation with the USSR. In fact, according to a 1976 National Intelligence Estimate from the U.S. Department of State, the Soviets had access to Guinean military, port, and air facilities and “maintained a permanent naval presence off Conakry” throughout the 1970s. By the time President Lansana Conté took office in 1984, many of his military officers had been trained in Soviet military academies.
Russia’s presence in Guinea lessened after the Cold War, but their friendly relations have allowed for a recent rekindling of their security relationship. Guinea signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement with Russia in 2018, with the stated intent to “revive fruitful cooperation in [the] military sphere as it was back [in] the Soviet times.” Guinea is one of over 20 African countries to sign such an agreement in the last three years, many of whom have requested assistance from Moscow in combatting al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Several African countries’ security ties to Russia are linked to the mining sector. Russian PMCs offer their services, training, and arms in exchange for mining rights and access to domestic markets at low rates. The concern is with the recipients of the arms sales: many of the continent’s most infamous autocrats who rule over some of the most unstable governments. These deals have the potential to exacerbate existing conflicts and threaten regional stability.
Turkey: The Wild Card?
Guinean relations with Turkey officially began with the mutual opening of embassies in 2013, during a period of rapid Turkish diplomatic expansion. Since 2009, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increased the number of Turkish embassies in Africa from 12 to 42. Erdogan made his first official presidential visit to Guinea in 2016. In January 2017, the Turkish government continued its efforts in Guinea by gifting 50 public buses and starting direct flights from Istanbul to Conakry on Turkish Airlines. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA)—the country’s primary development organization—established an office in Conakry, which, since its construction in 2017, has facilitated projects in public health and disability support, agriculture and food security, and women’s vocational training and employment, among others. Turkish interest and investment in Guinea have steadily increased as Turkish foreign policy pivots toward Africa.
But Turkey’s presence in Africa is not limited to trade and infrastructure projects. Turkish billionaire Ahmet Calik chairs the Lidya Madencilik mining company, which began exploring mining potential in Guinea in 2019. Calik applied for a license this year to search for gold and iron in the central southern prefecture of Faranah. During an August 2020 Turkey-Guinea Forum for prospective investors, Turkish officials emphasized the importance of expanding the number of contracts in the mining sector, knowing that mining is “the engine of the country’s economic growth.” However, Turkish interest in gold and iron is a strategic choice; Ankara is well-aware of Beijing’s dominance in the bauxite industry. In order to compete with China in other parts of the mining sector, Turkish officials stated their intention to process mined minerals in Guinea to bring in domestic revenue before exporting the product, unlike the Chinese companies, which export raw ore and refine it at home.
Guinea’s fourth military coup on September 5, 2021, exacerbated national instability when a television broadcast by elite soldiers announced they had captured and detained President Condé and dissolved the Guinean constitution. Led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, a former officer in the French Foreign Legion, the military junta claims to have acted according to the will of the people. Doumbouya plans to address endemic corruption, economic mismanagement, and human rights violations through the promise of “a transitional government of national unity.”
Following the coup, Guineans flooded the streets in celebration, optimistic that the end of Condé’s rule will lead to desired reform. However, the United Nations and the European Union, among other international institutions, have condemned the takeover. The African Union threatened sanctions, and the Economic Community of West African States suspended Guinea from all decision-making processes.
This coup comes on the heels of other recent usurpations in the region, raising further concerns over the stability and security of West Africa and its partners. In addition to domestic political uncertainty, the impact on Guinea’s mining industry is in question. The junta’s power grab has the potential to preempt dire consequences for the nation’s struggling economy, at least in the short term, as international investor confidence wanes. Bauxite prices rose to a 10-year high the day after Condé was ousted, but so far there have been no indications of supply disruptions. The continuation of Guinean mining sector operations may point to the stabilizing effects of the sector’s economic diversification and, in the wake of the putsch, point to an unexpected benefit of the so-called “great power competition” that, in accordance with international aid, is accused of being detrimental to African sustainable development.
So long as American and international organizations prioritize transparency and sustainability through their support of and investment in Guinean and African businesses, such competition has the potential to become a net positive. With a focus on partnership rather than patronage, the United States can contribute to the economic growth and empowerment of African businesses while still furthering U.S. interest, protecting national security, and encouraging the smooth transition toward real democratic governance in Guinea. The troublesome aid mentality that has plagued development on the African continent for decades must be reprioritized to emphasize the ability of American soft power to empower African nations to develop sustainably for themselves, and for the benefit and security of all.