* Ethnic tensions remain high after November poll
* Army reform appears far off
* Gov’t poised for new showdown with mining firms
By Saliou Samb and Richard Valdmanis
CONAKRY/DAKAR, April 21 (Reuters) – Guinea’s first free election last year changed the leadership of the West African state, but looks unlikely to change much else.
The political turmoil, ethnic strife, and showdowns with international mining firms that have defined the world’s top bauxite exporter for years are set to continue, five months into President Alpha Conde’s term.
Elected in a tight poll last November billed as the country’s first free vote, Conde promised to bridge the divide between ethnic Malinke and Peul and to promote international investment to combat rampant poverty.
But the 73-year-old former opposition leader’s efforts have stalled, with little progress at easing tensions, reigning in notoriously unruly security forces, or patching up relations with foreign investors, analysts said.
“The goals of the current government are not being achieved,” said Kalifa Gassama Diaby, an independent Guinea analyst in Toulouse, France.
“We just hope that the absence of a plan of action will not prevent the regime from bringing about eventual change. For all the world knows we need change,” he said.
Guinea’s election, which closed the door on nearly two years of military rule, was mostly peaceful and has been held up as a shining example of democracy at work in a region rife with votes-gone-wrong — as in neighbouring Ivory Coast.
But it rekindled tensions between Conde’s mostly Malinke supporters and the Peul backers of rival Cellou Dalein Diallo.
In a sign those tensions remain, Conde’s security forces earlier this month cracked down on a crowd that had gathered at Conakry’s airport to welcome Diallo home from a trip, killing one and injuring several others.
Human rights activists said security forces, which are mostly Malinke, used anti-Peul slurs during the crackdown.
“This brings back bad memories,” said analyst Lydie Boka of Strategico. “Wouldn’t it be high time to start putting in place the announced Truth and Reconciliation Commission?” she added, referring to a panel promised by Conde after his election to explore ethnically driven abuses.
Analysts added he will also struggle to reform the military, which has a long history of brutality, presents a constant threat of toppling out-of-favour leaders, and which absorbs a third of the country’s budget.
“This poses a real danger to this country because at any moment things could deteriorate,” said Alpha Amadou Barry, a sociology professor in Guinea.
MINING SHOWDOWNS AHEAD
Prior to Conde’s election, Guinea had clashed repeatedly with international investors such as Rio Tinto and RUSAL — raising concerns about contract security in the world’s top bauxite supplier.
Industry’s hopes for an easier business environment after the election have been dashed, however, as Conde moves to double the state share in mining projects and pushes for a review joint-venture deals.
Industry players have said the proposals in the new mining code, set to be adopted in the next few months, could strangle future investment in a country sorely lacking in infrastructure and basic social services.
“What I can tell you is that we are going to review all of these joint ventures that were signed at the expense of the Guinean state,” ministry official Guillaume Curtis told Reuters, without giving further details.
Rio has been battling to recover two of its four blocks at the giant Simandou iron ore concession, which Guinea had taken back and sold to BSGR, a company run by Israeli billionaire diamond trader Beny Steinmetz. Brazilian mining giant Vale has since purchased a controlling stake in the two contested blocks.
A source close to Rio said the company was in talks with Conde’s government, but declined to give further details.
But Conde has shown he is not timid about tearing up contracts he deems unfair.
Since coming to power, he has cancelled a port deal with France’s Getma international and a railway project with Vale, and his camp has signalled more tough moves ahead, possibly against Russian miner RUSAL.
“Obviously we are moving toward a showdown (with RUSAL) as the company has been in the country since 2001 without coming up with a valid project,” said Cece Noramou, advisor to the Mines Minister.
Guinea contests RUSAL’s ownership of the Friguia alumina refinery and has billed the company for back taxes.
How Guinea manages its resources will be key to solving problems like poverty and unemployment in a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day. But tackling corruption and a bloated government will also be crucial, analysts said.
“We still have a lot of ministries and there is a feeling that the government is inefficient,” said historian Ibrahima Sory Traore. Guinea’s legislative polls are expected by October. (Editing by Giles Elgood)