Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Massacre in Guinea: Putting down the bauxite rebellion

Guinean army forces have massacred over 150 unarmed people who were protesting on Monday against the country’s unelected leader. The head of the military Moussa Dadis Camara leads the Western African country. He seized power in a coup following the death of longtime dictator Lansana Conté in December. Protests broke out in the capital Conakry after it seemed likely that Camara would stand as a candidate in a presidential election postponed to January. Opponents are demanding he honour a longstanding pledge to stand aside and transition Guinea to civilian rule (photo of arrest in Conakry by AFP via Al Jazeera).

Though Camara has not formally declared his candidacy, his supporters have been actively promoting his chances. They were allowed a peaceful rally on Saturday in the city of Labe. But when the opposition tried to launch their rally on Monday, all hell broke loose. Political and civil society leaders had called the rally at Conakry’s main football stadium two weeks ago but authorities banned the meeting.

Despite the ban, thousands assembled at the 25,000 seater stadium pushing past military to gain entrance to the ground. They carried placards reading "No to Dadis" and "Down with the army in power" before police eventually stopped the crowds from gaining entry. Suddenly soldiers drove into the stadium. They descended from their vehicles and shot first into the air. Then they began to open fire on demonstrators and beat them up.

By the middle of the afternoon Donka Hospital in Conakry had admitted hundreds of people with bullet wounds and injuries from beatings. A number of women taking part in the demonstration were stripped naked and sexually assaulted by security forces who also went on a looting rampage across town. The usual suspects such as the UN, the EU, the AU and the US all expressed their condemnation of the massacre but none are likely to act against what is usually deemed "a domestic matter". Of more interest is the attitude of the the international mining companies who stand to make large amounts of money in the country.

Guinea has the world’s largest concentration of bauxite (aluminium ore) with 30 percent of the world’s reserves. US Giant Alcoa in partnership with Canadian Alcan have exclusive rights to mine bauxite in Guinea's Sangaredi Plateau. Together they run Cie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG) the world’s largest bauxite mine. Bauxite is used in cement, chemicals, face makeup, soda cans, dishwashers, siding for houses, and other aluminum products and is highly profitable industry for the two multi-nationals.

But Guinea’s relationship with the Russian giant UC RUSAL is not so healthy. Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska’s company are in a row with a Guinean court which has taken ownership of a mine away from them. The court cancelled the sale in 2006 of the Friguia refinery which UC RUSAL had bought for $20 million, far below independent valuations of $250 million. Russia is claiming the refinery is now their legitimate property.

Rio Tinto is also in trouble with Guinea. It is still challenging a decision the government made last year to take away control of an important iron ore project. Government told Rio its licence to mine has been rescinded. The mine at Simandou is one of the world's largest undeveloped iron ore deposits, with the potential to generate more than $10 billion a year. The mine is crucial to Rio to ward off takeover threats from BHP Billiton and analysts say Guinea’s move is an attempt to get a better bargaining position at a vulnerable time for the buyer.

But the latest protests have made Guinea vulnerable too. Camara is playing for high stakes. Though the country remains an economic basket case, he and his cronies can earn millions in company kickbacks. But he needs the big companies to stay. If he cannot control the streets they will take their mining dollars elsewhere. For Guinea’s millions of desperately poor neither outcome will help them much.

No comments: