March 1, 2007

HARRISONBURG—In his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, warns of the dangers of failing to ease out Guinea’s longtime president, General Lansana Conté.

In his November 2, 2006, column as well as in a subsequent wide-ranging French-language interview with the GuinéeNews service, Dr. Pham observed that the West African country, which supplies nearly 50 percent of North America’s bauxite imports (bauxite ore contains alumina, the primary ingredient for aluminum smelting), faced a potential power vacuum and widespread conflict as President Conté’s tenure draws to a close. Thus the United States and its international partners “will find that the costs of having to deal with another massive humanitarian crisis will require far greater resources than a modest amount of preventive engagement today—not just in terms of human costs, but also in terms of shocks to the global economy of even greater increases in spot prices for a commodity vital to modern industry like alumina.” (On the London Metals Exchange the closing spot price for alumina was $2,870 per metric ton, an increase of 45 percent in the last year.)

This week’s column notes that “it now appears that the reckoning will not wait for the President Conté’s (natural) passing from this world.” While massive protests—which the regime tried to violently repress—in January forced Conté to agree to the appointment of a prime minister, his choice of a close crony, Eugène Camara, and the latter’s almost universal rejection by Guineans has led to a new impasse. Now, according to Dr. Pham, “President Conté and his circle can negotiate a ‘soft landing’ for themselves and their country with Guinea’s other stakeholders. Or, they can face a popular insurgency which could quickly spin out of control—Guinea is deeply divided along ethnic lines with three major groups, the Malinké, the Peul, and Conté’s Sousou, often at bitter odds and increasing Islamist penetration from abroad—and engulf the entire subregion,” a scenario that Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has expressed public concern about last week.

The essay concludes: “ That time of reckoning has come for Lansana Conte: the Guinean people are apparently unable to put up with his faltering performance any longer and, given the threat to an increasingly important neighborhood, neither should the members of the international community. The United States and the European Union—together Guinea’s biggest political and economic partners—should send the old man a message: It is either accept a graceful ‘Au revoir, mon Général’ or the whirlwind your grasping at power unleashes may well sweep you and yours into a quite definitive adieu.”

To read Dr. Pham’s article, “Au revoir, mon Général,” click here.