At a crossroads in the Avenue of the Republic in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, a group of traffic police lounge by their motorbikes while one of them waves down a rusting taxi and plucks a few crumpled, dirty notes from the hand of its driver.
And so it continues all day, with no concern for passers-by on the pot-holed pavements cluttered with hawkers.
This is Guinea, recently named by watchdog Transparency International as the most corrupt country in Africa — where for most people daily acts of corruption are a way of life.
”The traffic police are our friends. Sometimes they bother us but, generally, a 500 or 1 000 Guinea franc note clears things up,” said taxi driver Aboubacar Combassa.
Long a bulwark of stability in war-torn West Africa, the mineral-rich but impoverished former French colony has become a source of concern for many observers.
The ailing health of veteran President Lansana Conte has raised fears of a power struggle while economic collapse and rampant inflation have provoked the long-dormant unions into a wave of general strikes this year.
Guinea’s ethnically-divided opposition has denounced corruption at the highest levels of Conte’s regime and international lenders are demanding the country to clean up its finances before they restart loan programmes.
”What is happening here is worse than corruption. When Conte simply visits the customs service or the Central Bank to withdraw money, it defies belief,” said opposition politician Ba Mamadou.
”It would be better to find a different category for Guinea, because it is unclassifiable.”
Conte’s cash-strapped government, which is seeking major investments in Guinea’s mining and energy sectors, has played down the report by Berlin-based Transparency International, saying it was ”subjective” and not backed up by research on the ground.
Nevertheless, it has pledged to take action to remedy the situation.
”The government is taking drastic steps to drive back corruption and end the impunity which encourages this phenomenon,” Information Minister Aboubacar Sylla told Reuters.
A dispute between the government and Guinea’s wealthiest businessman, Mamadou Sylla, a former ally of Conte, hints at the murkiness of state finances.
Police seized Sylla, the head of conglomerate Futurelec Holding, at his home in the wealthy Conakry suburb of Dixinn in December and held him incommunicado in the central police station.
He is accused of taking $22-million from the Central Bank in treasury bills with the complicity of its former governor, Fode Soumah, who was also arrested. He is also alleged to hold a $3-million ”overdraft” at the Central Bank — where private individuals are not, in theory, allowed accounts.
Sylla rejects all charges against him and claims the state actually owes him $28-million, much of it for arms sales to fight a rebellion between September 2000 and March 2001.
For Mamadou Aliou Barry, head of pollster Statviews International, about $90-million, or a sixth of the state budget, disappears annually in corruption — in a country where more than half the population scrapes by on a dollar a day.
”People must understand that corruption spreads very quickly unless it is stopped,” said Barry, who conducted a 2003 survey for the government on corruption. He cited the housing sector and customs as worst affected and needing urgent action.
”How can a simple Guinean official who earns less than $100 a month build 33 villas in the city of Conakry alone, as our survey revealed? Something is not normal!” said Barry.
Guinea contains a third of the world’s reserves of bauxite, the raw material for aluminium, and mining remains the main source of government revenues. An amount of $123 million was generated by the mining sector last year, which includes major players like Canadian giant Alcan and America’s Alcoa.
The World Bank has pushed for the implementation of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), but so far the government has dragged its feet. For World Bank representative Ide Gnadou, the basic mentality of Guinea’s public officials needs to change.
”From the very top to the lowest officials, state employees are looking to find a source of income … This type of attitude drains the very base of economic development,” Gnadou said.
Officials at the National Agency for the Fight Against Corruption and for Morality in Economic and Financial Activities, founded in 2004, admit the enormity of the task.
”The 2003 study revealed there is corruption in the public and private sectors, and in NGOs, including religious groups,” Mohamed Francois Falcone, the agency’s executive secretary, told Reuters.
He welcomed the Transparency International report, which he said showed renewed international interest in Guinea. The severance of aid to Guinea for nearly six years had contributed to rampant graft by fuelling the country’s economic decline, he said.
”In a country where there is no minimum wage, where public offices lack any fittings, where officials are not even paid $100 a month, it is very hard to fight corruption,” Falcone said. — Reuters