Opinion: “Mining firms will remain key target for anti-government protesters” – Analyst

Guinea - shutterstock_782577868.jpgThe repeated instances of civil unrest during recent weeks offer yet more evidence that large numbers of Guineans hold the government in complete contempt amid mass school closures and controversy over the recent local elections.

But among the numerous protests are renewed signs that many people also blame mining companies for the state’s failure to contribute to their wellbeing. Anti-government sentiment is set to further escalate in the run-up to the legislative election in September, and mining firms are likely to experience even more disruption.

Elections fuel disorder

Elections are a major driver of violent unrest in Guinea. Amnesty International has already recorded 11 deaths during protests connected to February’s local elections. With major votes scheduled to take place in 2018 and 2020 and hostility towards the government rising, more disruptive protests are virtually guaranteed. Last Monday, the largest opposition party, the UFDG, organized a day of civil disobedience to pressure the government into publishing the full results of last month’s hotly contested local elections. In addition to UFDG supporters, many other people joined in to protest the ongoing closure of schools across the country amid a teachers’ strike that has lasted for a month. The widespread demonstrations brought commercial activities to a standstill in several parts of the country.

The disruption was particularly severe in the mineral-rich region of Boké in the west of the country. In the mining hub of Kamsar, protesters erected barricades and set fire to tyres on the city’s main roads, paralyzing traffic flows. Most shops and businesses in the city were unable to open. Demonstrators also blocked the railway that connects the bauxite mine at Sangarédi with the treatment plant in Kamsar for much of the day.

Mining companies are a prime target

The enduring economic dominance of mining means that the industry remains an obvious target for people seeking to express socio-economic or even political grievances. Gold and bauxite alone account for the majority of the country’s exports, contributing 38% and 30% respectively of export volumes in 2016. The state and the mining sector are the only two major sources of wealth and power in Guinea, and they are deeply intertwined. Indeed, the railway that was blocked last Monday is operated by CBG, a joint venture between the Guinean state, US-based Alcoa and Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto.

Many citizens believe that, in addition to the government, mining firms should also provide basic services to the regions where they work. The country has vast amounts of mineral resources and people expect to see that wealth translate into improved standards of living. When that doesn’t occur, grievances emerge and mining firms often bear the brunt.

The blockade of the railway is not the first time mining companies have been affected by civil unrest in the region. In November, large numbers of youths took to the streets of Sangarédi to protest power cuts, a lack of running water and the perceived failure of mining projects to raise living standards. In addition to ransacking and setting fire to local police stations, the demonstrators attacked and the looted private residences that accommodate staff working at the bauxite mine. The high frequency of violent unrest and the explicit targeting of commercial assets during protests cause Guinea to be ranked as the tenth highest risk country in sub-Saharan Africa in our Civil Unrest Index.

Strike over, but political grievances will rumble on

The day after the day of civil disobedience, the government agreed to the teachers’ demands, bringing the strike to a sudden end. The government will increase teachers’ salaries at the end of March and it has guaranteed that all teachers who had been suspended or sacked for striking will be restored to their positions. The end of the strike will eliminate one major grievance that has fuelled the repeated instances of civil unrest during recent weeks.

By contrast, political opponents’ mistrust of and antipathy towards the government will persist unabated. Though the UFDG’s powers of mobilization are very likely to wane in the coming weeks now that schools have re-opened, unrest will resume once the electoral commission finally publishes the local election results.

Moreover, anti-government protests are likely to intensify and become even more frequent in the run-up to the legislative election in September 2018. With the 2020 presidential election looming on the horizon, the UFDG will be especially keen to rally its supporters and challenge the government. Thus, mining companies are very likely to face further disruptive protests, both over the next six months and in the coming two years. Written by Seán Smith, Senior Africa Analyst at Verisk-Maplecroft.

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