CONAKRY (Reuters) - Guinea’s first freely elected president, Alpha Conde, was sworn in on Tuesday as citizens of the troubled West African state hoped his leadership would turn a page on five dark decades.
Near-constant authoritarian rule since independence from France in 1958 has left the minerals-rich country in ruins and many of its 10 million people without clean water, electricity or jobs.
The election has been held up by the United Nations and others as an example in democracy for African neighbours including Ivory Coast, where a dispute over an election on November 28 has pushed it to the brink of renewed civil war.
“I have hope, a lot of hope,” said Moumouni Konate, an unemployed former micro-lending agent in the seaside capital of Conakry. “I know that things will change in this country because Alpha has promised it.”
Conde, a veteran opposition leader, took his oath in a ceremony attended by several African heads of state, including South Africa and regional neighbours Guinea Bissau, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Senegal.
Guinea is the world’s biggest exporter of bauxite, the raw material in aluminium, and has iron ore deposits that have drawn billions of dollars in planned investments from companies like Rio Tinto and Vale.
But poor governance and political turmoil have kept mining revenues from reaching ordinary Guineans, most of whom eke out an existence on less than $1 a day.
Conde was elected in a November 7 election billed as the country’s first free vote and which ended nearly two years of military rule after the death of President Lansana Conte.
Its result, however, triggered several days of violence between supporters of Conde’s rival Cellou Dalein Diallo and Guinea’s security forces.
Diallo conceded defeat but has insisted the election was marred by fraud and that thousands of his mostly ethnic Peul supporters were chased from their voting constituencies by Conde’s backers, who include many ethnic Malinke.
Stability in Guinea could provide investors the legal certainty they need to do business in the resource-rich state, and could shore up fragile gains in a region hit by three armed conflicts since the late 1990s.
“We are here to witness the rebirth of Guinea,” said General Sekouba Konate, Guinea’s former junta leader who paved the way to the vote. “It is time to end the reign of impunity in our country,” he said just before Conde’s swearing-in.
“The work starts now. Food independence in three years, the fight against corruption and theft of public funds, all of this will require profound reform,” said Yero Balde, an economist, speaking of the challenges facing Conde.
Conde’s rise to power comes after 50 tumultuous years in opposition politics which included exile and a death sentence under former dictator Sekou Toure and prison under General Lansana Conte.
He has promised to reform the country’s notoriously unruly military, review mining contracts, reconcile ethnic divisions, and increase public access to water, electricity, and education.
“Expectations are high and one wonders how the new president could possibly meet them,” said Balde.
“It will be difficult.”
Mining companies are eager to see Conde’s choices for key cabinet posts, particularly for head of the mines ministry, amid a series of ongoing contract disputes and huge joint venture deals that require ratification.
Mining makes up roughly 80 percent of Guinea’s currency receipts, but revenues have fallen sharply in recent years to less than $150 million per year from around $200 million in the 1980s and 1990s.