Guinea sits on vast fortune but its people suffer

Emilia Camara rests in the porch of her threadbare, ramshackle home in capital of Guinea, musing that she really ought to be a lot better off as she watches a sliver of paint peeling away and floating to the floor.

The symbolism of her crumbling home is not lost on Camara for she has struggled in penury, like millions of Guineans, as she has watched a succession of dictators run down the economy in what could and should be one of the richest nations in Africa.

"None of my five university graduate children or husband work," she sighs as she watches five of her grandchildren finish off bowls of rice and palm oil sauce at a wobbly table on which worn-out kitchen utensils sit.

"I manage to feed my family every day by selling fruit," she says.

Guinea, a former French colony and a dictatorship for a more than half a century, is on the cusp of its first parliamentary elections since 2002, but on the streets of Conakry, optimism seems as scarce a commodity as reliable electricity and water.

The country -- already the world???s largest producer of bauxite, used to make aluminium -- has all manner of other untapped minerals too, including diamonds, gold, uranium and one of the planet's richest deposits of undeveloped iron ore.

Yet it remains one of the poorest nations in west Africa, hamstrung by corrupt and incompetent autocrats who mismanaged and plundered the public purse following independence from France in 1958.

A military junta took control in December 2008 at the of death of President Lansana Conte, who seized power in a coup 24 years earlier, and a transitional administration oversaw the introduction of civilian rule at the end of 2010.

Today the economy is stagnating, youth unemployment is estimated by the government to be somewhere around 60 percent and Guinea is languishing 178th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme. Power cuts are regular, the water supply is woefully inadequate, local government is weak and the private sector embryonic at best, according to the African Economic Outlook, published by the United Nations and Africa Development Bank.

"The electricity in Guinea is like a flashing light show. It comes and goes constantly," says Ibrahim Bangoura, one of Camara's children who, despite being 36 and having an engineering degree, still has to live off his mother.

The elections have been postponed for almost three years following the inauguration of Alpha Conde, the country's first democratically-elected president whose advisers have included billionaire investor George Soros and former UK prime minister Tony Blair.

"We go several days without water and electricity. We are so accustomed to the lack of power it no longer affects our studies," said Mohamed Lamine Kaba, a 22-year-old law student who nevertheless intends to vote for Conde's Rally of the Guinean People.

Government spokesman Albert Damantang Camara defends Conde's record strenuously, pointing out that Guinea was on its knees when his boss came to power.

"We were facing a catastrophic situation with the coffers completely empty, an exponentially increasing debt and an inflation rate of 29 percent," he says.

He admits that the wavering electricity supply is "our biggest challenge" and concedes that the infrastructure providing the capital with clean water will need to be "completely rebuilt".

In Conde's favour, literacy rates and attendance at medical centres have improved since 2010 but ordinary Guineans are seeing few improvements to their lives in a country where more than half the population still lives in poverty.

Even those lucky enough to find work often discover that their wages do not cover the basics.

Alpha Barry Sadio, a chauffeur, told AFP he was struggling on a monthly salary of 800,000 Guinean francs ($114, 87 euros).

"I give 600,000 GNF to my wife and I tell her to manage. We eat almost nothing but rice. A kilo (2.2 pounds) of meat, which costs 32,000 GNF, just isn't within our reach," he said.

Yet many Guineans believe Conde is better placed to control public finances and get the economy moving than any of his rivals or the private sector.

"Alpha spends money wisely. Since he came to power, there has been no shortage of rice and fuel," said hauliage driver Moussa Donzo.

Other Guineans recognise that change has been slow but are willing to cut Conde some slack, suggesting that his programme of economic reforms has been severely curtailed by anti-government protests which have left 50 people dead since 2011.

According to Cherif Mohamed Aballah, the chairman of a leading business association, almost 1,000 traders have been victims of protests which since 2007 have cost the economy some 80 billion GNF.