September 14, 2015 / 12:02 PM / 2 years ago

Guinea's Conde favorite to win second term as opposition divided

Guinea's former military leader Moussa Dadis Camara , speaks to journalists in his office at the military camp Alpha Yaya in Conakry October 1, 2009.Luc Gnago

CONAKRY (Reuters) - Posters on the streets of Guinea's capital Conakry carry the beaming image of President Alpha Conde and a simple message about who will succeed him after next month's election: "After him, it's him again."

The West African country has known only four rulers since independence from France in 1958 and analysts suggest there is little chance of a leadership change in Oct. 11's presidential poll.

Despite a stagnant economy and an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus still simmering after nearly two years, Conde is a strong favorite thanks largely to deep divisions within an opposition riven by ethnic and personal rivalries.

While the opposition has haggled over the technicalities of the vote, Conde's Rally of the Guinean People (RPG) party has quietly rolled out a campaign under the slogan "Progress is on the march", championing infrastructure achievements in his first term and promising more to come.

For many voters, what matters most is that Conde succeeded in bringing reliable electricity to Conakry, a port city of more than 1 million people.

Power shortages were a major factor behind violent protests last year. The opening of the 240-megawatt, Chinese-built Kaleta hydroelectric dam in May resolved a problem that has dogged Guinea for 50 years.

Conde has pledged to complete two long-delayed projects if he wins a second term: a 500-megwatt hydroelectric dam at Souapiti on the Konjoure river, and the $20 billion Simandou iron ore mine, including a railway stretching across Guinea to a deepwater port.

"I will vote for Alpha Conde because with him, we have hope," said resident Mohamed Kaba, wearing a T-shirt with the president's image. "His policies have cut the cost of a sack of rice and today the whole of Conakry has electricity."

Guinea is Africa's largest producer of bauxite -- the raw material for aluminum -- and also has massive deposits of iron ore and other minerals, but the lack of electricity means mining projects have long been forced to rely on costly generators.

ETHNIC POLITICS

Chief amongst Conde's seven challengers is former prime minister Cellou Dalein Diallo, leader of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG).

Diallo draws his support from Guinea's largest ethnic group, the peuhl, which accounts for 40 percent of its 10 million people. However, there is resistance to electing a president from a group that already dominates the economy, which Conde exploited in 2010 to defeat Diallo in a runoff.

Sidya Toure, another former prime minister who placed third in the first round in 2010, has said he will not endorse Diallo again after drawing criticism from his supporters for doing so in the runoff.

Conde, 77, enjoys the backing of his malinke ethnic group, Guinea's second largest accounting for roughly 30 percent of the population. He has accumulated endorsements in recent weeks, including from Abe Sylla, another former Diallo ally who came sixth in the last election.

"We are headed toward the reelection of President Alpha Conde," said political analyst Youssou Sylla. "The opposition did not give itself time to attack his weaknesses, such as the management of the Ebola crisis."

While neighboring Liberia was declared free from Ebola this month, Guinea has continued to record an average of 1 or 2 new cases a week, mostly in or around the capital.

The health crisis and a slump in metals prices have hit investment, helping to push Guinea's economic growth last year down to 0.6 percent from 2.3 percent in 2013, according to the African Development Bank.

BHP Billiton is seeking to withdraw from the country as it pares back its global capital expenditure. But a deal for ArcelorMittal to purchase BHP's iron ore assets in Mount Nimba collapsed after the government blocked a deal to export the minerals via Liberia, officials said.

A legal dispute is also overshadowing efforts to retender the northern half of the Simandou mine, which the government stripped from Brazil's Vale and BSG Resources on charges of corruption. Vale and BSGR reject the allegations.

Ayso van Eysinga, West Africa researcher at Eurasia group, said an opposition victory could lead to re-examination of contracts and mining laws, which would unsettle international investors.

"A transition from Conde to the opposition would mean more uncertainty and that is not what Guinea needs right now," he said. "Guinea is in economic dire straits and it needs to get some investment."

THREAT OF PROTESTS

Much of Conde's energy early in his term was spent bringing the restive military under control after junior officers linked to the previous military regime tried to assassinate him in 2011.

Moussa Dadis Camara -- the leader of a 2008 coup who fled into exile the following year -- was blocked from registering as a candidate after his flight from Burkina Faso was turned back before it could reach Guinea.

Camara, who is popular in his native Forest region of southeast Guinea, a tinderbox for political tensions, has agreed an alliance with Diallo. But some analysts suggest he will struggle to convert this into votes, with many inhabitants of the Forest region resistant to backing the UFDG leader.

Political analyst Mohamed Camara said the exclusion of its favored candidate meant there were likely to be clashes in the Forest Region during the elections.

Some 50 people were killed in ethnically fueled, anti-government street protests ahead of legislative elections in 2013, some of them when security forces fired live rounds at protesters. Conde's RPG failed to win a majority at those polls.

The risk of protest increased last week after the opposition accused the government of failing to honor an August deal to reshape the electoral commission and to give opposition parties a greater voice on local authorities to ensure a fair vote.

UFDG spokesman Souleyman Tianguel Bah warned last week there would be demonstrations if Conde was declared winner in the first round without facing Diallo in a runoff. The party accuses Conde of using ethnic politics to divide Guinea.

Reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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