I started as IMF resident representative in the Republic of Guinea in July 2003; the timing wasn’t ideal–my wife was 7 months pregnant. We’d known months earlier that I’d be starting in the summer, but still. Overseas IMF assignments are limited, but are an option, and work better for staff without children, or single staff; they don’t usually work so well for a Fund-Fund couple.
We’d travelled to Guinea during the spring to reconnoiter the post, with my stepdaughter and her friend. We checked the existing residence: it was a dump, even though it was next door to one of the president’s wives. It was on a main road and had been lived in by my predecessor without his family; it was like a flop house and no sense of having been a home. Why would we leave our new house in a cul-de-sac in Bethesda for this? So, we focused on finding a new place and settled on somewhere in a newish gated complex by the ocean, called Résidence 2000. It was fun negotiating with the owner-developer, whose assigned villa we ended up getting; money talks and guaranteed paying tenant for 3 years speaks volumes.
That done, I also wanted to make my office a nice and efficient working space. My secretary knew everything and everyone needed to get things done, she was also well connected. So, we hurtled around Conakry to find furniture and curtains, plus some local art and sculptures. I could look forward to returning in the summer.
Once I started, I travelled back to Washington every two weeks till the baby was born, on September 21, during Hurricane Isabel😳🙏🏾then took extra days after before heading back to Conakry. I came home again for Thanksgiving and Christmas, after which we theee travelled to Conakry.
The context for my job was difficult: Guinea was a candidate for debt relief (highly indebted poor countries initiative–HIPC ) having reached the so-called ‘decision point’ in 2000, and aiming for a ‘decision point’ (to receive relief) by end-2004. Presidential elections were due late in 2003. So, my task was to edge them along towards the decision point. Over my three plus years, we saw several false dawns, not darkened by Fund reluctance, but often by mixed performance and presidential arbitrariness that undid what we thought we had sewn up. For context, with political upheaval rising from 2006, after the death of president Conté, Guinea did not reach completion point until 2012, with Conté dying in 2008. Guinea was known to be one of the least democratic and most corrupt countries in the world. Say “Hello!”
I’d worked in Guinea on missions a year or so before, in my PDR capacity, and knew the country’s economic issues and policy makers well. That was part of the sell.
My French wasn’t bad but I’d have to get better especially on wider vocabulary. That didn’t take long. In my first week, I was leaned on by the local phone company for massive unpaid bills. After my secretary confirmed this was an error, I set to on the company over the phone and as my anger rose at the apparent scam my vocabulary expanded twice as fast. I agreed with them that I needn’t get the finance minister involved or go to their office for a face-to-face talk. Good start! French profanities? Check.
I’m not going to detail my 3 1/2 years in Conakry. Though, I started representing in one country, I ended doing it for two, after months of negotiations left me covering neighbouring Sierra Leone, too.
The two countries were fundamentally different politically, Let’s just narrow it down to the fact that Sierra Leone had just come through a vicious civil war (1991-2002), which had started as a spillover from the civil wars in Liberia (1989-1997, 1999-2003), that left many of its population literally scarred and many missing limbs. Guinea was a sea of relative calm compared to rumblings or worse in each of its neighbouring countries, and had been a refuge for many fleeing those wars, Liberians and Sierra Leoneans (both Anglophone countries bordering on Francophone neighbours). The region has many ethnic connections spanning current national borders. The region is predominantly Muslim, with Christianity as the next main religion; however, Animism is strong throughout. However, Islam is practised in the two countries with a lighter touch than in many others in the regions.
In having to cover both countries, travel was one of the main problems. By road, the journey was about 300 km each way and take about 4 hours; depending on weather–especially during rainy season in the summer–the route could be bad to impassable. Otherwise, I would hitch a ride on the UN helicopter from Conakry and then get my car to meet me in Freetown. However, the helicopter rides, though relatively short, were just downright scary, with Russian vessels and crew: the sight of vodka bottles under the pilot’s seat told me more than I needed to know and what I could understand in Russian didn’t make me calmer. The night I had to hurtle back so that Rhian could have an operation the road seemed blissfully clear.
I had a residence in Guinea, and lived with my family and my household staff; my secretary and economic assistant, driver and ‘go for’ were in my office. In Freetown, I had no office to start with, and it was a long time before I got dedicated space in the central bank. I had no support staff, really. I stayed in the Country Lodge hotel, which was really nice, up in the hills outside the city and it had great ambience, great food, and tennis courts. I’d taken up the sport in Conakry, soon after I started my assignment. But, it was a weird existence living in a resort.
I managed to develop good working relationships in both countries. Social relationships were harder to establish in Freetown, but I managed some interesting ones.
In keeping with what I called Islam-lite, I hooked up with the head of the local Heineken subsidiary, who would take me around bars and clubs at the weekend as he checked how products were moving. Interesting! It was a safe window into a culture and subcultures that would otherwise be hidden from me. I know the head of the local brewery in Guinea, SOBRAGUI (who made Guiluxe), but never had a similar relationship.
I also became friends with a judge who was presiding over the war crimes trials involving Charles Taylor. We would link some weekends and drive out to River number 2, where friends of hers had a small chalet and would arrange for fresh fish and seafood for a lunch and conversation. Absolutely, blissful, and some of the nicest beaches I’ve ever visited.￼
On the Guinean side, we developed lots of friendships from work and different social activities; many are still close friends. My first set of friends were young tennis men I met at the Novotel hotel; they included Guinea’s top 3 players. They started to give me lessons. My first sport was still football, having just retired from playing in my early-40s, and I played with some youths on the beach many mornings in my early weeks in Conakry. I was staying nearby at Le Rocher hotel, initially, while the residence was being made ready and furniture was being shipped from Washington, and a drive by the beach was en route to my office, and I could shower at Novotel–nice privileges.
As my working life extended, I found friends and close acquaintances all over Guinea, though mainly in Conakry. I used my post as an excuse to poke around everywhere and into most things–all in the name of understanding the economy; however, I wasn’t going too close to political intrigue. President Conte was in charge and who worked for him was his business. Opposition politicians came knocking but intended to keep them distant, with few exceptions. I got to know well management of banks, foreign-owned mining companies, petroleum retailers, those who imported and sold rice, those importing goods from overseas, mainly China, and those making use of the parallel exchange rate market for large transactions; that covered a lot of the economy. I became known to, but kept a distance from, some businessman who were known to be close to the president, and respectfully met them formally, but rarely.
Lunches and dinners could be with any and several. I made good friends with the equivalent of the permanent secretary at the ministry of finance and the minister’s special adviser, who was really my main point of liaison. So, the family spent weekends socially with both and saw what their family lives were like.
We tried to get out of Conakry when possible, at weekends, whether for a day to one of the islands nearby, which were largely undisturbed, or to some known sights. I usually drove myself outside of work hours, or even in the evenings to/from functions, so that my driver could make his long journey home and get some time with his young family. Life outside the capital always had many surprises. It was wholesome in its simplicity, and like when we visit ‘country’ in Jamaica, the car would come back laden with fruit and vegetables. We enjoyed eating the fish often available (snapper) or local poultry (poulet bicyclette–or running chicken, because it had to be caught before it could be cooked 🙂 ) Meals were not served in a hurry. If I travelled out of the city on business, usually for an event organized for another diplomatic delegation, we had to accept that we’d be met with fanfare–drummers and dancers–and gifts, usually a robe (boubou) or work of art. My office appreciated the cultural additions.
The diplomatic corps was small and close, led by the French ambassador and the UN head of agency (as Guinea was in part a humanitarian crisis case because of its hospitality towards refugees); we met often on security issues and I was the point man in matters economic. I grew close to my World Bank counterpart, who’d been finance minister in Niger; we became a tandem team for economic discussions with the authorities; our missions often worked together, closely. We also lived across the street from each other. So, Sunday lunch was often at his apartment around a bowl of Thiboudiene, a wonderful Senegalese dish of rice, fish, meat and vegetables, eaten with the hands. 👍🏾
My post made me widely know and easily recognized and walking around was part of my style. I was referred to mainly as Excellence (his Excellency 😳), and being hailed so was nice. I could often be found eating at a roadside ‘café’ (everything comes with rice, and I love meals with sauces), or in a shawarma bar. (Guinea had a sizeable Lebanese community.)
Eating out was now part of my life, more at lunchtime than for dinner. However, our house and cook made dining at home appealing. We had a gazebo by the ocean fence that was great for meals anytime of day. I liked breakfast meetings. Once Therese and Rhian arrived, after new year in 2004, I usually went to work around 9, came home at about 2 and stayed home in the afternoon most days. The time difference with Washington meant the day could be nicely split into Guinean focus in the morning and IMF focus in the afternoon.
Daytime and evening functions were also now a regular part of life.
Some of my best friends were restaurant owners 😀 Perhaps, one of my most touching experiences was during one Ramadan, when I was also fasting, I broke my fast each day with a good Lebanese-Guinean friend, who worked with his mother in their restaurant–one of my favorites–Le Rocher–and showed me how it was done in their family, with dates and fruit, followed by heavier food and yoghurt. Conakry’s finest restaurant was Le Damier, famous for its cuisine and superb patisserie, whose owner, Andre, always found a parking space for me by the front door, opposite the always-busy Marché Niger.
Fortunately, food was fuel and it was also glue. Tennis courts were 2 minutes walk from the house and floodlit; so lessons at 6am or pm we’re common, or playing with others. I got good enough to enter and win competitions 😳 We set up a nice tennis doubles activity with half a dozen friends for Sunday mornings, that usually turned into brunch and sometimes went on till evening.
But, we decided to act as we would have done in Washington and make our home a comfortable place to meet, eat and greet, so made semi-formal lunches and dinners part of our routine. My predecessor had notably done nothing like that at the residence. It suited us, of course, with a young child as part of our package. Our daughter grew up in a tropical environment, spending hours outdoors, and being the centre of attention from lots of ‘important’ people, one of whom gave her a tee-shirt printed with ‘Future President’. Our neighbours, on either side were the British and Chinese Ambassadors. It was the ‘high life’, of sorts.
But, moving past the broad settings, a few highlights:
I tell the story of how the central bank governor gave instructions to one of his staff, while meeting with a Fund mission. The staff member retorted: “Mr. Governor, you forget your family used to be my family’s slaves?” I’ve never seen African slave history the same ever again.
During my posting, Guinea had numerous problems meeting its budget targets and international reserves levels and I knew part of the reason (some things one shared with HQ, some were left where they were; this one was shared). President Conté regarded the international reserves as ‘his money’. I often saw his car pull up in the central bank courtyard, just outside my window. When I saw his guards bringing bags to put into the back of his Toyota Land Cruiser, my secretary informed me he was collecting ‘his money’. That’s not how it was supposed to work! But, I wasn’t going to march to the presidential palace to set him straight.
A corollary to that, was the president struck deals with his private business associates to supply ‘materials’ for the country, mainly vehicles, but, some other items, too. Much of this never touched the budget, which meant our monitoring of the program targets difficult. Sifting through things like this hampered relationships, to put it, mildly.
The central bank–more precisely, a deputy governor who was a close confidant of the president–was up to some hanky panky, embezzling funds. As this is now public record, I’ll point to the Human Rights Watch report on the aftermath of political violence that erupted in Guinea in 2006:
‘On December 16, 2006, Guinea’s President Lansana Conté traveled to Conakry’s central prison with his motorcade and personally secured the release of two close allies charged with embezzlement from Guinea’s Central Bank, reportedly telling his entourage, “I am justice.” The first, Mamadou Sylla, is alleged to be Guinea’s richest businessmen and had been arrested at his home earlier that month in connection with his allegedly unlawful removal of millions of dollars from the Central Bank. The second, Fodé Soumah, former Central Bank deputy governor, was also arrested for alleged complicity in the affair.‘
Fund staff were aware of irregularities in central back activities and made resolution and publicity of them a condition for going forward with Guinea. It was an uncomfortable set of affairs. Fortunately, I rarely had direct dealings with the deputy governor and as noted above, kept my distance from the president’s business associates, though I kept close eyes on all reports of transactions that were taking place.
Does diplomatic immunity matter? The presidential guards stopped my car on the street one morning and pointed rifles at my driver, for no apparent reason. “You can’t do that!” was all I said, and it worked. What if they’d shot him? 😦
The work in-country has a no parallel; the proof is the difficulty of re-entry to HQ and seeing life as a desk economist, mission chief, advisor or higher as fulfilling in the same way that daily contact with policy makers and sharing with them the headaches of getting things done. It can be as expansive as one can manage. Few things are meaningless. Much is frustrating. Getting to understand human relationships that come from power disparities is revealing. Living in a totally foreign environment is full of adventure and hard knocks. Sharing some of that is an extra pleasure.
I was lucky that, after my mother died in 2004, ironically on our way back to DC for ‘home leave’, my father took up the offer to visit Guinea, and stay for about a month. By then, he was in his mid-70s and still a nimble fellow. He showed clearly his intent from the day he arrived, and wandered off to the gym where we found him ‘in conversation’ with a French man; neither spoke a word of the other’s language! The next day, he had left the complex and was found in the park nearby ‘chatting’ amiably with some young Guineans: “I could feel what they were saying.” OK! We were worried sick not knowing where he’d gone.
He loved what he discovered in Guinea and it was in part a spiritual experience for him ‘returning home’ as he put it. He was an easy guest and he loved having time with his newest granddaughter, who was an athletic toddler. He loved what he could see of the countryside and I have told already of the trip to Fouta Djallon.
Therese’s family travel as a caravan, so it was a houseful that arrived from Nassau. Into Africa, young and old, including parents. Great trip, including their charabanc tour to Fouta, and Labé. Highlights of their journey was the need to replace a tyre and being feted like dignitaries by families where they had to do the repairs. Given the size and contours (or lack of them in The Bahamas) they were blown away by all of Guinea’s natural sights, including waterfalls. Before they left, a wonderful dinner was laid on for them, where almost every African country was represented from amongst the diplomatic community whom we knew as friends.
So, we have several generations who, on the back of my good fortune to have to live and work there, could claim to have made the reverse trip across the Atlantic, to Africa, and that is no mean accolade for Caribbean folk.