Boké — When the frustration of youths in this Guinean mining town finally erupted, they looted shops, pillaged government buildings and smashed dozens of vehicles, dispersing only when police opened fire.
"It was an immense crowd," says Lieutenant Souare Abdoul, a fireman who had to shelter in a council building in Boké while young men tore out furniture, emptied a safe, stole computers and scattered hundreds of files across the floor. "You could see they were angry and they wanted to destroy this place," he adds, walking on a carpet of papers and shattered glass. Only after gendarmes opened fire were the council staff able to escape.
Security forces shot dead one protester and wounded several.
The riots at the end of April paralysed Boké, a bauxite-mining hub in Africa’s top producer and home to Société Minière de Boké (SMB) and Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG), which each export about 15-million tonnes of aluminium ore annually.
They were the latest symptom of the "resource curse", the paradox that nations with plentiful mineral resources, especially in Africa, are often poorer, more unequal, less stable and less democratic than others. Academics attribute the "curse" to several factors, but say easy revenue from resources tends to weaken democratic accountability and breed corruption, as has been evident in Guinea.
The West African nation sits atop some of the world’s richest iron ore and bauxite deposits, and has proven reserves of gold and diamonds, but despite decades of mining, last year it was sixth from the bottom of the UN Human Development Index.
"Guinea has huge potential," says Nava Touré, a senior government adviser and former mining secretary-general. "Unfortunately, it hasn’t benefited the population."
Across Africa tensions over how the benefits from subterranean riches get shared have sometimes stoked violence. Last year, AngloGold Ashanti’s head of corporate affairs in Ghana was killed during a riot involving illegal miners at its Obuasi mine, after a spate of lay-offs. Fifty people died in unrest at platinum mines in SA in 2012.
Power cuts and pollution
Boké residents say little of the wealth from bauxite mining trickles down to them, but the associated problems — such as pollution from dust blowing off the back of trucks as they head through town — do. It was a five-day power cut, water shortages and, residents say, a fatal accident involving a bauxite truck that ignited the April riots.
Mohamed Camara, 29, says he bears little resentment towards the looters who cleaned out his roadside shop because "this is the fault of the state — We have all this mining, and no electricity. We have rivers everywhere, and there’s no water".
The biggest frustration, however, is the dearth of jobs. The two bauxite companies between them employ about 2,000 people, officials in the ministry of mines say. Some are foreign workers, and Boké people say too many of the rest are brought from other parts of Guinea.
Lamine Banoro, 28, was so convinced education would get him a job that after his parents died he foraged for sellable wood in the forest to earn enough money to pay his school fees. Now, armed with a degree and a diploma in welding, he has sent his CV to the mining companies, but they tell him there are no vacancies.
"I was sad at first and then angry," he tells Reuters at a roadside eatery, where he and other young men loiter in the shade of mango trees. "There are big mining companies here, yet no one who is a native to Boké can get a job. Even the Guineans getting jobs come from outside Boké."
President Alpha Condé’s government is pinning high hopes on mining the country’s rich mineral resources to lead broader economic development, such as the railway it wants to build from the coast to the Simandou iron ore project in the remote interior. But if benefits fail to materialise quickly, more unrest could follow.
"There is an understandable impatience," Mines Minister Abdoulaye Magassouba says. "Our challenge is to reassure people that every job that can go to a Guinean will. We also plan ... to better use our revenues to develop these zones, so people can see the impact."