What is China doing in Guinea?

In the wake of the Ebola crisis, Guinea is struggling to keep its economy afloat. Plentiful iron ore reserves should be a lifeline for the West African nation, but despite interest from foreign mining operations, particularly from China, it remains in the ground.

Five years ago, two languages dominated the dining rooms and corridors of the hotels in N’zérékoré, a town deep inside Guinea’s Forest Province, nearly a thousand kilometres away from the country’s national capital on the coast, Conakry.

Those two languages were English and Portuguese and they were spoken by groups of rugged men who had come to get their hands on the single largest untapped reserve of iron ore in the world. They had been sent to this mist-shrouded dreamscape of green mountains and red earth to study, test, drill, explore, map, guard their secrets and then bring their findings to Head Office.

Guineans already knew that there was iron ore in the ground. More than a century earlier, a legendary warrior by the name of Samory Touré was using small quantities of the mineral. His blacksmiths were busy copying the English guns they had imported from Sierra Leone to fight the French invaders encroaching on their empire. Samory lost the fight; the French sent him into exile, where he died in 1900.

111 years later and here was a new international business army, from South Africa, Australia, Brasil, China and elsewhere, taking ore extraction to unheard-of levels. Billions of tons to be shipped out, by rail, to a brand new port on the coast. Everyone would benefit: the mining companies (of course), the Guinean government, even Guineans themselves who would have work (most of it unskilled), decent roads, a new railway and perhaps even that rarest of commodities in the deep interior: electricity.

Five years on and the entire project has ground to a halt. The bustling mining frontier towns have fallen silent. What happened?

First, there were conflicts over the rights to explore and extract: who was to work where? In a country where transparency in the mining sector has to be created from the ground up and where, until quite recently, deals depended on personal contacts with whoever happened to be the head of state, these fights were the unavoidable consequence of the mysterious ways in which contracts used to be awarded. Some argue this way of doing business has not fundamentally changed.

Second, Ebola. The initial outbreak was in late 2013, not far from the mining areas, and it spread so rapidly that all operations had to be drastically scaled down, with expat workers withdrawn until the epidemic died down. In the meantime…

Third: the price of the ore started falling. This was mainly as result of a fall in demand from the principal global market, China, which consumes more than half of the world’s iron ore. There, demand started slipping away as the economy slowed down. Furthermore, the world’s main mining powerhouses were churning out iron ore elsewhere, in such quantities that a glut was already in place before the prices started their downward spiral.

With Ebola gone (at least for now) but the conflicts over rights and the glut of iron ore remaining, it is hard to see the sense in digging up huge amounts of new ore in a remote part of West Africa, which is also (to complicate matters further) an environmentally sensitive hotspot. The $20bn price tag attached to the development of the mine, the railway and the port is far too high.

Everybody has left, except the Chinese. They have deep pockets, replenished by the state, and, most crucially: they have time. If and when the time is ripe, the world’s biggest iron ore consumer will move into Guinea’s beautiful, magical forest — and hopefully do the least possible damage even though their domestic record in this respect is far from encouraging. Hoteliers in N’zérékoré and elsewhere will forget about English and Portuguese (let alone French) and start brushing up on their Chinese language skills.


Bram Posthumus is a journalist who first visited Guinea in 1995, the beginning of an enduring fascination with the country, its people and its cultures. Based in Dakar, he reports on political, cultural and economic events in West Africa for the Dutch and other European media. He is the author of Guinea: Masks, Music and Minerals, published in December 2016 by Hurst. He tweets at @brampostdakar

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