Where did it all go wrong for Tony Blair’s protege in Guinea?

How Blair’s protégé became another African strongman

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

When Alpha Condé ‘Le Professeur’ became president of Guinea in 2010, he was hailed by Tony Blair as an ideal leader — the very model of what an African premier should be. Unlike previous rulers, Condé didn’t shoot his way to the top, but arrived armed with a law degree from the Sorbonne and Guinea’s first ever democratic mandate. Blair chose Le Professeur as a client for his Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), set up to nurture a new generation of ‘good guy’ African leaders, and Condé was introduced to a network of experts — not woolly DfID types, but sharp tacks with Downing Street experience. The idea was to replicate Mr Blair’s successful policy ‘delivery unit’ across Africa.

Unfortunately, Condé has begun to succumb to African Strongman Syndrome. Though he’s now 81, he has announced plans to scrap the constitutional rules that forbid him a third term in office. There have been protests, and at least 30 people killed. Opposition activists have been charged with insurrection. Condé’s reputation as a model leader looks shaky — as does the reputation of the AGI. So how and why did the Alpha Condé experiment go wrong?

When I first went to Guinea in 2009, the previous president, Lansana Conté, had just died after 25 years in office. Another military hardman, Moussa ‘Dadis’ Camara, had seized power. Camara’s first act was to lift the lid on how the Conté family had got into bed with Latino cocaine cartels, turning Guinea into west Africa’s first fully functioning narco-state. Drug barons were hosted at a villa once owned by the first lady, and had a private airstrip to land their product. Camara organised live televised interrogation shows, where Conté’s son and others confessed to using the presidential guard to protect the goods and diplomatic bags to courier them to Europe.

The ‘Dadis Show’, as it became known, was so popular that DVDs of it were even sold in the local markets. It also doubled as filmed proof that Camara, a braggart and narcissist, was not going to be much of an upgrade on Conté, so nobody was too sad when he was shot by his own bodyguard.

In the wake of such lousy competition, all Condé had to do was not actively mess things up. And to start with he succeeded. He paid close attention to his AGI advisers, who set up an office in Conakry, Guinea’s ramshackle seaside capital. They helped him tighten laws against corruption in the mineral sector and Mr Condé signed off a £3 billion aluminium deal with an investment fund to which Mr Blair was a paid adviser. Mr Blair stated at the time that he had not profited personally from the deal or been involved in brokering it.

AGI advised on building a new hydro-electric dam — doubling Guinea’s power output — and co-ordinated the response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Soon Condé was doing the global conference circuit as a Blair-endorsed model leader, holding forth on transparency and accountability.

In 2013 there was a little bump in the road to perfect governance. Condé’s security forces shot dead nine people in anti-government protests. A leaked AGI document showed a discussion about the need for a new ‘narrative’ to affirm Condé as a man of ‘democratic process and dialogue’. But Condé began to make other powerful friends. In the past two years he has twice visited Vladimir Putin, whose predecessors ran Guinea as a Soviet client state in the 1960s. Russia is keen to regain its influence there. After Condé announced his plans to amend the constitution, the Russian ambassador to Guinea, Alexandre Bregadze, abandoned diplomatic neutrality and came out in favour.

In a televised speech that only a Putin apparatchik could think was normal, Mr Bregadze told Guineans: ‘Do you know many presidents in Africa who do better? It’s constitutions that adapt to reality, not reality that adapts to constitutions.’ Mr Bregadze wasn’t just being rhetorical. Since his speech, he has moved to a new job as head of the Guinea branch of the Russian aluminium giant Rusal, a sign that Moscow is digging in to protect its big mineral stake in Guinea. There are rumours that Wagner Group, the Kremlin-backed mercenary outfit, has sent ‘advisers’ into Guinea to help Mr Condé win this year’s election. Their way of helping out may be rather different from the AGI’s.

It isn’t just in Guinea that the AGI has had only partial success. In post-genocide Rwanda, it has worked with President Paul Kagame, another Blair protégé. The AGI’s website points out — rightly — that Rwanda now has one of the most advanced economies in Africa, but makes no mention of the widespread claims that Kagame has silenced opponents at home and sent hit squads to kill dissidents abroad. Meanwhile, in the newly minted republic of South Sudan — the one championed by George Clooney et al — the AGI’s work with President Salva Kiir ended abruptly when the country lurched into a civil war that has since claimed nearly 400,000 lives.

Perhaps, in Guinea’s case, it’s time for Blair to intervene again. You can imagine the phone call. ‘Hi, it’s Tony here. Remember me? About this plan to stay on. It’s not exactly the way we do things in the West…’ When I asked the AGI recently if Tony Blair had been in touch with his old protégé they declined to say, although they confirmed that they still had staff working in Guinea to support infrastructure projects. But this is the trouble with helping such rulers when in power — they may begin to think they did it all on their own. Some in Guinea say that Condé began to feel Blair was surplus to his requirements after the premier won his second election in 2015.

The AGI, meanwhile, has now also been incorporated into the new Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a thinktank that aims to fight ‘authoritarian populism’. Given Le Professeur’s new friendship with Mr Putin, it could well be that he has a very different set of dealings with Mr Blair in future.

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spectator.co.uk/podcast - Colin Freeman and Chatham House’s Alex Vines on where it all went wrong for Guinea.

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