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Tackling poverty is No. 1 priority

Current Affairs

Tackling poverty is No. 1 priority

An interview with Ibrahima Kassory Fofana, Prime Minister of the Republic of Guinea.

Ibrahima Kassory Fofana has been the Prime Minister of the Republic of Guinea since 21 May 2018. Prior to this, from February 2014, he was the State Minister for Investment and Public-Private Partnerships.

Fofana has more than 30 years’ experience in financial advisory and project management. He is regarded as an expert in economic policy and was Minister of Economy and Finance (1997 to 2000), as well as, previously, Budget Minister (1994-1996). He was able to successfully carry out a structural adjustment programme with the IMF and the World Bank.

Before his ministerial positions, he had held several senior public offices, including being General Administrator of the office in charge of major national projects (1994 to 1996), Director for Public Investments (1990 to 1994), and Director of International Cooperation (1987 to 1991).

Fofana was also Guinea’s Governor at the African Development Bank and the World Bank. He was chairman of the boards of SEEG (the national water company), ENELGUI (the state-owned electricity company), and SOTELGUI (the state-owned telecoms enterprise). He was also the administrator of CBG (the national mining company), and SOGUIPAH (the national company for palm oil).

Prime Minister Fofana holds a doctorate in development finance and banking from the American University (USA), and a graduate degree from the University of Conakry (Guinea). He is also a graduate of the Center for Economic and Financial Studies (Paris, France).

 

In May this year, you were appointed Prime Minister by President Alpha Condé in a major Cabinet reshuffle. What were the reasons for the reshuffle?

The country was going through severe economic, political and social challenges. I used to have my own political party, Guinea for All (GPT) but we decided to team up with the government of President Alpha Condé.

He wanted me to help resolve the economic crisis based on my previous experience and also, politically, to prepare the party for the upcoming elections (in 2020). Socially, he wants me to work on a better redistribution of the national income.

 

What are your responsibilities as Prime Minister and what are your priorities, both immediate as well as long-term?

My main responsibility is to lead government policy and coordinate the cabinet. My priorities include ensuring that the World Bank and IMF programmes we have agreed on are carried out properly.

It is also a priority to try and ensure that the economic growth in our country is beneficial to everybody. That is not the case at present; growth is strong – we are heading for double-digit growth but poverty is still a very big issue.

With our next elections due relatively soon, it is part of my brief to conduct a campaign to help the party to win the polls.

 

You have had a distinguished long-term political career in Guinea. Can you outline some of the highlights (as well as lowlights)?

One of the major highlights of my early career was when I was advisor to the late President Lansama Conté, when I was much younger. I was in charge of restructuring state-owned companies and carrying out much-needed economic reforms. Those were exciting times as we were shifting our economy from a socialist to a liberal model. I believe I did well, this was something I was proud of.

Lowlights: In those days, I was more of a technical expert and I was not political. When I was in charge of the national budget and public expenditure, I found myself facing opposition from the military over expenses. I had a hard time dealing with it and found myself out of the government.

But I used the time to go to the American University in Washington DC and obtain a masters in development finance and banking. Then I went into the private sector and returned to Guinea four years ago. I was appointed State Minister for Investment and Public-Private Partnerships before my appointment as Prime Minister earlier this year.

 

What is the state of the economy currently, in particular the mining sector?

The economy is in very good shape, according to statistics from the World Bank and the IMF. Growth is around 8% per annum and we are headed, hopefully, for double-digit growth.

As you know, the country suffered a major setback with the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic and this severely affected our economic performance, but we have rebounded strongly and are progressing well.

Growth has been underscored by good performances in the mining and agriculture sectors combined.

But this growth is not enough to enable us to tackle poverty. The mining sector growth quality is not necessarily good for creating more jobs – it is capital-heavy but does not produce much employment or added value.

We are now working to ensure far greater local content in the mining sector. For example, all ground transportation in the sector should be handled by local companies. There is no reason why foreign companies should be involved in some of these areas, which can be covered by us. It will not only improve skills but also stimulate the local economy and create many more jobs.

But, more broadly, I have a programme from now to mid-next year which will be inclusive for the poor in all sectors, including food distribution for the very, very poor.

 

There have been allegations of impropriety in some deals involving foreign companies in the mining as well as the ports sectors. What is your opinion on these accusations?

I don’t know what people are talking about. In mining, we have a mining code. There are clear requirements for the investors to follow. All agreements are examined and approved by Parliament. Perhaps in past evaluations, we may have had some weaknesses.

When it comes to ports, it is a monopoly sector where we have only two agreements. The deal with Bolloré – which is what you are alluding to – was concluded before Alpha Condé became President and it was strictly according to legal requirements.

In fact, during tendering for the port concession, Bolloré came second. But two to three years later, the winning bidder had done nothing so the contract went to the second placed bidder, Bolloré. In any case, Vincent Bolloré has been cleared of all corruption charges.

(Vincent Bolloré, head of one of the largest industrial conglomorates, including shipping and ports, in the world, was placed under a formal corruption investigation by a French judge in April this year over his company’s activities in Guinea and Togo. He strongly denied the charges – Editor.)

 

There have been instances of public protests in the earlier part of this year. What has caused these and how well have they been resolved?

Most of these centred around local elections of mayors, etc. The opposition felt the process was not clean and refused to accept the outcome. I went in and thankfully managed to diffuse the situation by clarifying the issues.

 

Guinea has been described as a ‘potential economic powerhouse’. What policies do you have in mind to translate the country’s natural resources into improved living standards for the majority?

It is true we have a lot of resources – we are the world’s biggest producers of bauxite; we have diamonds and we also have the world’s largest untapped reserves of iron ore. Infrastructure constraints have prevented the full exploitation of our mineral resources but we are working on them.

We have also been working very hard on our regulatory systems to make the country attractive to investors. We have been named among the top five reforming countries in the world by the World Bank.

Our biggest issue is social parity and that is why we are paying more attention to the needs of the poor.

 

Guinea’s population is mostly young. What special efforts are being made to improve the lot of the youth as well as women?

The biggest issue in terms of youth is education. We want to focus on primary and tertiary education. According to regional standards, we are behind. The aim is to allocate 15% of our budget to social issues by 2020.

We also need to reform our education system and focus on elementary, secondary and technical education. Many young people set their sights on university education – that is good as it goes but there are not enough jobs for graduates. We want to make education relevant to the employment needs of the country. NA

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