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The World

March 8, 2011

Guineans find themselves poorer under democracy

CONAKRY, Guinea — Even as a dictator plundered the country's mineral wealth for years, Karim Conte still could afford to buy medicine for his sick relatives and a new outfit for his wife to wear during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

So when Guineans chose their first democratically elected leader ever last year, Conte thought life could only improve. Instead prices have since spiraled out of control, adding to the misery in this West African country where people have long suffered through colonialism, despotic rule and coups.

"I've banished meat, fish and chicken from my diet because these staples have now become luxuries for Guineans," the 62-year-old father of 14 said. "When my wife asks me if I feel like eating meat, I pretend like I didn't hear her. If she insists, I pretend to be sick because I don't want her to know that I can't afford it."

Analysts blame previous misrule by a military junta that seized power in 2008 and printed extra money just to pay the government's bills. Others say price-gouging by worried merchants is only making matters worse.

Now the financial despair sweeping Guinea threatens to further inflame the country's ethnic tensions that were exposed during the election and its aftermath: Some blame the skyrocketing prices on members of an ethnic group whose candidate lost the historic vote, although misrule and theft by past leaders is a major factor.

Even new President Alpha Conde has said he will fight the Peul businessmen who funded his opponent's campaign, calling them "an economic mafia that is impoverishing our country."

Rare are the families who eat three meals a day now. A sack of 50-kilogram (110-pound) sack of rice used to cost 150,000 Guinean francs ($20) before the runoff election.

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