The conventional wisdom among global analysts is that the West African nation of Guinea is teetering on the brink of a collapse that could destabilize a region where neighboring Liberia finally is peaceful after resolving its civil war, where Sierra Leone is struggling to maintain a fragile peace, and where the situation in Cote D'Ivoire remains volatile.
But the head of New York-based global humanitarian agency Church World Service (CWS) is determined to look beyond that gloomy assessment.
The Rev. John L. McCullough, recently returned from a consultation in the struggling country, says "war is completely avoidable in Guinea" -- even with its corrupt government, collapsed economy, and poverty so crushing that the majority of its 8.8 million citizens have little or no reliable access to food, water, health care, education or government services.
"Guinea does not have to fall into chaos and a deepening crisis," said McCullough, executive director and chief executive officer of CWS. "It is absolutely preventable. There is no reason for there to be a civil war or a regional conflict in which rebels from neighboring countries come in and the whole region becomes destabilized."
If chaos does result, "It would be in large part because the international community failed to appropriately respond to the conditions that beset the Guinean government and the people," McCullough added.
In addition to the corruption and poverty that plagues Guinea, the misery quotient in a nation that has been home to nearly a million war refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia for more than a decade is raised even higher by the withholding of aid by international funding sources like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) because of government corruption.
"Everyone is aware that those who profit from corruption need to be held accountable, but sanctions -- even if they're designed to punish or to lead to the removal of people in power --end up increasing the suffering of poor people. Under sanctions people who don't have food aren't going to get food," laments McCullough.
A statement released by McCullough and Baffour D. Amoa, secretary general of the Fellowship of Christian Councils & Churches in West Africa (FECCIWA), following the November 16-21 meetings, included an appeal to international funders to begin talks aimed at lifting the sanctions so that Guinea will have access to the money it needs to combat the country's staggering economic crisis and the resulting social problems.
CWS associate director for Mission Relationships and Witness, Moses Ole Sakuda, and representatives from the Christian Council of Guinea, also attended the meetings.
The group originally went to Guinea in a show of solidarity with Anglican Bishop Albert Gomez of Guinea, president of the Christian Council of Guinea. On the agenda was discussion around possible threats to Christian witness in the overwhelmingly Muslim country. Not only did the Guineans warmly welcome the international delegation, but officials also extended to them opportunities for far reaching dialogue.
"We went there to discuss religious pluralism and really expected the conversations to be pretty much relegated to that sphere, but we ended up talking to a very interesting and influential cross section of the society, and hearing a number of views that were quite similar," McCullough said.
The delegation met with the minister of state in charge of presidential affairs -- a key player at a time when it is widely feared that the possible death of the aging and ailing President Lansane Conte could leave a power vacuum that might result in war -- and with the general secretary of the National Islamic League, the highest ranking official of that faith tradition. They also met with members of Parliament from both the political party in power and opposition parties; with business and civic leaders; with religious leaders from the Christian and Islamic faith traditions; and with the United States ambassador and United Nations officials.
The conversations, which McCullough called "striking in the unity of opinion about the state of Guinea expressed by different people," resulted in a quick and significant shift in the delegation's focus.
"We certainly took advantage of every opportunity to say that Christian witness is important and that laws governing religious matters should be respectful of the different religious traditions and should allow equal access to government and society for all faiths. In the process, we were able to raise the profile and the stature of the Christian Council there, but the key thing is that we ended having a conversation much broader and much more instructive and productive than we had anticipated."
McCullough said the delegation found that there were other more significant and pressing issues on the minds of the people with whom they met. "They seemed very embarrassed that Guinea is considered to be the most corrupt government in the world and they were all very aware that their government is not working and that it's not providing services and meeting the needs of the people," he said.
That message of national deterioration and societal dysfunction was echoed over and over again in different meetings by people from all sides of the political spectrum. Such unified recognition of the problems the country must address, McCullough believes, presents a golden opportunity for a meeting of minds.
"It is necessary for the various sectors of the society to have a frank and productive national dialogue around these issues so that together they can discuss their similarities and differences and begin articulating a national vision and a workable strategy for lifting Guinea out of its misery," he said, noting that Gomez and the Christian Council of Guinea can play a very critical role in facilitating this dialogue.
McCullough said CWS and other international colleagues would support the Council in an effort to provide a forum or platform for such a dialogue. He cautioned, however, that Guineans -- who said the group's visit reassured them that some people in the international community care what happens there -- must take advantage of any opportunity "to come together around the collective table" and chart a course to success as a nation.
"This visit was a powerful witness in terms of Christ at work in the midst of a really broken and suffering society," said McCullough. "I think that what came through is that while things are the way they are now, that's not the way things have to be. It doesn't require a massive infusion of new cash to save Guinea. It requires cooperation and the application of common sense."
Full Text of Statement
Statement by the Ecumenical delegation on solidarity visit November 16-21 to the Christian Council of Guinea (Conakry) and people of Guinea
We, members of the Ecumenical Delegation from Church World Service (CWS) and the Fellowship of the Christian Councils of Churches in West Africa (FECCIWA) arrived in Conakry on the 16th November 2006 and were warmly welcomed by the Christian Council of Guinea officials led by the Rt. Rev. Albert David Gomez. We are indeed grateful to the His Excellency, Mr. Lansana Conté, President of the Republic of Guinea, his Government and the People of Guinea for the warm hospitality accorded us during our visit.
During our visit we were privileged to hold discussions with major stakeholders of the Republic of Guinea including the Presidium of the Christian Council of Guinea, the Honourable Minister of State in charge of Presidential Affairs, His Excellency Jackson McDonald, Ambassador of the United States of America, Five members of the Majority Party in Parliament including the First Deputy Speaker of Parliament and three women representing the National Women's Committee, Five representatives of Four Opposition Political Parties including a Youth representative from one of the parties. We also met with high level representatives of Civil Society, the National Council of Communication, the Acting President and members of the National Assembly, the General Secretary of the National Islamic League and the Head of United Nations operations in Guinea.
At the end of our visit, following the various encounters with high profile leadership of the stakeholders of the Republic of Guinea, we agreed as follows:
1. That the Republic of Guinea enjoys a high tolerance of peaceful co-existence among people of different faiths despite its high Muslim majority.
2. That the Government has a stated commitment to freedom of religion, the lawful practice of faith, and the recognition of all Guineans as citizens without discrimination.
3. That religious extremism is not tolerated by the Government.
4. That the Government in partnership with Civil Society must seriously search for ways to address the political, social, and economic challenges confronting the peace of the nation.
5. That the youth of Guinea need to be given equal opportunity to pursue their education on the basis of academic performance; along with guarantees of school safety and healthcare.
6. That special attention is given to reversing the reality that the women of Guinea have been disproportionately affected by the stresses of a struggling economy. It was made clear that women have shouldered the care of family life with very limited resources, and are under-represented in the legislative process. In this respect, consideration needs to be given towards the economic empowerment of women.
The stakeholders articulated the impatience and fatigue of the nation, arising out of current conditions of poverty and suffering, and their national response and burden precipitated by regional crises. Without exception they stated the urgency of effecting change to the benefit of the whole nation.
The Stakeholder Dialogue currently taking place under the leadership of the Steering Committee of the National Meeting of Actors in Development deserves commendation and support. It is gratifying to note also that the Christian Council of Guinea is recognized for its prophetic witness and capacity as a reconciling presence.