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Guinea Hit by High Rice Prices, Food Shortages - 2004-07-15

Angry crowds have attacked trucks carrying rice and looted food warehouses in Guinea, where the price of rice has risen well beyond the income of most people and shortages have emptied stores in many areas. Analysts say food shortages in Guinea could plunge the country into political chaos.

Rice is a staple food for the more than eight million people in Guinea, but skyrocketing prices for rice are putting the staple food well out of reach of most people.

Domestic rice farming is small and most of the rice is imported from Asia.

Earlier this week, ailing president General Lansana Conte attempted to freeze the price of rice at $20 U.S. for a 50-kilo bag - which is about one half of what it fetches on the market - and promised to make up the difference in state subsidies. But rice is in short supply or, in some areas, not available at all.

Many shopkeepers say recent attacks on trucks carrying rice and warehouses make them afraid to store any rice.

An analyst with the International Crisis Group, Stephen Ellis, says Guinea is on the brink of disaster.

"The situation in Guinea at the moment is very grave," he said. "Everybody knows that the president is sick. I don't think anybody knows quite how sick but there's really no proper arrangements that have been made for his succession. Plus, there are lots of signs of incipient conflicts in Guinea itself including recent daylight hijackings of lorries [trucks] in Conakry and trouble in the forest region. And if, as a lot of people fear, violence does erupt in Guinea at some stage in the next few months, then it could very easily become associated with what is going on in Cote d'Ivoire and then you really do have an internationalized conflict of the sort that we really fear."

Although Guinea possesses major mineral, hydropower and agricultural resources, it remains among the least developed countries in Africa.

Fighting along the Sierra Leonean and Liberian borders, as well as refugee movements, have caused major economic disruptions. Foreign mining companies have reduced staff and international financial organizations cut off aid last year. Panic buying of food has periodically created shortages and, in some markets, triggered runaway inflation.