The Albayrak Group, a conglomerate that has traditionally sponsored Turkey’s political Islamist regime and has been a loyal ally of autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been at the heart of bedlam in Guinea. A series of business deals, including in particular a concession agreement for the country’s most strategic port, caused massive protests in the country.
The public reaction after the Guinean president awarded the Turkish company the concession for the Autonomous Port of Conakry (PAC) without following the proper procedures contributed to the already fragile political atmosphere in the West African country. While the current president, Alpha Condé, was accused of violating the constitution in an attempt to extend his presidency, Albayrak’s business relations with the country under the auspices of Erdoğan only added more woes to his troubled presidency.
The quarrel surrounding the PAC erupted on August 10, when the Guinean government announced that Albayrak would operate the conventional section of the Conakry port, which handles cargo excluding containers, for a period of 25 years. The Turkish company would in return invest $200 million over the first two years while committing to invest a total of $500 million for the entire term of the contract.
This didn’t allay the concerns of the Guineans, though. They knew some things were not right concerning a number of very crucial details. At the heart of this popular reaction was the suspicion that the Guinean authorities had just gifted a national asset to a Turkish company without observing the legally required procedures. For many, the Albayrak Group was clearly favored in a political move, as if Condé was making overtures to Erdoğan. The National Confederation of Workers of Guinea (CNTG) lost no time in announcing a strike to force the government to step back from this serious mistake.
CONCESSION IN RETURN FOR IMPROVEMENTS
After several days of silence, on August 16, Minister of State for Transport Aboubacar Sylla and Director General of the PAC Hawa Keita held a press conference in an attempt to defuse the situation. The minister reminded that the port had not been sold but rather that the privileges for the “conventional port” had been conceded to the group. “The facilities are aging and require large investments that the Guinean state is unable to provide,” he said. In addition more than 80 percent of the workers would always be Guinean citizens, the transport minister said in an attempt to soften the reaction. But the backlash was not due to the conditions, but the lack of respect for the legal requirements for such a transaction to take place. The minister did not touch on this aspect, though. He also voiced support for the dismissal of the head of the operations department, Ousmane Fadiga, and the head of human resources, Aboubacar Dramé, perceived as the leaders of the strike.
There was a very important incident on August 14. The CFO of the PAC, Ibrahima Khalil Keita, sent a letter of resignation to Condé. The Guinean daily Jeune Afrique released a copy of this letter, which shed light on the weakness of the contract as well as some of the details of the concession granted to Albayrak.
The letter provided a summary of the port administration’s relations with the Turkish company, according to which Albayrak first contacted the port back on June 15, 2017, when the company presented to the PAC its three projects relating to sanitation, a metrobus line and the port. On September 16, 2017, the PAC received a delegation from the company accompanied by Condé’s legal counsel, who instructed the port administration to make available all the requested documents. The process lasted until December 2017.
From January 2, 2018 to May 12, 2018, Albayrak offered two business plans and two draft contracts. The PAC forwarded these plans to Condé’s consultant with the technical assessments attached. The advisor found problems concerning the details of these business plans and asked Albayrak to make the necessary changes within two weeks. Keita noted, however, that Condé ignored this process and ordered the transfer of all credit balances from the PAC to commercial banks for the central bank, without even informing the PAC’s account manager, on May 21, just a day after his visit to Turkey. And the contract of concession was signed on August 10.
During these three months, the administrative operation of the port had almost come to a halt, since Condé’s authorization was required for every single detail in the operation of the port, Keita complained, interpreting this as the president’s lack of confidence in the port’s administrators.
In the final part of his resignation letter, Keita listed some of the key flaws of the concession contract. For instance, the contract fails to define how the sale will impact the administration of the PAC. It fails to put forth clear and precise proposals concerning the fate of the staff. What would happen to handling and transport companies was also not clearly defined. The answers to whether Albayrak would take over the current staff of these companies and dock workers remain unresolved. The invoicing and collection of customs duties and taxes by Albayrak and the right to payment of collection costs by the licensor have not been submitted for an assessment by Customs, part of the Budget Ministry. The concession fees were not considered. No sanctions seem to have been included in the contract if the provisions concerning the guarantees and commitments of the parties are violated. Last but not least, the 25-year term was not based on any study of planned investments and how they are financed.
‘RIP-OFF OF THE CENTURY’
Guinean weekly Le Populaire, in its August 20 2018 edition called the new contract “the rip-off of the century” (l’arnaque du siècle in French). According to leaks, Albayrak was entitled to 82 percent of duties collected in exchange for port investment. “The workers of the Port of Conakry will not be able to do anything against their inevitable and possible dismissal since the contract stipulates it, and clearly, the Turkish company Albayrak is free to ‘choose its personnel.’ The Guinean State also renounces its customs duties and royalties and grants the concessionaire, exempted from taxes for 10 years, [the right] to collect them,” the daily said in its lead story.
A more serious allegation came from Secretary-general of the Union of the Autonomous Port of Conakry Cheick Cherif Touré. He claimed that the Turkish group was given such a sweet deal because Condé’s son Mohamed owns 30 percent of Albayrak’s shares. He was soon detained for defamation of the president and his son, and after an unusually speedy trial, was sentenced to 13 days in prison and some 500,000 GNF ($55) in fines. There is no evidence substantiating this claim.
Touré’s outburst and the ensuing punishment he received would be criticized even by the opposition. He was accused of acting for the sake of appearances to nurture his ambition to carve a place in the higher echelons of the state by using the Turkish scam as a springboard.
But this assertion about Touré may not be true at all. He was trying to resist the will of a leader who was becoming a fiercer autocrat. In those days the Guinean National Assembly would pass a law authorizing the security forces to use firearms to quell public outbursts, stoking fears that the country’s 81-year-old president was taking preliminary measures to stifle dissent as he was poised to run for a third term in office. Article 27 of the constitution clearly imposes a limit of two terms: “In any case, no one can serve more than two presidential terms, consecutive or not.”
In the following days, Condé ordered the country’s security forces to be less lenient against the protests in the streets, for whatever reason. He even dispatched soldiers to confront the protestors. Two people would be shot dead by the soldiers.
Condé’s announcement that he would run for a third term fueled the political unrest in the country, which was already in turmoil due to worsening economic conditions. The Russians, who had secured lucrative contracts to exploit the country’s largely untapped mineral resources, rushed to provide support for Condé. Russian Ambassador to Guinea Alexander Bregadze said some flexibility was necessary to keep the “legendary” leader at the helm. “It is constitutions that adapt to reality, not realities that adapt to constitutions,” said Bregadze, who would later be appointed as Russian aluminum giant Rusal’s country head for Guinea. Like economically pampered Russia, Turkey also was silently supportive of Condé’s ambitions.
The relations between Erdoğan and Condé, the two autocrats of their respective nations, have been good. For instance, Condé was one of the first leaders to congratulate Erdoğan for his election victory, even though calling the ballot result a victory was an overstatement as was the case in the latest local polls. The Turkish leader seemed to have assumed the senior role, nonetheless, as he is the one who was always granting favors. After learning that it was Condé’s birthday during a visit to the country in January 2017, in a show of magnanimity he promised to donate to Conakry 50 buses that actually belonged to the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality. They appeared on the streets on August, 2, 2018, only a week before the announcement of the port deal with Albayrak. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) delivered the İstanbul buses, and the Albayrak Group assumed their operation and thus their revenue. During the ceremony to celebrate the launch of the bus services, Guinean Transportation Minister Sylla mentioned discussions about the establishment of a metrobus line, a lane on major highways dedicated to commute buses in Conakry, with Turkey’s help.
Condé had been particularly attentive to maintaining good relations with Erdoğan, and he had rushed to transfer the ownership and operation of the “Citadel” educational institutions, which had been established by the Gülen movement, to the Maarif Foundation after a failed coup in Turkey in July 2016, which Erdoğan accuses the movement of orchestrating. Erdoğan has been propping up Maarif as a state-supported alternative to the Gülen movement’s volunteer-based educational institutions around the world. The Turkish leader bribes underdeveloped and democratically deficient countries in particular to illegally take over Gülen-affiliated schools and give them to the foundation he supports.
After some months of silence, the PAC issue was brought to the agenda once again by Cherif Touré, who announced on May 24 plans for a general strike following the holy month of Ramadan to protest the awarding the port concession to Albayrak. Speaking on a radio program, the union leader claimed the Turkish company did not have the means and had made no investment in the Autonomous Port of Conakry since the deal.
Touré recalled a discussion with Guinean President Condé, saying, “I told him that any concession project must be the subject of a bill submitted to the National Assembly.” The concession deal was not brought to parliament. Not only that, it wasn’t even examined by the Council of Ministers, said the union leader. He was also worried that the contract, which had never been publicly shared, possibly gave the Albayrak Group a great deal of freedom in the recruitment of port workers, causing Guinean workers at the port to lose their jobs.
Touré also claimed that the Turkish company was overcharging the companies receiving services from the port and that it was not keeping its promises outlined in the contract.
A strike was not an easy option, since, starting in late 2018, Condé has applied pressure to the opposition and effectively quelled any kind of protest. So Touré’s plan to stage a strike protesting the favors given to Albayrak was never realized. On the contrary, the president would personally pay a visit to the PAC with ministers and bureaucrats and praise the Turkish company.
During this visit the PAC director general, Mama Aissata Aribot, said his administration had been cooperating with the Albayrak Group in the modernization projects. These projects included the construction of a four-kilometer road to a parking lot for 650 trucks. The lighting of the entire port area and restructuring the harbor basin to increase the depth to at least 14 meters were the two other jobs Albayrak had promised to do for the port. These words did not dispute Touré’s claims since Aribot was still talking about projects, indicating that there had been no concrete steps yet. The contract proposed a total investment of $200 million in the first two years.
However, Minister of State for Transport Sylla saw no problem at all. Without ever mentioning the lack of progress, he stated that the modernization was being carried out within the framework of a public-private partnership. No less than $500 million would be invested in the port by the Albayrak Group, and not a single franc would be paid from the Guinean treasury for it, the minister assured. Not only that, under the concession contract, Guinea would earn an annual average of $13 million from the operation of the port, Sylla added. After all these statements of approval, President Condé explained the importance of the modernization project of the Port of Conakry and congratulated the Albayrak company “because it went beyond its commitment.”
Condé had shown up during an Albayrak-related business event a couple of months earlier. He expressed gratitude to the company for gifting 26 garbage trucks it brought from Turkey. Albayrak gave these trucks without asking for any role in running the garbage collection business. Condé said there was already a call for tenders and that the operation of these vehicles for the sanitation of the city would be carried out accordingly. The Albayrak Group donated the trucks to ease the public opposition to the company.
What role does the Albayrak Group play in the relations between Turkey and Guinea, and more specifically between Erdoğan and Condé? And why?
The Albayrak Group was established in 1952 and has been active mainly in the construction sector, but their major rise occurred concurrently with the rise of Erdoğan. The group is known to be one of the companies favored by Erdoğan not only after he became a leading figure in national politics after 2002, but also during his term as the mayor of İstanbul after the 1994 local elections. Today, the company is particularly popular because of Yeni Şafak and Kanal 7, two major ultra-Erdoğanist media outlets. In addition to this, Albayrak today operates in many sectors including, but not limited to, textiles, sugar, waste management and publishing.
Port management appeared on the conglomerate’s radar in 2003 as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government initiated the privatization of the port of Trabzon. The group was the winner of the operating rights of the port with a 30-year lease . Banking on its experience with the Trabzon port, Albayrak would later be up for the operation of Somalia’s Mogadishu port in 2014. After four years, this time the company would throw its hat into the ring for Guinea’s Conakry port. This latest move didn’t go as smoothly as the company had hoped, though, as the transaction stirred widespread public reaction in the African country.
As a matter of fact, the old-boy network between the Albayrak and the founders of the AKP, especially Erdoğan, helped the group flourish, particularly after the AKP assumed power in the 2002 general elections. The leasing of the Trabzon port for as little as $20.2 million for the entire term of the contract would be one of the first Albayrak achievements with special thanks to the AKP’s crony capitalism. The company would recoup the money it expended for the port from the revenue in the first year alone.
The reactions among the Guinean public focused on the give-and-take relations between the rulers of the country and the group. The cozy relations were fostered by Erdoğan, critics in the Guinean local media claimed. Indeed, Condé’s close ties with Albayrak were no secret.
Guinean President Condé would visit Albayrak’s news broadcast channel TVNET for an interview in İstanbul, where he had come to attend the D8’s 9th cooperation summit. The Guinean president addressed in particular the potential in the mining and agricultural sectors for Turkish investors. He would make the Conakry port deal after this visit in 2018.
The pain Albayrak caused in Guinea was not confined to the concession agreement for the Conakry Port. Albayrak was at the heart of another scandal as it was caught illegally exploiting laterite at a large garbage dump located in the Dar-es-Salam neighborhood of the Ratoma commune.
Millions of cubic meters of iron-rich red earth were excavated and sent to a destination that was not officially publicized. The Guinean media reported that the commune of Ratoma had halted the work since the municipality was not officially informed of it. Witnesses claimed that Albayrak bulldozers and trucks carried the ore away and dumped garbage in its place in an attempt to hide what they were doing. A local named Fodé Moussa Bangoura told the media that Albayrak workers failed to present a permit for mining laterite in Dar-es-Salam. An unofficial source was also quoted as saying the laterite was sent to the port that the company was operating. All attempts to get an explanation from Albayrak have thus far been unsuccessful.