“Elections are crucial because countries in Africa have a lot of tribal history and it is very difficult to find any other method to avoid violence and poor representation of each and every ethnic group,” Piebalgs says.
Guinea has not had a legislature since 2008 when it was dissolved by former military junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara. A 155-member National Transition Council has been acting in place of parliament since February 2010.
“Without parliament all the debates that come between different groups of interest could overspill,” says Piebalgs, who arrived in Guinea a few days after violence left at least 25 people dead in the south east of the country.
The European Union broke off diplomatic relations with the former French colony following the military’s coup in December 2008 and Piebalgs’ visit marks a warming of ties since last year’s presidential election.
“For us, it was of crucial importance - the presidential election - it passed well,” the EU Commissioner insists. “Since then we’ve started to develop cooperation.".
During the visit Piebalgs took part in the inauguration of the Forecariah bridge, a structure providing a route between Conakry and Freetown, completed with 8.35 million euros from the EU.
But aside from EU support for improvements to the country’s infrastructure, Piebalgs believes reform to the country’s lucrative mining sector could bring the biggest windfall.
“There is quite substantial interest from Rio Tinto and also from other companies. And that gives the country a chance to move quite rapidly out of poverty if the governance is right,” he believes.
Guinea has some of the largest bauxite reserves in the world. Income from bauxite mining is “key”, according to Piebalgs. Although he warns that the status of existing contracts signed under the previous government is a “delicate area”. Guinean President Alpha Condé has already embarked on a review of mining licenses.
The EU diplomat also discussed military reforms with Condé reflecting concerns over any future involvement of the army in governance.
“This country has a huge army and it’s definitely important to have security sector reforms,” Piebalgs says. “For the size of the country, it definitely requires people to go into retirement and that means that we need to support this process, because if we don’t the risk of military coup there is quite substantial."