Guinea President Alpha Condé, center, mingles with Rev. Jesse Jackson, second from left, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Ron Dellums, right, a former mayor of Oakland and former congressman. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)
Alpha Condé, the reserved and slender president of Guinea, retired to his sprawling suite Wednesday evening at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, having just wrapped up a long day of meetings on the Hill.
The 77-year-old leader had bags under his eyes, and his handlers were concerned he wouldn’t appear vibrant in photographs. But there was more politicking to be done, so the president of the Ebola-ravaged nation changed from his sharp navy suit into a loose burnt-orange top and dark slacks and kept working late into the night.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson had flown in from Chicago to support Condé, his longtime friend — one he fondly calls a fellow “freedom fighter.” Earlier in the day, they had attended a reception hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus. Now they huddled together in Condé’s suite, awaiting the 8 p.m. arrival of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Ernest Bai Koroma, the presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone, respectively.
“I came here as his special guest,” Jackson told The Washington Post. “He’s the builder of a whole nation. The legacy he’s building upon is a legacy of revival and stability.”
After handshakes, warm introductions and flashes of the camera, Jackson left. Then the three presidents — quite possibly the unluckiest trio of heads of state ever assembled in a single Four Seasons suite — hunkered down and began prepping for a high-stress World Bank meeting that was just 36 hours away. Together they would try to convince the world that they need a staggering $8 billion in recovery assistance — a so-called “Marshall Plan” that they have likened to a postwar strategy.
President of Guinea, Alpha Condé, speaks with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)
Throughout the week, Condé shuffled from daytime meetings — including one with President Obama — to evening gatherings with his inner circle, calling upon old friends like Jackson and looking for new allies as he delivered pitch after pitch for financial aid and renewed attention for his beleaguered country.
“Isn’t that what presidents are supposed to do?” he said, sitting at the head of the table in his suite, where an easel displayed his presidential portrait. “These problems are much bigger than just one individual. But the reality of it is, when you are the leader, it falls on your shoulders.”
His visit came with the bells and whistles that accompany any foreign leader in Washington. Protective guards hovered outside his suite, using hand-held metal detectors and searching the bags of anyone who entered. His entourage ranged from a personal physician to Guinea’s minister for mines.
But there were also the stark realities of traveling from an “Ebola country.” All the members of the entourage had to report their temperatures daily to the D.C. Health Department, and they were given antiquated flip phones programmed with the number of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just in case.
More than 15 months ago, a toddler came into contact with an infected bat in the Guinean village of Meliandou, which became ground zero of the world’s worst Ebola epidemic. The mysterious disease — not yet identified as Ebola — soon spread through the country’s vast forest region and then ripped through the porous borders of neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, killing more than 10,000 people in West Africa.
Condé has carried the weight of many burdens during his 77 years. He lived much of his life in exile in France. In 1998, after he ran for president of Guinea as the leader of an opposition party, he was kidnapped and imprisoned for two years, a move decried by international human rights groups.
Condé narrowly won the presidential vote in 2010, which was the first time the country held free elections since gaining independence from France in 1958. He’s up for reelection this fall.
The president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma; the president of Guinea, Alpha Condé; and the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, gather at the Four Seasons hotel in Washington on April 15 to prepare for a World Bank meeting. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)
“He’s someone who’s lived in constant danger and under constant pressure,” said Alpha Mohammed Condé, the president’s 45-year-old son and only child, who accompanied his father to Washington and stayed by his side to translate from French to English and vice versa.
But over the past year, the pressure has been different from anything the president had felt before — a feeling rooted in deep isolation from the rest of the world as panic spread.
“He became the embodiment of the fear and of the stigma,” his son said.
During the past week, the president found himself in an interesting political quandary — needing to present a unified voice for all three countries but also privately longing for just a little more help for his beloved Guinea. Liberia and Sierra Leone suffered higher death tolls and received substantially more aid, including the presence of 3,000 U.S. soldiers in Liberia.
“Initially, the perception of the magnitude of the tragedy was greater when it came to Sierra Leone and Liberia, because people could see the very tragic situations in the capital cities,” Condé said. “So Guinea was perceived to have been less affected in certain ways.”
When Condé headed to the Hill, he honed his pitch. Guinea may be down on its luck at the moment, but go back to early 2014 and look at the potential for economic growth, he said. The country holds a wealth of natural resources — including bauxite and iron ore — and Condé touts extensive reforms in the lucrative mining sector.
Condé had the ear of Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who met with him Wednesday and said she’s looking into what can be done during the House appropriations process.
“Considering that our involvement in Liberia was much more extensive, is there any way that the U.S. can increase the support of Guinea?” she said, noting that Condé was “reserved, humble and extremely dignified.” She also sensed his lingering concern.
Just being at the Capitol was a thrill for Condé. He got a little emotional too, recalling his first trip to America. In 1962, Condé, who was then studying in Paris, got to spend a year in the United States through a student leader fellowship. He remembers a raucous policy argument with Bobby Kennedy, a lunch meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. and the exact moment when he heard Marilyn Monroe had died.
But the high from Wednesday faded into a low. When he woke up Thursday at the Four Seasons, Condé felt defeated. He realized it was April 16. A couple of months earlier, Condé had announced a campaign to wipe out Ebola within 60 days. It meant that April 15 would certainly be a day of victory. Now, he had missed another deadline and broken yet another promise to the people of Guinea.
“He’s a human being,” said Khalil Kaba, Condé’s deputy chief of staff. “Sometimes he gets down, too.”
Kaba tried to cheer him up. They were facing another long day, and he needed Condé to be “on his game.” But the president was frustrated and needed to vent about everything that had been lost.
“Ebola has killed our people, and it’s made us pariahs,” the president told him, Kaba said. Kaba reminded Condé of his accomplishments — and how close they are to reaching zero cases in the country.
“Let’s go, Mr. President,” he told him in a pep talk. “We’ve proved we can get this done. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”
And after Condé got the boost he needed, he headed off to meet another member of Congress. His staffers later said it was his best meeting of the week. The next day, he woke up at 5 a.m. for the World Bank meeting. There, the president of the World Bank announced new financial commitments for the three Ebola-affected countries.
On Sunday, Condé’s bags were packed as he prepared to go home. He sat in his suite, reflecting on the busy week. An avid walker, he regretted that he didn’t get a chance to see the city on foot, quipping that it’s quite difficult to do that with the Secret Service in tow.
Condé admitted that Thursday morning had been rough for him. It’s tough to shake the feeling that so much promise has been lost for his country, he said. But he smiled and nodded when he remembered his time with Obama and other leaders.
When Condé went to bed Saturday night, he felt more at peace than he had in a long time.
“For once, I slept well,” he said.
Source- Washington Post