Guinea, 1960-1965: “The Erosion of Public Morality”

During the campaign for the 2010 presidential election candidate Alpha Condé declared that, if elected, he would take Guinea back to where the first president of the country, Sékou Touré, left off. He was appealing to the die-heard political orphans of the Butcher of Camp Boiro.  For whatever reason (misguided sense of ethnic pride, demagoguery), neither they, nor Mr. Condé, admit —then and now— Sékou Touré’s calamitous legacy. They do not mind either that in 1971 the first president tried the current in absentia and sentenced him to death.
Today, President Alpha Condé has gotten what he wished for, as  Guinea sinks deeper into poverty, corruption, repression, intolerance, personality cult, etc. Such was life under the dictatorship of Sékou Touré. Its plight and yoke persisted under Lansana Contés tyranny. And they are crushing Guineans today under Alpha Condé’s autocracy.
Abraham Lincoln’s memorably wrote: « You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. » Looking beyond the  “nationalist” discourse —then prevalent—, Victor David Du Bois’ insightful analysis applied Lincoln’s words of wisdom to postcolonial Guinea and Africa. His trailblazing scholarship exposed the seeds of failure sowed by politicians and military “strongmen” across the continent in the midst of the Cold War…  Wrong and destructive leadership caused the dismantlement of the health care system in Guinea, for example. Decades later, the nefarious policy would turn the country into Ground Zero for the Ebola virus epidemic and worldwide scare of 2014.
(See: Hunger and Frustration at Ebola Ground Zero and Camp Boiro, Ebola et Alpha Condé).
An anthropologist turned political scientist with a  PhD (The independence movement in Guinea: a study in African nationalism) from Princeton University (1962), and a Fulbright Scholar, Du Bois was not fooled by Sékou Touré. To the contrary, he figured the Guinean leader out and saw clearly through his duplicity, antics, gimmicks and tricks.
It is my dutiful pleasure to republish “The Erosion of Public Morality”, which is the third installment of Du Bois’ series entitled The Decline of the Guinean Revolution. The first two articles are:
The Beginning of Disillusionment
Economic Development and Political Expediency
See also my own Tribute to David Du Bois.
I enhance the documents with the relevant web links and I make the contextual annotations that hindsight affords me. Also, I plan to follow up  with other Du Bois studies. The first batch is a six-part series called “The Rise of an Opposition to Sékou Touré”. It  includes:

Another series is named “The Search for Unity in French-speaking Black Africa”. It has four parts:

  • Part I: The Founding of the Organisation Commune Africaine et Malgache (O.C.A.M.) (June 1965)
  • Part II: New Bonds Between Ex-French and Ex-Belgian Colonies: The Acceptance of Congo-Léopoldville by the O.C.A.M. (July 1965)
  • Part III: Mauritania’s Disengagement from Black Africa (July 1965)
  • Part IV: Relations Between the “Moderate” and the “Revolutionary” States: The Case of Guinea (August 1965)

The Du Bois papers appeared in consecutive volumes in the American Universities Field Staff Reports, West Africa Series. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1962-1967. I wish to acknowledge the courtesy and professional assistance of the staff at the University of Maryland College Park’s McKeldin Library with its state-of-the-art digital equipment.
Tierno S. Bah


Victor D. Du Bois. The Decline of the Guinean Revolution
Part III: The Erosion of Public Morality
American Universities Field Staff Reports. 1965-1967. West Africa Series
Vol. VIII No. 9 (Guinea), pp. 1-9

Conakry. December 1965

Revolutions, whether social or political, have a tendency to be
extremely puritanical in their formative years. The sense of mission among leaders and led alike is strong. The changing of the social order from a prerevolutionary to a revolutionary state is generally accompanied by a condemnation of certain traits, habits, and attitudes identified with the ancien régime. It is also characterized by a selective recollection and reaffirmation of values and virtues associated with some earlier period in the nation’s history when the indigenous culture was as yet “untainted” by the corrosive influences of the alien world.

Victor David Du Bois (1932-1983)
Victor David Du Bois (1932-1983)

Guinea’s revolution, which stressed the new nation’s determination to throw off its colonial past and reclaim its African personality, bore such signs. It had all the earmarks of a crusade of good against evil. This conception, assiduously promoted by the country’s leaders, was readily accepted, not only by the masses, for whom it provided a mainspring for action, but also by many outsiders, eager to demonstrate their understanding of and sympathy for those whom they felt were setting out to build a brave new world in Africa.
Guinea’s leaders were anxious to make a favorable impression
on the outside world, and to do this they strove to give their revolution the austere, reform-minded image which they felt the outside world expected of it. The country’s elite — government functionaries, party officials, the military — were urged to set an edifying example for the masses. They were told to be conscientious in their work, unassuming in their demeanor, and austere and incorruptible in their personal lives .
With the populace, the country’s leader’s were brutally frank.
Now that they were free, everyone would be expected to work doubly hard and give unselfishly of his time and effort to build the schools, roads, hospitals, and other public projects which were needed and which would mean the difference between success and failure for the young nation. In the task of national construction that lay ahead, everyone’s energies would be engaged. There would be room neither for idlers nor individualists in the new society that was being forged. Toward such “social parasites” the P.D.G. (Parti Démocratique de Guinée, the nation’s sole and ruling political party) had neither tolerance nor mercy. Deliberately it sought to expose them, hold them up to public scorn; then, if it could not reform them, to neutralize them in the most expeditious manner possible lest they come to influence others.

The party’s intense puritanism during these early days expressed itself in all areas of national life, but nowhere more than in the new social code which it attempted to impose on the people. This social code at times emerged more as a reaction to alien moral standards than from any innate need felt on the part of Guineans themselves for reform. Thus practices such as public nudity, formerly quite common and perfectly natural among many of the people, were now frowned upon by the party as sauvage. Women, who for years had unashamedly gone about bare-breasted, were suddenly told that this was mal vu. Men were urged to curtail their drinking habits and their age-old practice of urinating in public.

The severity of the new social code was particularly evident in the domain of justice, where the nation’s legal machinery was geared not so much to reform as to the punishment of offenders. A series of harsh laws was enacted shortly after independence, providing capital punishment for crimes ranging from murder and accidental auto death to petty theft. So zealous was the spirit of reform among Guinea’s leaders that at times they were impelled to enforce the unpopular measures even in the face of obvious injustice and general discontent 1.

The external world, whether capitalist or Communist, conservative or revolutionary, tends to look favorably on puritan principles, especially when practiced by the peoples of the developing nations. When these principles appear to be personified in a public figure as charismatic as Sékou Touré, the world is prepared to accept almost any action committed in their name.

During the first two years of independence, this intense puritanism convinced many persons both in Guinea and in the outside world that the men who ruled the country were dedicated, self-sacrificing public servants, whose only concern was the well-being of their people. This conviction gave rise to an almost unbounded confidence in Guinea’s leaders, and especially in Sékou Touré, who was idolized as a sort of Saint George-come to slay the dragons of colonialism wherever they be found in Africa 2. This feeling of confidence was also nurtured by the fact that during the first year and a half of Guinea’s existence as a sovereign nation, life remained essentially what it had been under French rule, both for the Guinean people themselves and for the Europeans who lived among them.

Photo-montage depicting Sékou Touré as Saint George riding a white stallion and slaying the dragon of colonialism. (1960)
Photo-montage depicting Sékou Touré as Saint George riding a white stallion and slaying the dragon of colonialism. (1960)

The situation began to change markedly, however, once Guinea made the fateful decision of breaking with the franc zone and establishing its own currency. From that time on, Guinea began to enter a period of economic decline which was to cause a grave loss of public confidence and provoke what Sekou Toure was later to refer to as a “crise de moralité” throughout the Republic.

At first, when Guineans changed their old C.F.A. francs for the
attractive new currency which the government issued to them, there was little awareness as to what the change-over signified. But as the repercussions of the currency change started to make themselves felt in the marketplace, the price of the monetary reform became more apparent. Annoying shortages in the stores became the rule rather than the exception; it became harder and harder to find a spare part for an automobile or a particular type of medicine at the pharmacy. In dozens of little ways that nettled each one personally, Guineans became intensely aware of the fact that things somehow were less satisfactory than before.

Guinea’s inability to maintain its pre-independence level of prosperity, let alone scale the glittering heights its leaders had staked out for it, gave rise to a cloud of disillusionment that began to engulf the country.

More severe repercussions started to be felt in 1961 and 1962, when the government completely reorganized the nation’s transport and distribution system and imposed still more stringent controls on the private commercial sector. State stores, which were established in each of the country’s administrative regions to supply the local populace with needed foodstuffs and other products, failed miserably at their task more often than not. Often their management was entrusted not to people who were competent and experienced in their operation, but to persons whose only qualification for the job was that they were related to a minister, a deputy, or an important party official. Inevitably, these stores degenerated into centers of corruption, often with the open, or at least tacit, complicity of local party and government officials, who took their own cut of the profits.

The people began to lose faith in their government and the party because officials of both became more and more involved in conspicuous consumption, needless waste, and outright corruption. Already since independence, beneath the veneer of puritanism, these practices were clearly visible to anyone willing to open his eyes. President Touré himself scarcely set an edifying example. Although he spoke often and eloquently to his people of the need for frugality and austerity, he thought nothing of investing public funds in a sizable fleet of expensive American automobiles for his own use and for the comfort of visiting dignitaries. Ministers whose yearly salary was only $5,000 somehow managed to build for themselves, or for rent to foreign diplomats, sumptuous seaside villas that cost ten times that amount.

Regional governors and high party officials were not long in emulating the example set by their colleagues in the capital. While such notables rode around in their chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz, hundreds of villages in the interior were deprived of the services of a doctor, or even of a minor medical assistant, for lack of a vehicle to reach them.

Their possession of power and their access to the state’s coffers soon made of Guinea’s “revolutionary” leaders a privileged ruling class. And like ruling classes everywhere, they were loath to give up the perquisites they had acquired in the name of revolutionary principles which now seemed remote. They were not really called upon to do so, however. Who was there in Guinea who would reproach them publicly for their corruption? The only person who could possibly do so was the President, and he was too taken up with denouncing colonialists, imperialists, and neocolonialists to do anything more than utter meaningless platitudes or empty warnings. Moreover, considering the way he himself carried on, he was scarcely suited to undertake such a crusade.

As the gap between the rulers and ruled in Guinea became wider,
it was only natural that the people should feel themselves increasingly alienated from their leaders. And this is what began to happen. The old sense of identification, of rapport, between Sékou Touré and the political elite, on the one hand, and the masses, on the other, began to wither away. The void was gradually filled with feelings of suspicion, fear, and even contempt toward the men who only yesterday had been heroes to their people.

(Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)
President Sékou Touré, in 1963 (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)

Bribery, nepotism, and corruption invaded virtually every branch of the public sector, wearing relentlessly away at the moral fiber of the nation. Occasionally, the extent of the corruption was spectacular. One such case occurred in December 1962, when President Toure disclosed the arrest of several high Guinean officials and foreigners working in the transport sector who had embezzled over $1 million in public funds 3.

Frauds on this scale were the exception however. Far more damaging were the hundreds, indeed thousands, of minor thefts, extortions, and other dishonest dealings committed daily by persons high and low who abused the public offices entrusted to them:

  • The party officials who demanded bribes to find someone’s relative a job
  • The government functionaries who pilfered the funds meant for community development
  • The heads of co-operatives who used their positions to obtain scarce goods and then sold them to a hard-pressed public at exorbitant prices
  • The soldiers and customs officials at Conakry’s airport who, in violation of regulations, openly solicited hard currency from incoming passengers in exchange for Guinean francs so that they could later sell it on the black market at three times the official exchange rate.

It was practices such as these that robbed the Guinean Revolution
of any meaning and eroded away the people’s sense of public morality.

President Sekou Toure welcomes President Félix Houphouët-Boigny during a state visit in 1962. (Photo: Information Côte d'Ivoire)
President Sekou Toure welcomes President Félix Houphouët-Boigny during a state visit in 1962. (Photo: Information Côte d’Ivoire)

This general decline in civic spirit was accompanied by an equally pernicious abdication of civic responsibility. Officials would leave their offices without telling anyone where they were going or when they would be back, and without delegating authority to a subordinate to act during their absence. Clerks felt free to follow the example set by their superiors. Lateness for work, absenteeism, and slipshod performance became the general practice of the day. No one seemed to give a damn.

Meanwhile the people suffered. The hapless laborer, peasant, or ordinary citizen waited for hours to see an official — only to be told that the person in question was no longer available, or was too busy to receive him and that he should come back tomorrow. Then, the following day there would be the same story. Sometimes wages would go unpaid for days, or even weeks, because a minor official was not available to sign a document or affix his own stamp, which he allowed no one else to use.

Parade of magistrates and Justice civil servants, 1963? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)
Parade of magistrates and Justice civil servants, 1963? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)

Away from the bureaucracy, things were not much better. Food
was scarce and, when available, high in price. Rice, the staple of the Guinean diet, could be obtained only through the party’s base committees in many parts of the country, and this meant that one had to be on good terms with the party officials if one hoped to get any rice at all.

In the interior, shortages were even more pronounced. Some areas went for months without gasoline or imported goods. This difficult situation was rendered even worse by the government’s ever increasing demands on the local populace. In order to compensate for the sharp decline in tax collections and falling customs revenues, and to dissuade people from smuggling, the government started requisitioning cattle from the Peul herdsmen in the Fouta-Djallon and coffee from the people in the Forest Region, thereby alienating them even more.

Womens' parade, 1964? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)
Womens’ parade, 1964? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)

The tragic results of this internal deterioration were soon evident. As the government found its prestige diminishing and its laws flouted, it resorted to harsher and harsher measures to bring the people back into line.

Guinea became a totalitarian state, with all that this implies.

Workers were forbidden to strike, although Article 44 of the National Constitution specifically guaranteed them that right 4;  freedom of speech and of assembly, guaranteed by Article 40 of the Constitution 5, were ruthlessly suppressed on the pretext that they would only serve the interests of “counterrevolutionary” elements ; and social justice — a topic upon which Sékou Touré delivered many a lengthy discourse — became a mockery.

Young Guinean women await the arrival of President Touré, 1962? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)
Young Guinean women await the arrival of President Touré, 1962? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)

Because Touré and other party leaders had always made political reliability rather than professional competence the primary criterion for recruiting persons into public service, the Guinean government was crowded with self-seeking, mediocre types. These were the party militants who faithfully attended each rally of the P.D.G., and dutifully applauded at all the right places when Touré delivered one of his customary pronunciamentos. These people managed to get along. It was simply a question of adjusting to the President’s current mood, and taking in whatever profit one could on the side.

For the conscientious civil servants, the situation was much more difficult. The cost of living in Guinea rose steadily; working conditions deteriorated; and more and more they came under heavy attack from Sékou Touré, who accused them of not being sufficiently dedicated to the revolution and even of harboring counterrevolutionary sentiments. The President called upon them to play a more active role in the Guinean Revolution and to make a greater contribution to the building of the nation, yet he denied them the freedom that was indispensable for them to be able to do so. Life for the functionary in Guinea was fraught with tension and uncertainty. One never quite knew what fate awaited one today, tomorrow, or the next day.

Soldiers parade, 1960? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)
Soldiers parade, 1960? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)

For many of these men—teachers, civil servants, intellectuals — Guinea had become a bleak land, a country that no longer held a future for them. Over the years they had stood by helplessly or impassively while Sékou Touré and the P.D.G. snuffed out one liberty after another in the name of a revolution in which few of them any longer believed, but which they felt too weak to oppose. The political climate in Guinea had become such that it was no longer possible to lead a peaceful and productive existence there. Many of these people, therefore, took what seemed the only way out: they fled the country. Hundreds made their way across the border to Senegal or to the Ivory Coast where they sought new jobs and, hopefully, a new life.

Parade of members of the Youth organization (J.R.D.A.), 1964? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)
Parade of members of the Youth organization (J.R.D.A.), 1964? (Photo courtesy Ministry of Information, Republic of Guinea)

But it was not only the intellectuals who fled. Dakar and Abidjan today are crowded with thousands of ordinary Guineans as well: farmers, fishermen, market-women, laborers, dioula traders, and others who left Guinea because life there had become intolerable. In 1965 a whole village near the Ivoirian town of Touba moved across the border and settled in the Ivory Coast.

The Guinean government, in an effort to check this exodus, tightened up its passport requirements and refused to grant exit permits to its citizens except where convincing reasons could be furnished by the applicant to justify the departure. But to no avail: the exodus continued, and continues to this day. Since 1960 several hundred thousand people have left Guinea 6. So large a number of people do not leave a country unless there are compelling reasons for them to do so, and the fact that they have been obliged to leave is an indictment of Sekou Toure, the government, and the P.D.G., and of the way they have ruled Guinea over the last seven years.

As the number of these exiles increased, Touré became increasingly alarmed. Their presence abroad was a source of embarrassment to him, and their growing outspokenness against his regime, a reason for disquiet. It now became unmistakably clear to him that unless drastic measures were taken to deal with the profound malaise which pervaded the country, his own position would be more and more threatened.

Notes
1. The death penalty for fatal accidents committed on the highways was never enforced, but the government did enforce its harsh laws against petty theft.
In October 1959, in Kindia, a teen-age youth named Camara Yero was convicted of stealing 200 francs ($.80). According to published reports of the incident, the youth was first beaten severely by the police, forced to dig his own grave, then had his hands trussed to his legs like an animal. Badly bleeding, he was then dragged before a military firing squad and executed to serve as a public example of the fate that awaited thieves. Several days later a similar incident took place in Conakry. A nineteen year-old boy, accused of having stolen six shirts, was sentenced to die before a firing squad. The execution, which was scheduled to take place in a schoolyard, was widely advertised throughout the capital and the public was urged to attend.

Public sentiment was strong against the execution. The person who had originally filed the complaint against the youth immediately withdrew it when he heard of the severe punishment that was to be meted out to him. The wife of the Czech ambassador to Conakry, in tears, implored Sékou Touré to call it off. He refused and the execution was carried out as ordered.
2. This theme found expression in the political art of the day. At the centre culturel in Mamou, for example, hang two murals painted on cloth by members of the J.R.D.A., the national youth movement. One mural depicts Guinea “as it used to be”. It shows a white woman being borne in a sedan chair by four Africans while her husband struts alongside. A second mural shows Touré, mounted on a white charger and garbed in a knight’s armor, slaying the dragon of colonialism.
3. Afrique Nouvelle (Dakar), December 7 to 13, 1962.
4. Title X: On the Rights and Fundamental Duties of Citizens (Article 44; Paragraph 2): “The exercise of trade unionism and the right to strike are recognized for the worker.”
5. Title X: On the Rights and Fundamental Duties of Citizens (Article 40): “The citizens of the Republic of Guinea shall enjoy freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of public demonstration under the conditions as set by law.”
6. Just how many people have actually left is extremely difficult to determine. Reliable statistics have not as yet been compiled, and estimates vary widely. Guinean exiles residing in the Ivory Coast claim that as many as a million people have fled since independence, a figure which is most certainly grossly exaggerated. President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, in a public speech delivered on November 17, 1965, cited 200,000 as the number of Guineans at present living in his country, but this number is probably also an exaggeration. The most recent reliable statistics available concerning breakdown of Abidjan’s population ( 1963) show that out of a total population of 230,000 for that year, Guineans numbered only 3 500 or roughly 6%.

Tierno Siradiou Bah

Author: Tierno Siradiou Bah

Founder and publisher of webAfriqa, the African content portal, comprising: webAFriqa.net, webFuuta.net, webPulaaku,net, webMande.net, webCote.net, webForet.net, webGuinee.net, WikiGuinee.net, Campboiro.org, AfriXML.net, and webAmeriqa.com.