Sekou Toure: An African Tragedy

webGuinée / Bibliothèque
Parti Démocratique de Guinée
Ahmed Sékou Touré

Phineas Malinga
Ahmed Sékou Touré: An African Tragedy

The African Communist. 1985. N° 100, pp. 56-64.

From the very beginning Sékou Touré was different. Many of the first generation of leaders who emerged in the former French colonies of subSaharan Africa had come up along a path carefully mapped out for them their rulers. They belonged to the tiny minority who benefitted fron the French policy of “assimilation”. They went to the best French schools and universities. They sat in the French Parliament, even in the French Government. They were intended tofunction, after independence, simply a new set of representatives of the French bourgeoisie. Some of them have been doing just that for a quarter of a century.

It was otherwise with Sékou Touré. With only an elementary education he worked in the post office and became active in a French trade union. He acquired a little further education at a trade union school run by the trade union féderation C.G.T. Returning to Guinea, he again became active in the trade union movement, which was then at a very early stage of its development. In 1953, he led the first general strike in the history of the French colonies south of the Sahara. For the first time the French colonial administration had to settle a strike by means of concessions. This victory catapulted Sékou Touré into the limelight and he soon became the acknowledged leader of the Guinean section of the RDA (Rassemblement Démocratique Africain — the political party which at that time embraced all the sub-Saharan French colonies).

In 1958, aged 36, Sékou Touré had his appointment with destiny. General de Gaulle had offered the French colonies a choice. The first alternative was membership of the “French Community”. This meant internal self government, with foreign policy and defence remaining in French hands and adherence to the franc currency zone compulsory. The bait was economic aid from France and her partners in the recently established European Common Market. The other alternative was complete independence and severance of all ties with France.

De Gaulle undertook a grand tour of the colonies. In one after another, he received the respectful acceptance of his “community” plans from the carefully trained local leaders. Then he came to Conakry. In a passionate speech delivered in the fumig presence of the General, Sékou Touré declared :

“We prefer poverty in freedom to wealth in slavery”.

The people of Guinea followed this lead. Alone among the colonies, Guinea voted “No” to de Gaulle’s plan. The French reacted vindictively. Not only were all French technicians, experts, teachers etc. summarily withdrawn, but they even took equipment such as telephones with them. Not only did aid cease but all financial trade facilities. In short, France did everything possible to ensure the failure of Guinean independence.

Planning The Future

Sékou Touré and his comrades reacted not only with courage, but with policies which appeared to progressives everywhere to be impeccably correct. Commerce and industry were nationalised and construction was planned. For the first time in Africa, a national liberation movement endeavoured to transform itself into a vanguard party. This task was not tackled in a superficial way. Aware of the dangers of creating a mere city-based bureaucracy, the leaders of the P.D.G. (Parti Démocratique de Guinée — replacing the Guinean section of the R.D.A.) took care to extend their organisation into the villages. The party structure was used to mobilise the important practical tasks. Appeals went out for voluntary labour to be donated to key construction projects and the people responded. The system of chieftainship was abolished. The dangers of tribalism were perceived and the importance of nation-building was emphasised. The fraternal assistance of the socialist countries was sought and obtained.
These policies caught the imagination not only of the Guinean people, but many others throughout Africa. The present writer remembers hearing the great South African communist, Bram Fischer, declare his belief that Guinea would within twenty years leave the rest of Africa far behind in terms of progress and development


Such hopes were destined to be tragically disappointed. The first signs that all was not well appeared within a few years of independence. In 1961, the Guinean authorities announced that they had discovered a “conspiracy of teachers”. A large number of teachers and school children were arrested together with trade unionists and party cadres of left-wing views. Governments of countries where Guinean students were pursuing their studies, including those of the USSR, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic, were asked to arrest the students and summarily repatriate, them, so that they might be interrogated. Some students avoided repatriation and went into exile. Some remain in exile to this day and still protest that they were sincere supporters of the P.D.G. and the revolution, unjustly victimised in an anti-leftist purge. The Soviet Ambassador was accused of contact with subversive students and had to be recalled. In the first of many policy changes, Sékou Touré’s government scaled down its contacts with the socialist countries and made some overtures to the USA.

In explaining these events, Sékou Touré spoke of “a Machiavellian plan intended to launch a Marxist revolution.” This was an astonishing accusation by the leader of a party whose inspiration had from the outset been largely Marxist. To unravel the truth of the matter would be a task far beyond the scope of the present article. There may quite possibly have been a conspiracy. There may have been ultra-left intellectuals who wanted to transform the P.D.G. into a purely Marxist party in which there would be no room for non-Marxists, while Sékou Touré may have wished, and may have been right in wishing, that it should retain the character of a Popular Front. At the least, however, the events of 1961 showed that the position of Marxism in the ideology of the P.D.G. had not been clearly thought through when the party was founded.

The damage on this occasion was nevertheless limited and the period of Sékou Touré’s greatest prominence in the international arena still lay ahead of him. In Africa, he was not only of the founding fathers of the OAU, but the leader who above all others made African unity his cause. Certain of the initiatives which he took in this direction — one thinks of the abortive unions proclaimed with Ghana and with Mali — were ill-prepared and counterproductive. Nevertheless, nobody was ever in any doubt where Sékou Touré stood on that issue. The affection in which he was held could only be enhanced by the generous loyalty which he displayed towards other progressive leaders — Kwame Nkrumah in particular — when they fell upon evil days. On every issue which arose on the African continent from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, Sékou Touré spoke out unflinchingly on the people’s side.

His overtures to the USA after 1961 were not prolonged or far-reaching. The implacable hostility of Gaullist France remained a dominant fact in the international position of Guinea and it was not long before the logic of that position began to reasscrt itself. When Sékou Touré again sought the friendship of the socialist countries it was given ungrudgingly, with no recriminations over the past. By 1965, relations with the Soviet Union had been fully restored. In August, Sekou Touré visited Moscow and was greeted as a leader of “an almost fraternal party”. In November, he accused France, Senegal and Ivory Coast of having supported a conspiracy against the government and people of Guinea. Diplomatic relations with France were broken off for the next ten years, while Guinea became isolated from the majority of neighbouring states in Africa.

Mercenary Invasion

Imperialist hostility reached its most vicious height in 1970, when a force of mercenaries, organised with Portuguese connivance in the then colonial territory of’ Guinea-Bissau, invaded Guinea and openly attempted to overthrow its government by force. Sékou Touré reacted to all these events with the uncompromising courage which the world had come to expect of him. In 1975 he was able to avenge himself on Portuguese reaction and render perhaps his greatest service to the continent of Africa. When Angola called for fraternal aid against South African aggression, Guinea provided a vital staging post for Soviet and Cuban ships and aircraft on their way to answer the call.

By this time, however, Sékou Touré’s international prestige was no longer based upon sound domestic foundations. There had been reasons, even in 1965, when the Soviet leaders felt unable to go beyond the description of “almost fraternal” for the P.D.G. An illustration of its shortcomings occurred in 1967 when a “cultural revolution” was announced. Anybody who suspected that this might be an imitation of what was going on in China at the time would have had his suspicions confirmed by the appearance of a book of Thoughts of Sékou Touré, upon which the people were commanded to meditate. Another aspect of this “cultural revolution” was a hasty decision to abolish the French language and give equal rights as official languages to less than eight local dialects.

Of more fondamental importance was the fact that the P.D.G., in spite of impeccably non-tribal basis on which it had been founded, had slowly but inexorably taken on a tribal complexion over the years. By the late sixties, it was dominated by Sékou Touré’s own people, the Malinke. Worse still, his immediate relations became increasingly prominent in the leadership. One of these, the President’s half brother, Ismael Touré, exerted a particularly malign influence during the seventies. An open admirer of the USA and of the “liberal” policies pursued in the Ivory Coast, he was at one time minister for planning, later minister for mining and geology. Towards the end of Sekou Touré’s lifé, Ismael was often described as “the government’s No. 2.”

It is difficult to assess exactly how much responsibility Ismael Touré had for the turn which government took in the second half of the seventies. At all events, that turn was a disastrous one. Step by step, Guinea moved towards the right. It was natural enough that, once Pompidou had retired and been replaced by a French President less closely associated with the memory of de Gaulle, there should have been a normalisation of relations with France. It did not, however, end with normalisation in a sens acceptable to free Africa; it went on to normalisation in a sense acceptable to French neo-colonialism.

From the time of Giscard d’Estaing’s visit to Conakry in 1978, France began to become the dominant economic partner of Guinea, at the expense of Guinea’s relations with the socialist couritries. So enchanted did Sékou Touré become with his closeness to the government of Giscard that he saw fit to express his support for the forces of the right in two successive French general elections. On the second of these occasions, he backed the losing side and was somewhat embarrassed to find Mitterand, whom he had sharply attacked, in the seat of power in Paris. This embarrassment did not take long to overcome, however, and in due course the two ex-leaders met and got on well together.

Role of the Women

Domestically, an important change of policy took place in 1977. In that year, there were demonstrations against the government in Conakry by women — in particular the “market women” whose small-scale trading is a traditional feature of life in many parts of West Africa. Sékou Touré was shaken by this event, as he had always prided himself on the support which he reccived from the women of Guinea. He responded by a far-reaching “liberalisation of commerce”.

There is much food for thought in this event. It can be strongly argued that the P.D.G. had been over-ambitious in its nationalisation of commerce immediately after liberation. It should be remembered that Marxism does not advocate nationalisation for any dogmatic, idealistic reason. It advocates nationalisation of large-scale industrial production because such production is inherently and inevitably social in its nature and its organisation. Private ownership of a large factory or mine is an aberration. By nationalising it, one is simply bringing legal form into harmony with socio-economic reality. In highly industrialised countries, the trend is for commerce to be carried on by incrrasingly large and elaborate organisations, so that a stage is reached in which what is true of industry is also true of commerce.

The same cannot be said of a country such as Guinea was in 1958. Commerce was in the hands of individual traders or small firms. Nationalisation did not mean seizing control of an existing machine. It meant creating an entirely new administrative structure to enable commerce to be organised at a level at which it had not been organised in the past. It may have been desirable to do this in order to place the government in a better position to plan the national economy as a whole. But was it practicable? Did it represent the best use of scarce administrative cadres?

There is no doubt that the Guinean revolution failed to produce the economic progress which seemed to be promised in its early years.The reasons are many and complex but administrative inadequacy is among them. It may be that if at the outset tasks had been set which were more carefully tailored to the administrative potential which existed, the results would have been better.

Be that as it may, the complete reversal of policy towards the commercial sector in 1977 was seen as a victory for the Right and left the country without a coherent economic strategy.

The Problem of Tribalism

Another ominous development of the mid-seventies was that the problem. of tribalism assumed new dimensions. In 1976, the government denounced a “conspiray of the Peuls.” This was the first time that a particular ethnic group had been publicly identified as hostile to the government. In the repression which followed, the former Secretary General of the OAU, Diallo Telli, was arrested and later died in prison. It was alleged that he was deliberately starved to death by the prison authorities. A large number of the Peul people fled the country and were later said to constitute a majority of the two million Guineans who were living in exile by the end of Sékou Touré’s life.

As Guinea moved into the eighties, there was little left of the revolutionary policies of earlier years. Internationally, Guinea’s alignment with France was now supplemented by an increasingly close relationship with right-wing Arab governments, particularly those of Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

Here is another theme of some importance in the Sékou Touré story. He was a Moslem and Guinea is predominantly a Moslem country. These facts received little emphasis in the early post-liberation years but much more in the later period. But exactly what role Islam played in the ideology of the P.D.G. was never clearly defined.

The religion (if not always the practice) of Islam is egalitarian and shows concern about questions of social justice. Originating in pre-capitalist society, it has never adapted ilself to capitalism to the same extent as the Christian churches have done. In Moslem countries which were colonized by non-Moslems, there was naturally a role for Islam in the national liberation struggle. For these reasons, it was easy for Moslems and Marxists in many countries to find a significant area of common ground. They could set out together for a certain distance along a road which leads towards progress. As the experience of Soviet Asia shows, it is possible for this road to lead onwards to a permanently fruitful relationship. But that experience also shows that there are problems to be overcome. There are questions to which very precise answers have to be given. It is no use imagining that Islam and Marxism can simply be mixed in whatever quantities take somebody’s fancy. It is no use declaring a theoretical allegiance to both and then following a path which in practice veers to and fro between two allegiances. That, unhappily, is very much what the P.D.G. did

By the last year of his life, Sékou Touré was completely enmeshed in the net of neocolonialism. Guinea had acquired a crushing burden of debt to Western and Arab banks. “Investment” by foreign monopolies was the order of the day. In 1983, the congress of the P.D.G. dropped the slogan of “revolution” in favour of “production” (not a bad slogan in itself, but now it meant production for the foreign “investor”). In the same year Sékou Touré went to Paris to attend what was called a “Franco-African summit” — in other words a meeting of France’s African satellites.

Another event of 1983 was less important but profoundly symbolic. A certain Jacques Foccart had been in the entourage of de Gaulle in Conakry at the famous encounter of 1958, when Sékou Touré had renounced France. This same Foccart was, throughout the sixties, the secretary of state in charge of African affairs in Paris. He masterminded the implacable policy of revenge pursued by the French government in those years. In 1965, Sékou Touré denounced him at a mass meeting in Conakry as the shadow schemer whose hand could be seen in every attempt to destabilise Guinea. In 1983, Foccart returned to Conakry, as the guest of the President. Il was billed as a “reconciliation” and so it was — on Foccart’s terms. It is easy to imagine the satisfaction which the French bureaucrat must have felt as he surveyed the result of a quarter of a century of endeavour on his part. It is painful to imagine the feelings of Sékou Touré

Note. — Read also “Foccart et Sékou : surprenantes retrouvailles” — Tierno S. Bah

Months later, Sékou Touré was dead. He left behind him a country impoverished, indebted and divided. His historic decision to take Guinea out of the system of French neo-colonialism had effectively been reversed. His dream of African unity was as far from realisation as it had ever been. In short, his was ultimately a story of failure

It is not difficult to list good qualities in Sékou Touré which contributed to his achievements and faults which, contributed to his eventual failure.

  • On the one hind he was courageous, a brilliant speaker and writer, a man with that elusive quality which makes others want to follow him.
  • On the other hand, he was arrogant, lacked capacity for self-criticism and resented criticism from others. His grasp of political theory was not profound, his approach eclectic and inconsistent

There Are Many Lessons

For us Marxists, however, history is not primarily the history of individual leaders.The story of Sékou Touré is also, and more importantly, the story of a people and a party. It has many lessons to teach the rest of Africa.

Firstly, it must never be forgotten that the Guinean revolution did not collapse simply from its own shortcomings. It was defeated by a powerful and tireless enemy. The first lesson which the story teaches Africa is, beware of France!

It is easy to imagine that, because France now belongs only to the third rank, of imperialist powers, there is little to fear from that quarter. That is a dangerous illusion. France remains far more powerful than the average African country and devotes more attention to Africa than any other imperialist power. Since de Gaulle reformed it, the French political system has been more stable than either the American or the British. The French bureaucracy sets objectives which it pursues unswervingly for decade after decade.The maintenance of the neo-colonialist system in West and Central Africa has been such an objective. Within that general objective, the forcing of Guinea back into the system was a particular objective. If Guinea had succeeded in the long term in beating off this attack, as it seemed in the short term that Guinea was going to succeed, it would have been a brilliant achievement indeed.

Why did that achievement elude the people of Guinea? The answer has to lie in the history of the P.D.G. There would be few more valuable services to Africa than for some qualified Marxist scholar, with access to the documents of the P.D.G., to write its history in detail.The present writer can make only some tentative suggestions.

The transformation of a national liberation movement into a vanguard party cannot be other than a difficult task. There are at least two errors into which it is easy to fall.

  • The first is to take the line of least resistance — to evade all difficult decisions, put something for everybody into the party programme and, in effect, perpetuate the national liberation movement under a new name.
  • The second is to exaggerate the extent to which it is possible to move in the direction of a fully socialist programme. In many national liberation movements, the urban population is much more heavily represented than in the nation as a whole. The urban militant is often tempted to despise the couritryside and its problems. Under the influence of’ such militants, a movement can find itself swept into the adoption of programmes based on the assumption that industry and the urban proletariat are more important than, in that particular country at that particular time, they really are.

Though these may appear to beopposite errors, it is actually possible to commit both at once. The left-wing urban militant whose enthusiasm for Marxism outruns his real understanding of it may start by proving his Marxist credentials with a string of radical proposals in the economic sphere:

  • the total nationalisation
  • the collectivisation of the land, and so forth

Having done that and run out of steam, he may then leave a whole lot of other, less “glamorous” questions such as :

  • the national question
  • the language question
  • the role of religion in society

totally unresolved. The result is a party which is at one and the same time ultra-left in some of its policies and vaguely reformist in others.

The P.D.G. seems to have been such a party.There is no evidence that it began with a profound and realistic class analysis of Guinea in the 1950’s, went on to a clear decision as to whose party it was going to be and on that foundation built a coherent set of policies. There is no evidence that it knew what the demands of the peasantry actually were or how the rural economy actually worked. Instead, it devised a series of eye-catching measures of full-blooded socialism, based exclusively on the interests of’ the urban population, then tried to appease other elements by fudging a variety of political questions. The resulting mixture of policies seemed to work for a time but came apart at the seams when the system was subjected to strain.

It is both an heroic and a tragic story. There is reason to fear that it may have to be told again before its lessons are learned. It would be a bold man who could claim that he knew all its lessons and exactly how the errors of the P.D.G. can be avoided in other countries. One thing is nevertheless clear: there are no short cuts on the road to scientific socialisin. There is no substitute for political clarity. At all times we need to know exactly what we are doing, and why, and on behalf of what class.

Note.. This statement is erroneous. For an accurate biographical account read:

  • Ibrahima B. Kaké Sékou Touré: le héros et le tyran, which includes detailed information on Touré’s early years, including childhood and adolescence.
  • André Lewin. Sékou Touré, président de la Guinée, an eight-tome biographical work.