Guinea: Decolonization, Independence


Odile Goerg
Guinea: Ahmed Sékou Touré Era

Encyclopedia of African History.
Kevin Shillington, ed. Vol. 1. New York & London. Fitzroy Dearborn, p. 599-601

Two distinctive and contrasting symbols can summarize Ahmed Sékou Touré’s (1922-1984) Guinea: independence and the Camp Boiro. Political leader of decolonization, hero of the first colony to achieve independence in French Sub-Saharan Africa, Sékou Touré, like Kwame Nkrumah, was among the most eminent African leaders to oppose imperialism. He was welcomed in Guinea after the military coup in 1966 and was named vice president. But after the enthusiasm of independence and high hopes for the future of the country, things changed, through a combination of internal factors, external pressure, and Sékou Touré’s own personality. Sékou Touré became a dictator, eliminating opposition to his power and resorting to the worst methods of oppression, while radicalizing his discourse and practice in terms of both local and foreign policy. Three schematic phases can be distinguished in Touré’s regime:

  • 1958-1965: initial accommodation and negotiation
  • 1965-1975: radicalization
  • 1975-1984: gradual softening of his hard-line policies

Independence was proclaimed on October 2, 1958, and Guinea was admitted to the United Nations in December 1958. Guinea’s then representative was Diallo Telli. After holding various other high official positions, including being the first secretary general of the Organization of the African Unity (OAU), he would become a target of Sékou Touré’s suspicion, and one of the most famous victims of the Boiro Camp, the concentration camp located in a Conakry suburb.
A series of plots, real or faked, starting in 1960, was followed by increased repression. The repression peaked after the November 22, 1970, attempt by Portuguese and exiled Guinean forces both to liberate Portuguese soldiers (Guinea was a strong supporter of the liberation movement of Guinea Bissao and Cape Verde [PAIGC]) and overthrow Sékou Touré. Many people were arrested, including several ministers and ambassadors, high military officers, and Monsignor Tchidimbo, the archbishop of Conakry. Following an [extrajudicial] trial by the National Popular Assembly in January 1971, four people were publicly hanged under the Tombo bridge, in Conakry. Altogether 10,000 to 30,000 people were victims of the regime.
After the massive “no” vote in the 1958 referendum, France left with all its technicians and equipment and withdrew its aid, trying to block Guinea’s international contacts. Responding to the rigid French attitude, Guinea established its own money in 1960, the Guinean franc and later the Sily (the elephant), symbol of the party and its leader. Neither currencies were convertible, which gave the state an efficient means to control the economy. Diplomatic relationships with France were finally terminated in 1965. They were reestablished only ten years later, on July 14, 1975. Guinea turned to the Eastern bloc, to the Soviet Union and to China, for diplomatic and economic support (trade agreements were signed as early as 1958-1959). But, by 1961, some distance had been taken from the Soviet Union, accused of perverting the student movement and the teachers union. As a general rule, Guinea always tried not to depend too heavily on one partner, as demonstrated by its economic policy.
Guinea had rich assets: various ecological regions, sufficient water supply, mineral resources, and skilled labor (?). During colonization, this potential had not been fully utilized, but new projects were underway in the 1950s such as the exploitation of bauxite and iron and the building of a dam on the Konkouré river (finally inaugurated in 1999 ??). In 1958 Guinea was the third colony in French West Africa in terms of economic value. These assets attracted foreign investment: French (despite the political problems), American, and Soviet. Investment was mainly aimed at the exploitation of bauxite: at Fria (the French Company Péchiney combined with North American capital), Boké (American-controlled international consortium), Kindia-Friguiabgé (a joint venture between the Guinean State and the Soviet Union), and from 1952 to 1974 at Kassa. Because of its nationalistic orientation, Guinea was partially able to impose its own terms and negotiate more favorable contracts (???). The example of the transformation of bauxite in Guinea itself illustrates this policy, but the aluminum factory in Fria, an intermediate stage in the processing of aluminum, shows the limits of negotiation with intemational trusts. Despite the agreement, Guinea failed to have an aluminum factory built to take advantage of the surplus value created by this industrial stage. The production at Fria went rapidly from 185,000 tons in 1960 to 460,000 two years later and 700,000 in the 1980s. A 145-kilometer long railway was built from Fria to Conakry while the harbor of Kamsar was the outlet for Boké mines whose exports started in 1973. Guinea was the second largest world bauxite producer, and this product was responsible for over 90 per cent of its hard currency earnings. Diamonds were another important resource, whose small-scale exploitation was strictly controlled and even forbidden in 1975-1980, in order to prevent smuggling toward Freetown.
Resorting to Marxist phraseology, Sékou Touré applied a policy of nationalization and centralization. The 1962 congress of the PDG proclaimed the adoption of the non-capitalist mode of development. The regime aimed at creating a unified Guinean nation, without class or ethnic divisions. The nationalization of industries [they never affected the mining interests], which started in 1959, was broadened with the passage of a new fundamental law in 1964 which repressed corruption and private enterprise. Guinea was basically an agricultural country (although most of its monetary resources came from mining), and there, too, a similar policy was applied: collective farming was organized and received much public financial help. (The final stage was the FAPA, or “fermes agro-pastorales d’Arrondissement”, in 1978.) Students spent one year at the end of their curriculum, working in the countryside and “educating” the masses. In addition, foreign trade was nationalized and private trade forbidden for some time.
The state also controlled all political and intellectual activity. Some parties spontaneously rallied to the PDG, but most of them were forbidden, resulting in the establishment of the one-party state. As a result, the whole country was organized under the leadership of the PDG. In 1967 Guinea was divided into 7 “Commissariats généraux de la Révolution,” 33 administrative regions, 350 districts, and at the village or neighborhood level 2,500 “Pouvoirs révolutionnaires locaux” (PRL). The organization of the party (in which membership was compulsory at the age of seven and required the payment of dues, a substitute for direct taxation) reproduced the same scheme. Attending party meetings was also an obligation. The party aimed at controlling all activities; it organized the population, mainly the workers (CNTG: Confédération nationale des travailleurs de Guinée), the youth (JRDA: Jeunesse de la Révolution démocratique africaine), and women (URFG: Union révolutionnaire des femmes de Guinée). The state also controlled public opinion through the school system and censorship of the media.
Mottos espousing revolution, anti-imperialism, and egalitarianism were particularly attractive in a country characterized by discrimination, be it by age, gender, or socioeconomic status (slaves, castes). Campaigns were organized against so-called mystical practices. Feudalism, in Marxist terms, was attacked: the old chief system, used by colonization, was abolished in 1957, and captivity, which still existed in indirect ways, was repressed in an attempt to change attitudes. This was mainly aimed at the Fula aristocraty and led to multifold repression. But despite his Marxist discourse, Sékou Touré was able to gain the support of Muslim leaders and to attract Arab capital. A Friday mosque was built in the suburbs of Conakry.
In the mid-1970s, Guinea gradually opened up again and balanced its relations between the Western and the Eastern blocs. Trade and agriculture were progressively liberalized, and reconciliation was proclaimed with several European and African countries. As a result, the borders reopened and negotiations started with the European Economic Community (Guinea signed the Lomé Agreement) and international organizations (IMF). Sékou Touré assumed again the figure of a Pan-Africanist and non-aligned leader after he personally attended the Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Monrovia in 1978 (where Guinea reconciled with Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire). Previously, in 1968, he had encouraged the founding of the Organization of the States Bordering the Senegal River (Organisation des Etats riverains du Sénégal) whose treaty had been signed in Guinea; but it broke up in 1971 because of conflicts between Guinea and its neighbors following the 1970 Portuguese aggression. Similarly he favored the foundation of other regional organizations (Gambia River, Mano, River, Niger). He also served as mediator for various conflicts (Chad, Western Sahara). This role was supposed to attain its apogée with the organization of the twentieth OAU summit in Conakry in 1984. Sékou Touré’s death interrupted the preparations.
Sékou Touré’s regime, which lasted almost unchallenged from 1958 to his natural death on March 26, 1984, had profound consequences for Guinea. It accelerated a migration process started under colonization. This resulted in the exodus of about 25 per cent of the total population, and the death or flight of most intellectuals. At the same time the radicalization of the ideology created economic problems in a country whose resources were promising. After some hesitation and competition between Prime Minister Lansana Béavogui and Ismael Touré, Sékou Touré’s half-brother, the army took over on April 3, 1984, under the leadership of Colonels Lansana Conté and Diarra Traoré who formed the CMRN (Comité militaire de redressement national). The second republic was proclaimed, and the PDG and its institutions were abolished.

Further Reading

  • Adamolekun, L. Sékou Toure’s Guinea. An Experiment in Nation Building. London: Methuen and Co., 1976.
  • Nelson, H., et al. Area Handbook for Guinea. Washington, D.C,: Foreign Area Studies of the American University, 1975.
  • O’Toole, T. E. Historical Dictionaty of Guinea (Republic of Guinea/Conakry). 3rd ed. Metuchen, N. J., 1995.
  • Rivière, Claude. Classes et stratifications sociales en Afrique. Le cas guinéen. Paris: Editions Marcel Rivière et Cie, 1978.