Generations of Africans will continue to laud Guinea-Conakry’s first president Ahmed Sekou Toure for his defiant rejection of the flagrantly neo-colonial arrangement that was behind Francafrique. Rejecting President Charles de Gaulle’s paternalistic offer to France’s former colonies, Toure’s cry that Guinea would prefer freedom in poverty to "riches in slavery" still resonates. But during Toure’s 26-year period in power, “freedom”, as well as substantive economic development in Guinea remained an illusion. This all the more pitiful given the privations and widespread repression his nation had to endure. While Toure continues to receive the adulation of many for his commitment to Pan-Africanism, his support for liberation movements, as well as his attempts at decolonising the education system and freeing his people from the pervasive mental subjugation to French culture experienced by Francophone Africa, his legacy is clouded by the method of his rule which came to be underwritten by managerial incompetence, the fostering of a cult of personality and a brutal mission aimed at maintaining power for power’s sake.
A former trade union leader, Ahmed Sekou Toure, who claimed lineage from the legendary Mandinka warrior Samori Toure, challenged French rule in 1953 by leading a successful strike against the colonial authorities in French West Africa. His organising abilities allied to his oratorical skills provided the basis for his entry into politics and he was twice elected as a representative to the French National Assembly. He was barred from taking his seat on both occasions, but after winning a resounding majority to become mayor of Conakry in 1955, he was allowed to take a place in the assembly.
Toure guided the decision of the Guinean people to reject the option of Guinea being co-opted into the federation community led by France, choosing instead the path of independence which was achieved on October 2nd, 1958. The French reacted by withdrawing civil servants and professionals, as well as by dismantling transportable equipment.
Toure sought to overcome this act of sabotage by seeking help from a wide circle of nations. These included members of the communist bloc and Western countries. An injection of $10 million from Kwame Nkrumah-led Ghana also helped.
Along with Nkrumah, Modibo Keita of Mali, Gamal Nasser of Egypt, and King Mohammed V of Morocco, Toure formed the Casablanca Bloc, that group of African nations which sought a faster pace of political and economic integration among newly independent African states than those who comprised the Monrovia Bloc.
Apart from this, Toure participated in an attempt at fostering regional economic cooperation, and along with Nkrumah and Keita of Mali, sought to create a socialist bloc in West Africa, which at one time appeared to include Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria.
Alongside Ben Bella and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Toure gave a home to African liberation movements. He provided valuable assistance primarily to the African Party for the Independence of Guiné and Cabo Verde (PAIGC), the guerrilla movement led by Amilcar Cabral which successfully overthrew Portuguese rule in Guinea-Bissau. But this extended to offering facilities to figures of the anti-Portuguese struggle in Angola such as Holden Roberto, leader of the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) and Lucio Lara and Iko Carreira of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
He also provided a home in exile for his old ally Nkrumah.
Like Nkrumah, Toure’s skills as an orator were matched by his abilities as a writer. He was adept at articulating the condition of Africa and the problems it faced in forging a place in the post-colonial world. His paper titled “Africa’s Future and the World” which appeared in the October 1962 edition of Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations provides is a good example of his flair for words and his cogency in putting across his points in regard to Africa’s underdevelopment, the discriminatory effect of the pricing of raw materials and the adoption by African states of “neutralism”.
However, the early idealism and progressive aspirations of Toure would become submerged in a system of rule that came to be characterised by mismanagement and cruel repression. The roots of this malaise are easy to fathom but are hard to justify.
Toure was constantly burdened by the question of national and personal security. He saw his allies overthrown by successful military coups: Nkrumah in 1966, Keita in 1968 and Ben Bella in 1965. The early attempts by the French government aimed at sabotaging his economy included a covert action designed to flood the Guinean economy with fake currency after Toure had created a central bank and new currency. Operation Persil, which was planned by Jacques Foccart and implemented by the SDECE, the French foreign intelligence service, ultimately failed.
For Toure, added to the threat from France was that of Portugal whose colonial interests were threatened by his support for anti-Portuguese insurgencies in west and southern Africa. “Operation Green Sea”, an amphibious assault on Conakry by Portuguese naval forces in November 1970, sought to capture Cabral, free Portuguese PoWs and create circumstance conducive for an armed insurrection.
Toure survived, but his actions in response to the invasion began to show a pattern of governance which began to be blurred by paranoiac purges of individuals, many of them almost certainly blameless of the accusation of collaboration with external forces or of having ambitions to overthrow him. This was the case with the apprehensions and executions of many serving and former government ministers and civil servants with whom Toure had either fallen out or otherwise did not trust.
Prior to “Operation Green Sea” in March 1969, Toure’s security machine had convinced itself of a plot of the army based on an overheard conversation between two paratroopers. It resulted in the arrests of Colonel Kaman Diaby, the Deputy Chief of Army Staff, and Fodeba Keita, the Secretary of State for Defence who were accused of being part of a French-backed plot to overthrow Toure’s government.
Toure later told a meeting that Diaby's home had been full of arms and ammunition and that when he was seized, he had been about to flee the country. He also claimed that the house contained a marshal's uniform and a "Proclamation of the Second Republic".
Both men were shot to death on May 27th, 1969, after having to dig their own graves.
The charges are widely believed to have been false and both Diaby and his superior, Colonel Keita Noumandian, Chief of General Staff who was arrested in 1970 and executed in 1971, have been formally rehabilitated by the National Recovery and Development Committee (CNRD).
Guineans had little reason to believe in the veracity of the “confessions” of supposed fifth columnists arrested by Toure’s security network in the aftermath of “Operation Green Sea.” Each confession contained common elements regardless of whether the prisoner had been supposedly recruited by the American, French or West German secret services. They were always recruited into spy networks, were paid astronomical stipends, and ended up naming and denouncing their “collaborators.”
Corroboration that these were stage-managed, fictitious enterprises were confirmed by letters which managed to be smuggled out of the detention centres at which the victims were held.
The contrivance of many of the arrests carried out by Toure’s security men, the theatre of the consequent show trials conducted by revolutionary tribunals and the macabre ways in which victims were tortured and put to death were present in the manner in which Toure dealt with his most famous victim, the diplomat Diallo Telli.
Telli was a long-term Secretary General of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) who prior to that had served as Guinea's ambassador to the United Nations. He was murdered at the notorious Camp Boiro in Conakry in 1977. The cause of death was the 'Black Diet': starvation through the withdrawal of food and water.
An ethnic Fulani, Telli was a victim of a second wave of anti-Fulani purges mounted by Toure.
By this time, the modus operandi for engineering these liquidations had been well established. In her paper titled "Guinea's Political Prisoners: Colonial Models, Postcolonial Innovation" which was published in Comparative Studies in Society and History (October 2012, Vol. 54, No. 4, pp. 890-913), Mairi S. MacDonald drew on the recollections of Alpha-Abdoulaye Diallo, a prominent victim who had been Minister of State for Youth and Tourism:
First Toure himself would suggest an arrest. Before moving against an individual, the regime's seers would perform a set of occult rituals to paralyse the target and “kill" his or her will.
Leaving nothing to chance, the regime would pursue a more prosaic form of paralysis. Even as one member of an extended family was being arrested, another would be promoted to sap the group's cohesion and its ability to act.
Once arrested the prisoner would be held in solitary confinement without food or water for several days—the diete noire—then invited to sign a confession. If the prisoner did not sign, he or she would be sent to the cabinet technique and subjected to a variety of tortures, including the application of electrical current to the body. Torture sessions would be interspersed with further opportunities to confess.
The confession itself took the form of a statement prepared for each in and presented to him or her by the commission of inquiry, usually in the person of Ismael Toure. The prisoner was often pressured to elaborate on the prepared confession by denouncing a specified number of additional people. Once the prisoner agreed to sign, he or she would be recorded reading the confession. The recording would then be broadcast on the Voice of the Revolution (Radio Conakry), and the cycle would begin again with the newly named victims.
There is something to be said of the argument that underdeveloped nations such as Guinea and other African states can only achieve a rapid and assured transformation of their societies into industrialised, self-sufficient entities by the regimentation of their people under strong leadership which facilitates a centrally planned course of economic development.
And in protecting the nation from threats of foreign interference of the sort Toure contended with, it would not be unreasonable for such a leadership to substitute an open society for a closed one. This was the decision made in the mid-1950s by the exiled Fidel Castro and Che Guevara who resolved to pursue the latter if they ever achieved power in Cuba. Both men had observed the way the foreign intelligence service of the United States had overthrown the governments of Iran and Guatemala. The manipulation of the media for instance played a huge part in setting up the deposing respectively of Mohamed Mossadegh and Jacobo Arbenz.
However, in the case of Toure’s Guinea, the brand of coercion and surveillance did not enhance the development of the nation. They only created the conditions for poor management of the nation’s human and material resources. This was reflected in the failure of many important projects pertaining to industrial and rural development in the 1960s and 1970s.
Writing in May 1984 soon after the death of Toure and the coming to power of a military regime, Jonathan C. Randal of the Washington Post in “Letter From Guinea” wrote:
What is striking is how little of Sekou Toure’s reign remains. He created everything on paper, but little actually functioned.
While Toure’s antipathy towards France was understandable, the decisions made in regard to educating the Guinean youth through a Mao-inspired Cultural Revolution which sought a rapid Africanisation of the education system proved to be a disaster.
Radical education reform began soon after the French evacuation from the country after independence was granted in 1958. In 1959, Decree Number 49 issued by the Ministère de l'Education Nationale (National Ministry for Education) set out a new ethnocentric policy of radical Africanization. However, the discarding of the French pedagogical model was later acknowledged to have come at a great cost: 20 years later, Guinea lagged behind every other Francophone African nation.
As Randal explained:
The only schoolbooks were volumes of Toure’s theoretical writings and declarations-laced with the jargon of socialism and pan-Africanism which students studied eight hours a week to the detriment of French, once the country’s lingua franca, and other subjects. More than a generation of students was churned out neither literate nor numerate, unemployable in any but the lowest jobs and a potential pool of political discontents. In any event only 32 percent of primary school-age children -and 16 percent of secondary school-age children-attended classes, far fewer than in neighbouring Ivory-Coast, Liberia, or Sierra Leone. Those who did graduate were rewarded with high-sounding titles. For example, more than 12,000 “agricultural engineers” graduated from special polytechnic schools, all but 2,000 of them hopelessly incompetent, according to education specialists.
Teachers also benefited from “degree
inflation,” with primary school teacher, promoted to secondary school teacher
and the latter given university posts, while grade schoolteachers were
recruited from among the new semi-literates from what is now known as the “lost
Toure’s failure to provide a solid foundation in educating the people undermined any pretence that he was embarked on a great enterprise aimed at substantively transforming his nation into a socialist triumph of modernity. From Toure, there was never any serious attempt to set out and act upon a credible decades-long plan of development that would mechanise agriculture and plant the seedlings of heavy industry. His absorption with maintaining his power and institutionalising a state of permanent conspiracy obliterated any ambition to embark on a Soviet model of development which would have enabled his minerally rich nation to build an industrial base.
As a result he left no lasting achievement from which Guineans could benefit. The calamity that he bequeathed to future Guineans in the form of several generations of uneducated and undereducated, puts a lie to the claim of his most vociferous adherents that he brought free education and free healthcare to the masses. As previously mentioned, the number of Guineans who had a primary and secondary school education were far less than those of neighbouring countries, and much of this had to do with parents withdrawing their children not only because of the extremely poor standards of the system, but because of the inordinate time dedicated to tedious and unproductive indoctrination.
A system of rule predicated on loyalty to Toure rather than on competence and the resultant dysfunctional administrative capacities which accompanied the descent into ever growing poverty led to a sizeable proportion of the population emigrating to other countries. Ultimately, it meant that Guinea was unable to develop economically, politically, and socially.
Thus, the positive aspects of Sekou Toure in defying colonialism at home and within the African continent cannot be allowed to overshadow his fundamental failings as a leader and a nation-builder. For to do so is to abrogate the truism of learning from the mistakes of the past.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2022).
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.