TOURE, Ahmed Sékou (1922-84)
GUINEAN nationalist, pan-Africanist, one of the most radical of the leaders in French-speaking Africa during the struggle for independence in the 1950s, who was the President of the Republic of Guinea for 26 years. The "symbol of a certain African dignity" though later also a certain form of dictatorship, Sékou Touré was a charismatic, respected, admired politician as well as a most controversial figure. A hero, when he led Guinea to independence in 1958, he enjoyed the passionate and almost unanimous admiration of his people. He was a brilliant organizer and shrewd politician who knew when to be tough and when to compromise. He was the only national leader in the French African territories with single -mindedness and self-confidence to opt for complete independence and severance ties with France in the referendum of 1958. But, unfortunately, in later years he became known as one of Africa’s most oppressive rulers, although “a moderate" in international affairs.
Guinea at the time of Sékou Toure’s birth on 9 January 1922 in Faranah, near source of the River Niger, in a modest family,was (and still is) a predominantly Moslem country, but superimposed on the traditional society were all the structures and pressures of the French colonial system. Educated at Koranic and then the local primary school, followed by the regional school at Kissidougou, Sékou Touré soon gained a reputation for hard work; he was one the brightest in students, interested in everything, and a voracious reader. In 1936 he went to the Ecole Georges Poiret in Conakry, but was expelled a year later for leading a food strike. Between 1938 and 1940 he did various jobs while continuing to educate him self through correspondence courses.
At eighteen, in 1940, he was employed by Compagnie du Niger Francais and in 1941 he joined the Post and Telecommunication (PTT) Department. He was by that time already showing his organisational abilities and an active interest in the labour movement. Four years later, in 1945, he formed the PPT Workers’ Union, the first trade union in Guinea, of which he became the secretary-general in 1946. He helped to form the Federation of Workers’ Union of Guinea, closely associated with the Confédération Generale des Travailleurs (CGT), the French Communist trade union movement, and the World Federation of Trade Unions. In 1946, he joined the Treasury Department and was elected secretary-general of the Treasury Employees’ Union; that same year he also became founder member of the inter-territorial Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) formed in Bamako under the leadership of Cote d’Ivoire’s Houphouét-Boigny.
When Sékou Touré lost his job in the Treasury for his political activities, he devoted his time to the national trade union movement, and rose to a position of power within Guinea as well as French West Africa (AOF- Afrique Occidentale Francaise), becoming in 1948 secretary-general of the Coordinating Committee of the CGT in the AOF, and in 1952 secretary-general of the Guinea branch of the RDA, the Parti Démocratique de Guinée (PDG), which had by then become a powerful mass movement under his leadership. In 1953 he was in the forefront of a wave of strikes from which he emerged as the idol of the Guinean workers, his reputation greatly enhanced.
That same year he was elected to the Territorial Assembly, and became the Guinea deputy to the French Assembly in the January 1956 elections, having been elected Mayor of Conakry in the 1955 municipal elections. The PDG-RDA in 1957 won 56 of the 60 seats in the then newly established in the newly established territorial assembly, following the "loicadre", which Sékou Touré saw as an opportunity for African nationalists to establish a power-base on their own ground. He was then the undisputed leader of Guinea, drawing his strength from popular support and party organisations. His prestige devolved outside Guinea, and in January 1957 he formed the Union Générale des Tmvailleurs d’Afrique Noire (UGTAN) which aimed “to unite and organise the workers of Black Africa, to coordinate their trade union activities in the struggle against colonialism and all other forms of exploitation . . . and to affirm the personality of African trade unionism". UGTAN soon attracted the vast majority of workers in the AOF, and in May 1957, Sékou Touré became a member of the Grand Council of French West Africa.
At that time there was a lot of controversy within the RDA as to whether the French African colonies should stay together in a federation within the French Community or move towards balkanisation, with each country linked directly to France. Sékou Touré was a strong advocate of the first option, in opposition to Houphouét-Boigny, but at the 1957 Bamako conference a compromise was reached, and Sékou Touré was elected vice-president of the RDA. The split, however, became again evident when in early 1958 Guinea led by him decided alone of all French Black Africa colonies to vote "no" in French President de Gaulle’s referendum between limited autonomy and complete independence, and was expelled from the RDA; Sékou Touré declared that "Guinea prefers poverty in freedom to wealth in slavery".
And so on 2 October 1958, Guinea became an independent republic with Sékou Touré as its President, and the French pulled out of Guinea within days, taking with them their administrative machinery; for more than a decade after that there were no official relations between the two countries.
Sékou Touré, at the beginning, enjoyed the respect of other countries and was particularly close to Nkrumah (q.v.) with whom he had much in common and who at the time of Guinea’s independence struggle had also been battling for full independence of Britain’s Gold Coast as Ghana was then. Ghana came to Guinea’s help with a loan, and considerable aid was also given by the East European countries. Both Sékou Touré and Nkrumah were enthusiastic supporters of pan-African aspirations and conferences, and in November 1958, they formed the Ghana-Guinea Union as a beginning for a Union of West African States, as they saw it. In 1960 the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union went a further step towards common pan-African and socialist objectives. In January 1961, Sékou Touré attended a summit conference at Casablanca of Heads of State from Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Morocco, the United Arab Republic and the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, together with the Foreign Minister of Libya and Ceylon’s Ambassador to Cairo. The Casablanca States as they came to be called — attacked "neo-colonialism", supported the Lumumba (q.v.) forces in Congo, and established a Joint African High Command, and launched committees for economic, political and cultural cooperation. Nkrumah went into exile to Guinea and was welcomed by Sekou Toure when he was overthrown in 1966.
However, with time Toure’s image in Africa began to suffer. His régime became increasingly marked by plots, repression, lack of capital and expertise needed to back a state-controlled economy and above all the initiative to develop and market the country’s economic resources; corruption, profiteering and smuggling became a constant challenge. Touré became disillusioned with Soviet aid, but it was not until the 1980s that he “resigned" himself to encourage US investment and allow the French to come back, having made his peace with them.
He also became increasingly obsessed with the fear of plots against him, and was preoccupied with his own domestic problems, but still managed to remain in office. From 1964 to the end of his days in 19841 large-scale arrests and executions and prison death marked the regime and Guinea earned the reputation of being a repressive state and became more and more isolated. Some one million Guineans were believed to be living in exile at the time of his death.
Sékou Touré attributed the economic problems of his country to “enemies and saboteurs". Loyal to his dreams, he “fought” on for several years; he had believed at the time of independence that the “Guineans were going to show how self-confidence and reliance were going to triumph". He had friends, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Modibo Keita (q.v.) of Mali and the Algerians were fighting for their independence. Guinea was to have a wholly new administrative framework, traditional chieftaincy was abolished, village councils had been elected and established, and the civil service had been Africanized. The Guineans were with him and he had hopes. But somehow it did not work, what followed was a period of disenchantment, first in Guinea itself.
So in the early 80s, Sékou Toure, having had to reconcile himself to the harsh realities of low achievements in all fields, opened out the country to improve its economic situation and set out to attract Western and Arab investment to exploit Guinea’s reserves of bauxite, diamonds, iron and, potentially, oil. He visited the United States in 1982 to promote business for development projects. On the international stage in his last years, he was regarded as a "moderate" Islamic figure, though as far back as 1971, he had embarked on a new friendly policy, welcoming many old rivals to Guinea, including Congo’s President Ngouabi (q.v.), Liberia’s former President Tolbert (q.v.), Cameroon’s former President Ahidjo (q.v.) in 1972, and Zaire’s President Mobutu that same year as well as 18, Cote- d’Ivoire’s Houphouét-Boigny. He sought relations with Ghana. He was closely associated with King Hassan of Morocco, whose cause he championed over Western Sahara (the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic - SADR). In 1982 he led the delegation sent by the Islamic Conference Organisation to attempt mediation in the Iraq-Iran war, and, in 1984, he played an important role in securing Egypt’s re-admission to the Islamic Conference. He was expected to host the OAU 20th anniversary in summit in Conakry in 1984, thereby becoming the next chairman, while trying to mediate in the SADR dispute which threatened the OAU’s existence and credibility, when he died.
Sékou Touré’s belief in pan-Africanism, the picture of Africa he evoked, alone has earned him a place in history. Senegalese President Abdou Diouf, on the announcement of his death spoke of "the historic stature and the exceptional qualities of a man who will later be seen as a courageous and indomitable fighter and intransigent defender of the dignity, the independence and the freedom of Africa, its people and its causes”.
The Moroccan daily’s Le Matin du Sahara editorial said that "with President Sekou Touré’s death, Africa has lost one of its historic liberation leaders, the Guinean people have lost an intransigent nationalist, Islam a revolutionary believer . . . In voting for independence and against neo-colonialism a little more than 25 years ago, he not only rendered a great service to his country but also to all Africa. In effect, he speeded up the de-colonisation process; he was one of the most eminent forgers of African independence as well as one of the most active".
Sékou Touré died of heart failure in American hospital on 26 March 1984 after emergency overnight flight from Conakry, where his body was later returned for burial. His close associate and friend, Prime
Minister L. Beavogui (q.v.) became interim leader under the constitution, but a few days later Radio Conakry reported that the armed forces had seized power in a bloodless coup and established a "Military Committee for National Redress”.