West Africa

Will Guinea beat its fatalité?

Escaping the past has been a thirty-year journey, writes Paul Melly

Ahmed Sékou Touré led Guinea to independence from France in 1958

Guinea: Masks, Music and Minerals
Bram Posthumus, Hurst, £25.00

Il n’y a aucune fatalité guinéenne – ‘Being Guinean is not a curse’. These words, from Sidya Touré, a reformist ex-prime minister, have sometimes felt like desperate optimism.

In few West African countries is the day-to-day unfolding of events right now still so powerfully shaped by an often shockingly brutal recent past. Ahmed Sékou Touré, who led Guinea to independence from France in 1958, went on to establish one of the most paranoid dictatorships in modern Africa, fostering an ambiance of fear and suspicion summed up in his insistence that ‘Everybody is a gendarme.’

More than three decades after his death, the scars left by his relentlessly repressive rule have yet to entirely fade away. The two military regimes that followed were more chaotic and almost as violent, if more randomly so.

After such a history, it is hardly surprising that Guineans have a weakness for conspiracy theories and mistrust of their leaders’ motives. Yet their country is also endowed with rich natural resources – including huge deposits of bauxite and iron ore – a powerful sense of difference, identity and pride in past figureheads, such as the 19th century emperor, Almamy Samoury Touré, and a vibrant culture, particularly finding expression in music and dance. And this paradox is captured vividly by Bram Posthumus who, as a journalist, has long experience of reporting on Guinea and its neighbours in West Africa.

His fresh writing brings alive the mood, whether in dusty country towns or Conakry, the rain-soaked capital that crowds into a slender 30km peninsula. Insights into history and social mores add depth to the picture.

But what really distinguishes this book from even the best travel and historical writing is the insight that it provides into Guineans’ lived political experience in what has been an often conflicted or contradictory state of the nation. For example, the variety and resilience of musical life – a huge cultural asset, of course – was propelled forward with assertive vigour by a post-independence regime that in other respects was subjecting its people to sustained repression.

Posthumus describes how the writer and musician Fodéba Keïta, a powerful voice of protest against French colonial cruelties such as forced conscription for military service overseas, went on to become one of the most loyal lieutenants of Sékou Touré, as a member of the political bureau of the regime’s ruling party and minister for defence, interior and security. This great artist turned his creative capacities to the authoring of claims of conspiracy that cost dearly in suspects’ lives. He even designed the notorious detention centre Camp Boiro, synonymous in Guinean memory with torture, sexual abuse and execution through starvation – a punishment that the 20th century Touré regime had copied from the warlord emperor Almamy Samoury Touré  of a century before.

Among the many ironies of this era was Guinea’s readiness to provide a home to the South African singer Miriam Makeba, who fled from apartheid to exile in the US – only to lose her welcome there after marrying the radical black rights campaigner Stokely Carmichael. Makeba once described Sékou Touré as ‘one of the most impressive men I have ever met’. Many Guineans did not share such a benign view. The dictator’s death – from natural causes – on March 26, 1984, was greeted with widespread relief. Within days the military had taken over, arresting key figures from the old regime while freeing detainees from its concentration camps.

Colonel – later General – Lansana Conté, who eventually emerged as head of state, oversaw tough IMF-backed reforms to stabilize the creaking socialist economy bequeathed by Touré. And then, in 1990, as reform gained momentum in francophone Africa, he introduced a civilian multi-party political system.

But the emerging democracy was more nominal than real, still characterized by periodic bouts of repression. And as Conté aged and lost a sense of strategic direction, the country gradually came to be dominated by networks of squabbling cronies, corrupt and sporadically repressive of the lively opposition culture that had begun to develop on the streets.

Guinea, says Posthumus, moved ‘from too much government to none at all’. After the ailing Conté died in December 2008, the volatile and egocentric Captain Moussa Dadis Camara led a further military takeover. But less than a year later he was shot by an aide in an internal wrangle over who should take the blame for the events of September 28, 2009, when soldiers massacred more than 150 opposition supporters attending a rally in a sports stadium.

Dadis’ transfer to hospital in Morocco and then exile in Burkina Faso, opened a chance for more reformist soldiers, prodded by France and the US, to embark on a transition to democracy. And a protracted electoral process finally saw the election of the veteran opposition leftist Alpha Condé as president in November 2010.

Condé is not a natural man of compromise and his first term was marred by tension and regular clashes between protesters and security forces still quick to resort to violence. But parliamentary elections followed more calmly in 2013 and an altogether more tranquil second democratic presidential contest in 2015 that saw Condé comfortably re-elected.

Slowly, the state is becoming more responsive, while violence is gradually fading as a tool of political culture and state authority.

At last, suggests Posthumus, a chance to give reality to Sidya Touré’s assertion that ‘Being Guinean is not a curse.’