Written by Hadi Bah    PDF Print E-mail
Book: Sékou Touré was never in favor of total Guinean independence in 1958
News - International

Given Sékou Touré's mythical image as a champion of Guinean and African liberation, it is a Sisyphean task for any author to try to persuade readers that the late Guinean leader was an opportunist who never favored total independence for his country during the French inspired referendum of September 28, 1958.

After acknowledging as much, Elizabeth Schmidt, a professor of history at Maryland's Loyola University with a Ph.D. in African history embarks on just such a mission in Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea, 1946-1958, a book with an extensive bibliography of interviews and French and West African archive sources.

Since the events that led to Guinea's independence were influenced by outside forces, Schmidt expertly weaves the role of France and her other West African colonies into the narrative that led to Guinean independence on Oct. 2, 1958.

bookThe end of WWII saw the rise of the United States and the USSR at the expense of former colonial powers France and Britain. Internal political turmoil at home and pro-independence guerrilla insurgencies in Algeria and Indochina (Vietnam) were tearing the French Empire apart.

In West Africa, the eight French territories were united in a loose confederation known as the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), a group founded by Ivorian Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1946 with headquarters in Dakar, Senegal. The loi-cadre, a 1956 French law that granted limited autonomy, governed the territories.  Touré, a local trade union leader, had been chosen at the Bamako inaugural conference to lead the Guinean branch of the RDA.

In 1958, Charles De Gaulle, a war hero, was compelled to come out of retirement to save the French Empire. After first giving himself significant executive powers, De Gaulle turned his attention to the colonies. He tried to sell the creation of a French Community, legitimized through an empire-wide referendum that would effectively cement France's dominant position in the affairs of the colonized territories. De Gaulle accompanied the referendum call with a warning of severe consequences for territories that dared to vote "Non."

With De Gaulle's threat ringing in his ears, Touré, a member of the established political order as mayor of Conakry, deputy in the French National Assembly, president of the loi-cadre government, leader of the trade union movement and secretary-general of the Parti democratique de Guinee, the local branch of the  RDA, was now under pressure. A majority of the other territorial RDAs signaled their intentions to vote "Oui" in the Sept. 28, 1958 referendum. But in Guinea, the grassroots of the RDA, teachers, women, trade unions, students and ordinary peasants were demanding total independence from France. Like all politicians, Touré's position on the referendum was elusive and vague as he tried to determine which way to turn.

At a pre-referendum reception for De Gaulle in Conakry on Aug.25, 1958, Touré, still undecided, was inducted into the African liberation heroes' Hall of Fame when he said "We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery."  Schmidt argues that the sentence was taken out of context because the rest of the speech called for continued cooperation between Guinea and France in a Franco-African association. She also contends that in failing to read his advance copy of the same speech, De Gaulle misinterpreted Touré's intentions because the Guinean leader was still not committed to total independence at that point.

According to Bocar Biro Barry, an eye witness quoted by Schmidt, it was on Sept. 14, 1958, two weeks before the Sept 28 referendum that Touré was finally forced to come out in favor of the "NON" vote and Guinean independence. Biro Barry described  how Touré emerged from a three hour meeting with a delegation from Houphouët-Boigny that was trying to nudge him toward a "Yes" vote only to be confronted by his own citizens who wanted a "NO"  vote:

"He arrived. He sat down, calmly at first. The people continued to cry, "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!" He rose. He began to speak. .... Because he was a great maneuverer, a great opportunist, he saw which way the wind was blowing.....so he said, "The 28th of September, we must vote. What will be the vote of the Parti Democratique de Guinee?" The people cried, "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!" It was at that moment he changed sides. The teacher's union, the youth movement, and the students could have cast Sékou Touré aside for Koumandian Keita. It was that that frightened Sékou."

Touré saved his skin and the teachers, trade unions, women and youth movements got their wish when Guinea became the only territory to vote "NON" on Sept. 28, 1958. France followed up on its threats of serious economic and diplomatic consequences.

Less than two years later almost all the other French territories became independent too.