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.
The 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.