Touré, Sekou 1922–1984
Sekou Touré 1922–1984
Former head of state of Guinea
At the time of his death in 1984, Sekou Touré was the dean of African heads of state. His native Guinea achieved independence in the fall of 1958. Until his death 26 years later, Touré was the absolute ruler of that West African republic. His political success has been credited to his organizational ability, his talents as a theorist and orator, his keen sense of perception, and his determination to deal with opposition swiftly and mercilessly. Sory Kandia Kouyaté, a Guinean epic singer, described Sekou Touré as “a dangerous leader with whom one should play very cautiously,” according to Africa Report. He was known as “the Elephant” in his native country because of his strength and distinction.
Guinea was the second African nation to achieve independence, following the lead of Ghana, which had shed colonial rule a year and a half earlier. Guinea is located in what was formerly French West Africa, with the former French colonies of Senegal lying to the northwest and the Ivory Coast bordering it to the southeast. Its capital city, Conakry, is situated on the Atlantic Ocean. Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, lies to the northwest along the coast just south of Senegal.
Independence came to Guinea rather suddenly in 1958 when the country voted against accepting then-French president Charles de Gaulle’s proposal of membership in a community of French overseas territories. Among the French colonies polled, Guinea was the only one to cast a negative vote. At the time, Touré was secretary-general of the Parti Démocratique de Guinée (Guinea Democratic Party; PDG), which had won 57 of the country’s 60 representative seats in elections held under French colonial supervision in 1957.
Touré’s refusal to lead his country into the French community stemmed from his belief that black equality and colonialism could not coexist. He championed freedom among African nations—no matter what the cost—and looked to the groundbreaking example of Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of Ghana, for his model of action. Unfortunately, Touré’s idealistic aspirations led to economic chaos in Guinea.
Prior to becoming President of Guinea, Touré was active in labor unions and held several government positions. During the 1940s, he was secretary-general of one union and helped found another, the Federation of Workers’ Unions of Guinea. In 1946 he became involved in African politics
Born January 9, 1922, in the village of Faranah, Guinea; died March 26, 1984, in Cleveland, Ohio, during heart surgery; son of Alpha and Aminata Touré (Malinké farmers); married twice. Education: Attended French Guinean primary schools; Ecole Professionnelle Georges Poiret, Conakry; and Institute of Economic Science, Prague. Religion: Raised Muslim; later proclaimed himself “All Faiths.”
First employed by Niger Franáais (a business firm), 1940; entered Post and Telecommunications Service, 1941; subsequently assigned to the Colonial Treasury Office. Active in labor unions; became secretary-general of the Post and Telecommunications Workers’ Union, 1945; helped found Federation of Workers’ Unions of Guinea; secretary-general of the Treasury Employees’ Union, 1946; elected secretary-general of the territorial union of the Confédération Générale de Travail (CGT), 1948; became secretary-general of the coordinating committee of the CGT for French West Africa and Togoland, 1950; elected president of CGT, 1956.
Held many political and government positions; founding member of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (African Democratic Rally; RDA), 1946; member of the Guinea Legislative Assembly, 1950; became secretary-general of the Parti Démocratique de Guinée (PDG); mayor of Conakry, 1955; elected to seat in National Assembly in Paris, 1956; territorial counselor, Conakry, grand counselor, French West Africa, and vice president of Government Council of Guinea, beginning 1957; became vice president of RDA, 1957; prime minister of Guinea, 1958-72; president, October 1958-March 1984.
Awards: Lenin Peace Prize, 1960; Grand-Croix, French Legion of Honor.
with the formation of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (African Democratic Rally; RDA) by Félix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast. Touré would split with Houphouet-Boigny and the RDA in 1958 over the issue of joining the French community.
After serving in a number of government positions, Touré was elected mayor of Conakry in 1955. The next year, he won a seat in the National Assembly in Paris, where his oratorical gifts became known to a wider audience. He continued to be active in labor unions in the 1950s as well. In 1957 he was named vice president of the Governmental Council of Guinea, a post equivalent to that of prime minister under the French governor. As council vice president, he revoked the power of ethnic chieftains and replaced them with more than 4,000 village councils that were elected by the people.
Immediately following the 1958 referendum, Guinea became independent of France; a few days later, Touré was named president of the new republic. With the PDG as the only legal political party, Guinea emerged as a one-party, totalitarian state. France and all of its allies quickly withdrew support and would not provide the country with any aid. The French were particularly vindictive in their break with the country, destroying valuable equipment and files, suspending all aid and technical assistance, and stopping almost all investment in Guinea’s mining operations.
The French withdrawal following independence created great bitterness in Guinea. It was seen as nothing less than an imperialist plot to destroy the newly independent state. With the country desperate for outside aid to replace what France had been providing, Touré turned to his friend and ally Nkrumah. The two leaders shared the ideals of Pan-Africanism, a doctrine that stressed the unity of all African nations above and beyond each nation’s own self-interest. Ghana quickly loaned Guinea some $28 million.
Touré also appealed to the Eastern bloc countries—the Communist states of Eastern Europe—for assistance. In 1960 he traveled first to China, then to the Soviet Union, where he was honored with the Lenin Peace Prize. The Soviets were willing to provide aid—establishing a bond that damaged relations with the United States and other countries in the West—but Touré’s exclusive association with the Communists was shortlived. In 1961 he expelled the Russian ambassador for interfering in the internal affairs of his country, accusing the Soviets of plotting a Marxist revolution.
Following this episode, the United States became a significant source of aid. In 1963 Touré met with President John F. Kennedy, and the United States subsequently loaned Guinea $400 million to develop its bauxite (a source of aluminum) industry. Throughout the 1960s, Touré maintained a stance of “positive neutrality” with respect to the Cold War conflict between the superpowers, accepting aid both from the United States and the Soviet Union.
Following the break with France, Touré imposed a socialist blueprint on Guinea’s economy. He stopped traditional trade and put an end to private ownership of industry. Consequently, many Guineans migrated to neighboring countries, such as Senegal and the Ivory Coast, which had less centralized economies. For two decades, these neighboring countries were home to large numbers of Guineans who were opposed to Touré. Touré later accused both Senegal and the Ivory Coast of training mercenaries to invade Guinea.
During the 1960s, waves of emigration from Guinea occurred because of insecurity and poor economic conditions there. But three factors contributed to Touré’s ability to remain in power: first, he dominated all of the central government’s activities; second, he relied on a close group of trusted collaborators; and third, he was able to balance the authority of the Guinean army against the PDG’s “people’s militia.” Touré used his party’s militia, which grew to some 30,000 in the mid-1960s, to enforce new modes of justice and production throughout the country.
Further tension between Guinea and its neighbors was caused by the discovery of plots against the government. A conspiracy in April of 1960 was blamed on France and other colonial powers. Another plot against the government was announced in November of 1961. And an alleged plan to assassinate Touré resulted in the arrests of former ministers and army officers in 1965. (Touré named President Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast as a conspirator in this last plot.) Also in 1965, an opposition group, Front pour la libération nationale de Guinée (FLNG), began organizing under the leadership of exiles in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Dakar, Senegal; and Paris, France.
By the late 1960s, Touré was preoccupied with FLNG activity and the fear of impending invasion. Army unrest seemed to point to a plot to separate Guinea’s Labe region, located in the western central part of the nation, from the rest of the country. In June of 1970, Radio Conakry reported on an impending invasion of Guinea by forces that were being trained in Portuguese Guinea, now known as Guinea-Bissau. A few months later a group of mercenaries was arrested in Labe.
Touré had given support to the long anticolonial struggle being waged in Guinea-Bissau. For generations, the fascist Portuguese government had held the tiny African province in its grip. Touré provided freedom fighters in Guinea-Bissau with base facilities and diplomatic support. Portugal countered by conducting a major propaganda campaign within NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) against Touré, characterizing his regime as a “Marxist dictatorship.” And in 1970, the Portuguese helped mount a mercenary invasion of Guinea. This invasion led Touré to believe that the conspiracy against his government was universal.
The Portuguese invasion of Guinea took place on November 22, 1970. At least 350 troops, consisting mainly of Guinean exiles in the Portuguese-led army, landed from the sea off Conakry. As destructive as it was, the invasion failed to unseat Touré; instead, it led to a reign of fear, suspicion, and violence in Guinea. Public figures suspected of holding opinions critical to Touré and his government were classified as subversives and arrested. Secret mass trials and executions followed. The bodies of the condemned were later displayed in public places.
Many political prisoners were held in Boiro camp near Conakry. The camp became notorious for the torture and inhumane treatment of its prisoners. The repression grew as more plots against the Guinean government, real and imaginary, were discovered and announced. More refugees settled in West Africa and Europe, especially in Paris. According to French estimates, 2 million out of a population of 5.5 million chose to live in exile.
Among those affected by purges were such groups as intellectuals, traders, state employees, civil servants, the military, and members of the Fulani ethnic group. Africa Report noted the effect of these mass arrests: “Scores of competent officials, well-trained managers and officers, able businessmen, intellectuals, and diplomats have been sent to prison, torture, or death.” These practices resulted in a loss of talented individuals and crippled the administration of the country. Many of the exiles and relatives of the victims of Touré’s purges responded by establishing powerful anti-Touré pressure groups.
The terror brought on by the Guinean government alternated with periods of relative calm, as suspicion of further attacks against the government subsided briefly in 1972. But by the next year, the assassination in Conakry of a leader of the Portuguese Guinea liberation struggle prompted renewed fears. Relations with neighboring countries crumbled once more due to exile activities there.
Meanwhile, an internal reform that gave village-level executive bodies a new role in the production and marketing of local commodities met with some resistance from the Fulani population in the north of Guinea. A nomadic people who felt that their way of life clashed with the doctrine of socialism, the Fulani were accused of plotting against the government in 1976. One of their leaders was arrested and later died, apparently of starvation, in a prison camp.
Repression in Guinea had reached such proportions that a 1977 report was submitted to the United Nations detailing the mistreatment of Guinean political prisoners. The next year, Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights organization, cited cases of imprisonment without trial and examples of torture and execution. Subsequently, the Guiñean government claimed the abuses had been stopped, and many political prisoners were released.
By the mid-1970s it was clear that Guinea had been left behind economically. Guineans were accustomed to scarcity, yet neighboring countries had bountiful markets, luxury shops, and factories that were fully operative. The growing popular discontent hit a fever pitch in 1977 over the country’s economic policy and shortage of food. Workers with low incomes were facing starvation, and foreign debt was crippling the economy.
These conditions led to mass protests in many regions of the nation, including one held by the market women of Conakry in August of 1977, touching off riots in nearby towns and leading to the murder of three territorial governors. Such events shook the government because it was recognized that the women had been instrumental in the success of the ruling PDG over the years. Touré conceded to many of their demands and instituted a more liberal internal economic policy, allowing new freedom to small-scale private traders and disbanding the country’s “economic police.”
The economic liberalization of 1978 coincided with new diplomatic efforts that Touré had been undertaking since 1975. That year he was actively involved in a regional peace effort involving a border dispute between Mali and Upper Volta. It was the first time he had traveled outside Guinea since the invasion of 1970, and it gave him a sense of how the world was changing.
In 1976 diplomatic relations were reestablished between Guinea and West Germany and France under the auspices of the United Nations. The French agreed to curb dissident activities in Paris, and French business people were allowed to pursue trade and investment opportunities in Guinea. Guinea compensated nationalized French companies, while the French agreed to pay the pensions of 20,000 Guinean ex-servicemen. Guinea also released Europeans imprisoned in Conakry for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
In 1978 Touré also achieved a detente with Senegal and the Ivory Coast, two consistently pro-French neighbors. He signed a reconciliation without preconditions, abandoning his position that Guinean exiles opposed to his government be returned to Conakry. Following this, Touré traveled frantically to 16 countries in Africa and the Middle East, including several rich, oil-producing states. In addition, he attended his first Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in 11 years.
According to Africa Report, Touré “reappeared forcefully on the African political scene with a ‘new image’ to create confidence among potential investors.” As he became aware of the limitations of the rhetoric of revolution and socialism, economic development became an imperative. He looked specifically to the United States, Canada, and Great Britain for support, using the country’s rich mineral resources as his main bargaining chip.
In the years prior to his death, Touré was actively engaged in African and international affairs. According to the New Statesman, he opposed the Arab nation of Libya and supported Morocco in the Western Saharan land dispute. In 1982 he successfully opposed Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s bid to host the OAU summit and become the organization’s chair for 1982-83. Touré was able to convince enough African leaders to stay away from the scheduled Tripoli summit, thus depriving the meeting of a quorum.
Prior to his untimely death from a heart attack in March of 1984, Touré had been actively pursuing the chairmanship of the OAU. But the OAU summit, originally scheduled to be held in Conakry in 1983, was delayed until 1984 because of expected Libyan opposition. Despite his efforts to attract foreign investment, Touré died leaving Guinea in a state of economic collapse; he had ruled the nation for 26 years. In April of 1984, the army staged a coup and took over the country, filling the political void left by his death.
Adamolekun, Ladipo, Sekou Touré’s Guinea: An Experiment in Nation Building, Methuen, 1976.
Africa South of the Sahara: 1993, 22nd edition, Europa, 1993.
Africa Report, May-June 1981, p. 53; November-December 1993, p. 11.
Black Scholar, July-August 1974, p. 23; March 1975, p. 33.
Journal of Modern African Studies, June 1976, p. 201.
New Statesman, April 6, 1984, p. 19.
New York Times, March 28, 1984, p. A-6.
Sékou Touré (1922-1984) was president of the Republic of Guinea after its independence and an exponent of radical socialism. His decision to oppose the De Gaulle referendum in 1958 was the key event which destroyed the old French West African Federation.
Sékou Touré was born in Faranah, Guinea. His father, a poor farmer, was a member of the Soussou tribe, and his mother was a member of the Malinke tribe; Touré's father was a grandson of the great ruler Almami Samory. Touré was educated at the village Koranic school and primary school at Faranah. At 14 he enrolled in a technical school in Conakry but was expelled in 1937 for organizing a student strike, and he completed his secondary education by correspondence.
Touré was employed by a commercial firm in 1940 and in the following year qualified for a position in the posts and telecommunications department. He was very active in union affairs and became the head of the Postal Union in 1945 and was one of the founders of the Union Cégétiste des Syndicats. He became its secretary general in 1946. He was discharged from his job and spent a brief time in jail in 1947.
Touré had been a founder member of the intraterritorial Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) in 1946. However, his prime interest was not politics but trade unionism. The leading political figure in Guinea at this time was a moderate former schoolteacher, Yacine Diallo. In 1948 Touré became secretary general of the Confédération Générale des Travailleurs (CGT), dominated by the French Communist general union. Two years later he became secretary general of the Coordinating Committee of the CGT for French West Africa. By 1952 Touré had also risen to the post of secretary general of the Parti Démocratique de Guinée (PDG), the Guinea branch of the RDA.
The year 1953 was crucial for Touré's career. He led a two-month general strike against the government which forced the governor general to capitulate, and he was also elected a member of the Territorial Assembly. Touré was the acknowledged leader of the young radicals who were dissatisfied with the increasingly moderate policies of the RDA. In 1954 Yacine Diallo died, and Touré contested the election to fill his vacant seat in the French Assembly. He lost to Barry Diawadou, the leader of the Bloc Africain de Guinée party. His stature was, nevertheless, increased because it was widely believed that the French authorities had tampered with the election. Touré became a member of the Coordinating Committee in 1954 and was chosen mayor of Conakry the following year. His conversion to political action was completed by his election to the French Assembly in January 1956.
Touré had begun to change his attitudes toward the successful application of doctrinaire Marxism to the problems of Africa. He also questioned the continued association of African unions with their metropolitan counterparts. Thus he helped establish the Confédération Générale du Travail Africain (CGTA), which was not affiliated with the CGT or any other European movement. The new union was so successful that the local CGT merged with it in 1957 to form the larger, intraterritorial Travailleurs d'Afrique Noire (UGTAN), which soon attracted most of the unionized workers in French West Africa. Touré was at first secretary general and then president.
The loi cadre of 1956 devolved a major portion of authority to the assembly of each territory and gave the vice president, the chief elective officer, great power. Before the elections of 1957 the PDG appealed to the intelligentsia and also urban workers and villagers. It won a solid victory, and Touré became vice president. He began immediately to implement government plans for improvement of industry, roads, and railways. He moved to establish cooperatives and village councils to further undercut the power of traditional authorities. Touré was still cooperative with the French as long as it was to the advantage of Guinea. In 1957 he became a member of the Grand Council, the highest advisory body in the federation, and was elected vice president of the RDA.
Discussions within the RDA over future political evolvement of the territories presaged the destruction of the party. Felix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast emphasized the development of individual territories within the French community. Touré and many other leaders believed it necessary to continue the federal structure. In 1958 Touré inexplicably shifted his position. Three days before his meeting with Charles De Gaulle on August 28 to discuss the coming plebiscite to decide the future of the French community, Touré appeared to support a vote in favor of association with France.
However, pressures within Touré's own party and the radical unions forced a change, and in September Guinea voted overwhelmingly against continued association. France announced on September 30 that Guinea was independent and cut off all financial aid, withdrew its technicians and advisers, and removed all equipment possible. Guinea entered into independence as a bankrupt nation. No Western power was prepared to help, and Touré concluded four trade agreements with the Eastern bloc countries.
Two months after independence, Touré negotiated a £10 million loan from Ghana which enabled him to stabilize Guinea's economy. Touré's government became more centralized, and he required all Guineans to participate in the economic and social development of the country. The PDG was declared the only legal party, and a system of political committees was established on all levels up to the National Committee to help Touré direct the state.
Touré's meeting with Kwame Nkrumah resulted in a declaration of a Ghana-Guinea union in 1959. This association, which Touré hoped would be the beginning of a larger political union, envisioned a gradual uniting of the political and economic institutions of the two states. In July 1961 the union was expanded with the addition of Mali. Despite the theory, no specific changes were made in the political institutions of the member states. The union's major contribution was to provide a base for a common foreign-policy approach. It formed the nucleus of the radical, anti-Western Casablanca bloc of the early 1960s. However, even in foreign policy there was a significant difference between Touré's and Nkrumah's attitudes—witness their policies concerning the United Nations in the Congo.
Touré's emancipation from more radical elements within the PDG and the Soviet Union did not come until 1961. In November the Teachers Union, in conjunction with officials of the Soviet embassy, precipitated a crisis throughout Guinea. Touré arrested the strike leaders and expelled the Soviet ambassador and his key aides from the country. Later discussions with the Soviet Union restored good relations, but it was apparent that Touré was not a captive of the Communist bloc. In 1962 he began to seek more contacts with other African states and increased aid from Western powers.
In 1964 Touré reorganized the government, naming four resident ministers in four major regions of Guinea who were directly responsible to the central executive. He also restricted membership in the PDG to the more militant socialists who had proved their worth. Thus the party reflected more clearly the desires of the executive. In January 1968 elections were held for the National Assembly and for president. Touré was unopposed in the election, and the prospective members of the Assembly had previously been nominated by the PDG.
After the overthrow of Nkrumah in January 1966, Touré became more aggressive in his attitudes toward the West, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and the new Ghana regime. He declared Nkrumah honorary president of Guinea and threatened to restore him to power by force. Houphouët-Boigny replied to Touré's threats by sending troops to his borders and promising to invoke French aid, and Touré did not follow up his threat with action against the Ivory Coast. In May 1967, on the twentieth anniversary of the PDG, Touré denounced Western missionaries and ordered all foreign clergymen deported by June 1.
Touré attempted to end Guinea's self-imposed isolation in 1968. Nkrumah's sanctuary was continued, but his public statements and appearances were limited. Touré even moderated the degree and type of denunciation of the Ivory Coast and Senegal. He attended the Monrovia Conference in April; Guinea became a member of the Organization of Senegal River States; and he restored diplomatic relations with Britain, which had been severed in 1965.
Guinea's economic development continued more slowly than the potential wealth of the state would have indicated. However, after 1965, Touré received aid from Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. Plans were approved for a dam and hydro-electric plant on the Konkouré River and for the construction of a smelting plant, railway, and harbor to exploit the Boké bauxite deposits.
By restricting a legal, open opposition, Touré gained unchallenged control of Guinea, but he assured that some rivals would attempt to end his rule by violent means. In November 1965 a plot was discovered to assassinate Touré; a former army lieutenant and cousin, Mamadou Touré, was implicated. In February 1968 another major coup directed against the President was discovered, and a further assassination attempt was foiled in 1969. Despite all his problems, Touré's hold on his country after 12 years of independence was firm. The coups that occurred during this period against other political leaders in Africa only underscored the stability of his regime.
Touré held his position as president of Guinea until his death on March 26, 1984. He died in Cleveland, Ohio. Socialist in economic outlook, Touré ruthlessly suppressed dissent, and after his death the government of Guinea acknowledged that numerous human rights violations had occurred during his regime.
There is no good biography of Touré in English. For general background see Richard Adloff, West Africa: The French Speaking Nations (1964); Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, Political Parties in French Speaking West Africa (1964); and John Hatch, A History of Post War Africa (1965). Touré's contributions to the pan-African movement are described in Colin Legum, Pan Africanism (1962). The philosophical basis of Guinea's government is treated in George W. Shepherd, Jr., The Politics of African Nationalism (1962), and Gwendolen Carter, ed., African One-party States (1962). Further details on Touré are in Ronald Segal, Political Africa (1961), and Basil Davidson, The Liberation of Guinée (1969). Updated information was gathered from Encyclopaedia Britannica and Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia. □