As a college student in the United States in the late 1970s whose family had recently moved to West Africa, my studies focused on African politics, and I was particularly and irresistibly drawn in by the stories of the continent’s first generation of post-independence leaders.
Their narratives were almost mythic in their richness and power. There was the doomed Patrice Lumumba, a former postal clerk who had become the first prime minister of Congo, publicly lecturing the king of Belgium on the eve of Kinshasa’s independence from that country about the Congolese people’s will to dignity.
There was Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, who led his country to independence from Britain in 1957, ahead of the great wave of decolonization that would sweep the continent in 1960. Nkrumah was not content to merely lead his own, modest-sized country, though. The only true route to Africa’s liberation, he argued, lay in the unification of its many former colonies in a continental nation that would give it the geographical scale and wealth in resources to hold its own in a world dominated by U.S.- and Soviet-led blocs.
There was Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Nkrumah’s wily and often underrated conservative rival in Cote d’Ivoire, next door, who maneuvered to be the leader of an amalgamation of his own: a loose union of former French-speaking colonies in West Africa that would seek to maintain close ties with Paris.
And then, limiting myself here to West Africa, there was Ahmed Sekou Toure. He had a background in union activism beginning in his youth, but also boasted an aristocratic pedigree as the great grandson of Samori Toure, the leader of a 19th-century Islamic state whose heroic armed resistance against the French was legendary. In 1958, the younger Toure openly defied then-French President Charles de Gaulle’s plans to keep all of France’s former African colonies under its wing through a constitutional referendum that would have subordinated much of their sovereignty to Paris, as a way of sustaining France’s ambitions to remain a first-rank global power.
Speaking that year in front of the visiting French leader, whose trip amounted to an unsubtle nudge to urge Guinea to remain within the French fold, Toure boldly proclaimed: “Between voting ‘Yes’ to a constitution which infringes on the dignity, unity and freedom of Africa, and accepting, as General de Gaulle says, immediate independence, Guinea will choose that independence without hesitating. We do not have to be blackmailed by France. We cannot yield on behalf of our countries to those who threaten and put pressure on us to make us choose, against heart and reason, the conditions of marriage which could keep us within the complex of the colonial regime.”
As Toure predicted, Guineans rejected the constitution and chose independence. What immediately followed was one of the ugliest incidents of the independence era, when France sought to make a cautionary example of Toure and Guinea’s will to independence. Virtually overnight, Paris famously withdrew all of its colonial administrators from the country, including civil servants, doctors, teachers, military trainers and advisers. And anything the French couldn’t carry away with them, they took care to vindictively smash and burn. When Toure moved into the governor’s residence as the newly independent country’ first leader, the furniture was gone and even the dishes had been trashed.
During Alpha Conde’s presidency, development projects stalled, and while the politically connected rich got richer, living conditions for the people improved only modestly.
What was the real nature of Toure’s defiance, especially from a position of such weakness, I wondered? For years, what became the standard story was that he, like Nkrumah, who became his ally, had given priority to building the “political kingdom,” believing that once Africa’s big political questions were resolved, matters of economic development and human welfare would take care of themselves.
After a brief era of flirtation with Nkrumah-like regional federations, however—including an awkward one with Ghana itself, despite the fact that the two countries were separated by Houphouet-Boigny’s Ivory Coast—Toure’s political imagination sputtered, and his rule settled into a long and bleak period of repressive authoritarianism.
When I moved to Cote d’Ivoire after finishing school, though, I began to learn another side of this political history. By that time, huge numbers of Guineans had fled Toure’s rule, taking refuge in Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone especially. I met many of them in the working-class quarters of Abidjan, especially in Treichville, whose crowded and lively maquis, or street restaurants, became a kind of graduate school in African politics for me.
There I learned from Guinean friends that even among those who reproached Toure for the oppression their families had suffered under his rule, there was one thing that many were willing to forgive and in some cases even celebrate: the Guinean government’s unwillingness to auction off the country’s unparalleled wealth in bauxite and iron to foreign companies eager to strike deals that could make multinational corporations a fortune, but would probably leave Guineans poor. Despite everything, something in Toure’s most famous words, “We prefer freedom in poverty to opulence in slavery,” had stuck with them.
I witnessed the end of the Toure regime in 1984 as a young reporter, tramping around Conakry as heads of global mining firms flew into the ragged capital on private jets dangling contracts to the penniless new government. I returned to Guinea as a reporter the following year, flying to Conakry in a small airplane together with the new president, Lansana Conte, who cut short his stay at a regional presidential summit in Togo after hearing from me about my scoop the night before that his prime minister had launched what would end up being an unsuccessful coup against him while he was out of the country.
Later, in the 1990s, I covered the Conte government’s efforts to help neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone fight against vicious rebel movements. At the end of this former military man’s rule, Guinea was somewhat freer than it had been under Toure, but its people were scarcely richer. Some deals had been struck with big, foreign mining conglomerates by that time. Guinea boasts the world’s largest deposits of both bauxite and iron, and has gold and diamonds in abundance, as well. Still, relatively little of the country’s wealth was being extracted from the ground. Even then I knew Guineans who, though lamenting the country’s deep poverty, still thought it best that mining had not really taken off. Even a cursory reading of what had happened in other African mineral-dependent states—the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia for metals, and Angola and Nigeria for petroleum, for example—told them that without honest, disciplined and visionary government, no amount of underground wealth was likely to ever secure their wellbeing.
After a seizure of power by the military following Conte’s death in 2008, Guinea’s narrative seemed to change with the beginnings of democracy and election as president in 2010 of Alpha Conde. A longtime opposition leader and intellectual, Conde quickly set about revising the country’s mining laws, promising more transparency and equity for the people. Big contracts were canceled or renegotiated, but Guinea’s mineral output soon began to steadily increase. Development projects stalled, though, and while the politically connected rich got richer, living conditions for the people improved only modestly. This fueled years of sporadic unrest in the country, along with mounting accusations of corruption against Conde, who misread his situation and finally gave in to the near-universal temptation of the present era of African electoral politics, by changing the constitution to allow himself to run for and win a third term, amid widespread allegations of cheating . After a decade of growth in mineral exports, Guineans had only roughly half the income on average of their neighbors in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, and that’s not accounting for the country’s stark inequality.
I interviewed Conde, whom I had known when he was a perennial opposition figure, the last time I visited Guinea, in 2012, while researching my book, “China’s Second Continent.” I found a man who, though once famous for his ability to interrogate others about the way they wielded power, now seemed aloof and disdainful of journalists’ questions. His office, like so many presidential headquarters I’ve seen firsthand on the continent, seemed like a hive of shady characters angling for bribes and kickbacks.
For me, the most noteworthy change in the capital at the time was the newly renovated airport, located on the outskirts of town. But in a city whose streets were crumbling and whose public markets were overrun with mud whenever it rained, this stood out like a cheap trick. In extractive states like Guinea, comfortable airports are terrific for impressing foreign visitors and serving insular elites who keep one foot in Europe. But for the overwhelming majority of the people, who will never fly in an airplane and often won’t ever know anyone who does, they mean close to nothing.
When Guinea’s latest coup leaders overthrew Conde last weekend, placing him in detention, they followed a military script that is by now so often employed in the region that most West Africans know it by heart. The leader of the new military council, Col. Mamady Doumbouya, invoked the failure of the ousted elites to promote the welfare of the people, promised their redemption and said there would soon be a “national union” government.
Amid such shopworn rhetoric, though, there was one phrase that resounded powerfully. It was the ultimate indictment of a failed resource-dependent state. “If you see the state of our roads, or our hospitals, it is time for us to wake up,” Doumbouya said.
It would be hard for any Guinean to disagree with such a sentiment. What is far less certain is whether whoever ends up filling Conde’s shoes manages to find a way out of the resource curse that plagues Guinea as well as Africa’s many other mineral-rich states.
Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of five books, including “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World,” which will be published in October. You can follow him on Twitter at @hofrench . His WPR column appears every Wednesday.