Sunday, September 14, 2008



September 14, 2008
Sunday Standard
By Rashid Suleiman

The founding father of Guinea-Conakry, Ahmed Sekou Toure, had one major difference with other despots of his time. While majority rose from military ranks, Toure was a civilian with no background in killings or coups.

Yet during his time, he was the undisputed ‘father of coups’ in Africa and a top brain when it came to innovative methods of murder.

The firing squad, hangman’s noose, hackings and torture were the common methods employed by bloody dictators. But out of these, the most inventive were basically three.

He reportedly encouraged intermarriage within his Faranah clan to exclude outsiders.

There was the sledgehammer of death discovered by the great engineer of mass murder, Idi Amin Dada (Uganda), to save on bullets. In Ethiopia, the architect of death — Mengistu Haile Mariam — preferred the garrotte. He sometimes personally did the honours. But in Guinea-Conakry, death merchant Toure discovered a less violent but most painful method.

He killed his opponents, real or perceived, by feeding them on copious amounts of ‘black diet’ — complete deprivation of food and water.

Its most prominent victims included army boss Gen Keita Noumandian followed by Minister of Development, Rural Economy and Labour Fodeba Keita and lawyer Diallo Telli, first Secretary-General of the defunct Organisation of African Unity. At the time of his arrest and detention in 1976, Telli was Guinea’s Justice Minister.

For better enjoyment of the ‘black diet’, Toure set up exclusive prisons for political dissents, the most notorious being Boiro Camp in the capital Conakry.

Besides being a leading brain in the death industry, Toure was a master in unearthing coups against him though most existed in his fertile imagination.

Sadly for Guineans, the real or imagined coups provided a perfect opportunity for ‘father of nation’ to go on killing and torturing sprees.

Almost a deity

By the time he died on the operating table in Cleveland, Ohio in the US (March 1984) after a cardiac arrest, over one million of Guinea’s then six million people had fled to exile.

Most Guineans did not believe news about his death, as they equated him to a deity.

After the discovery of each and every coup, Toure would deal with the plotters ruthlessly. He executed several people after he announced the first attempted coup in early 1960.

The bloodshed was repeated five years later when another putsch was discovered. More bloody purges followed in 1967 and 1969.

Despite the many coups against him, he effectively neutralised the Guinean military throughout his reign.

To prevent his overthrow by the soldiers he trusted, he personally controlled the supply of arms and ammunition to the military and put all armouries under his direct control. As a surety, he kept the keys to all the armouries.

He intentionally declined to expand the army and ensured a majority of the troops came from his Malinke tribe.

spies in barracks

He reshuffled senior commanders and purged the military frequently — often without warning — and this instilled fear in soldiers.

He adopted the Russian style of appointing political officers but added another dimension because the appointments were made covertly so that political officers could act as spies in the barracks. The spies were often junior officers.

Many senior officers were caught by the intricate network of spies and died slow and painful deaths in prison, courtesy of the ‘black diet’ or execution.

The spies came from his Malinke tribe, especially his Faranah clan or were related to him by marriage.

He reportedly encouraged intermarriage within his Faranah clan to exclude outsiders. He ruled the country like a personal household.

Toure was given a rude awakening in 1966 when his only friend in Africa, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, was overthrown in a military coup. He immediately stepped up his anti-coup strategies.

He formed a people’s militia whose members were mainly drawn exclusively from the most loyal civilian members of the country’s sole political party.

In less than two years, the militia had grown to 25,000 men while the regular armed forces had a mere 6,000 soldiers.

The militia received high-level military training, equalling or even surpassing that of the armed forces. Each district in Guinea had a militia brigade.

The roles of the militia were many and often unclear. Toure said the force was meant to protect Guinea from external enemies and internal economic saboteurs like smugglers; to safeguard the country against putchists and internal enemies of the revolution; and to guard strategic points like the radio station, airports, banks and power installations.

Usually, when Toure unearthed a coup, the foreign masters behind it were invariably France, the defunct Soviet Union, the then West Germany or white-ruled Zimbabwe.

The dictator boxed himself into a tight corner right from Guinea’s independence in 1958 when he humiliated the French in a referendum to decide the future of Francophone colonies in Africa.

There were two choices in the referendum — total independence or limited autonomy within the French Commonwealth. The rest of French colonies voted for autonomy while Guineans under the hypnotic influence and persuasion of Toure overwhelmingly voted for total independence.

His slogan ‘We prefer poverty in liberty than slavery in riches’ was effective in getting the 95 per cent ‘No’ vote.

lone ranger

Thus a year after Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence, Guinea became the first French colony in the continent to gain its freedom.

Immediately after independence, the irate French still smarting from the referendum humiliation went on the offensive against Toure and his newly independent state.

France recalled all its professionals in Guinea, which the former colony heavily relied on. To make matters worse, the departing professionals deliberately left the country in a shambles. They carted off as much property as they could and destroyed what remained.

They went as far as vandalising equipment and facilities, ripping off telephone lines from offices. Then France cut off all aid to the young nation while French businessmen withdrew their commercial and industrial investments in the country.

A number of countries came to Guinea’s aid, with the most notable being Ghana, which forked out a £10 million loan; Soviet Union arrived with technicians, a sports stadium, bulldozers and semi-luxurious goods while China provided agricultural experts.

Throughout his rule, Toure maintained what came to be known as positive or practical neutrality in dealing with the Cold War. He was no pawn of the East or West and accepted help from any quarter.

He was fiercely protective of Guinea’s independence and never accepted aid or any help that interfered with the sovereignty of his country.

He was rabidly anti-imperialists and hated Gaullism (the conservative policies of Gen Charles de Gaulle, France leader after World War II) with a passion.

foreign sojourns

Toure’s positive neutrality was practised at the global and African level and this earned him several foes in the continent. Apart from Nkrumah his other friend in Africa was, Modibo Keita, Mali’s founding President.

Otherwise in West Africa, he was largely on his own especially after the overthrow of Keita and Nkrumah.

For years, he had sour relations with his staunchly pro-French neighbours, Ivory Coast and Senegal. In Africa, many countries were opposed to his rule and lone ranger antics. His hard line opposition to France and other colonial masters saw him clash with several African leaders.

For years, he gave the OAU a wide berth after the overthrow of Nkrumah. For a quarter of a century, he never visited France until 1982. Later, he opened a new chapter of rapprochement both in Africa and the world.

He embarked on foreign sojourns and other leaders reciprocated by visiting Guinea, the most prominent of which was then French President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing. He was grouped with Keita of Mali and Nkrumah as the avant-garde of African politics. When Nkrumah was overthrown, he offered him asylum and bestowed on him the title of co-president till he died in 1972.

vast resources

Like his peer, Hastings Kamuzu Banda in Malawi, Toure has been hailed in some quarters as a hero or condemned as a paranoid and ruthless dictator who murdered his people at will and impoverished his country.

Guinea is a poor country yet it is abundantly endowed with mineral resources like diamonds, iron ore and bauxite.

Under Toure, the country was reputed to hold at least half of the world’s known high-grade bauxite reserves. But by the time of his death, the country was in economic ruin.

With independence approaching, he became Vice-President of the Government Council of Guinea — a position equivalent to that of a prime minister. In 1958, the country gained full independence after elections won by PDG with Toure as president.

hardline socialist

Being a master organiser, he made Guinean Democratic Party or Parti Democratique de Guinee (PDG) and himself the ultimate arbiters of power. The party, under his command, directed all national activities and had an elaborate organisation right from the grassroots.

The Guinean dictator was a hard line African socialist and a political organiser par excellence. He was a charismatic and colourful professional politician endowed with supreme self-confidence and an indomitable spirit.

He was an accomplished orator and demagogue with a common touch who could keep an audience mesmerised for hours. But he had little patience and dealt with his opponents ruthlessly.