By Obadiah Mailafia
I AM writing this piece from Conakry, capital of Guinea. It’s my first time here, and I’m enjoying it. The locals are friendly. The only snag is that, at this time of year, it seems to rain all the time in Conakry.
Of all our West African “Francophone” countries, Guinea remains closest to Nigeria. The country is a member of the West African Monetary Zone, WAMZ, the grouping of English-speaking countries that are pursuing the ambition of a common currency. A fortnight ago President Alpha Condé requested all mosques to pray for President Muhammadu Buhari. When push comes to shove, our Francophone brethren go out of their way to oppose Nigeria in international forums; taking their orders from the Quay d’Orsay in Paris. Guinea has remained a faithful friend, come rain come shine.
Those who remember their history would recall that in 1958 the nationalist leader and founding-father president Ahmed Ahmed Sekou Toure led his people to say a resounding “Non” to President de Gaulle’s option of independence within membership of “la Communauté Française”. Guinea paid a heavy price for making that historic choice. For preferring freedom to serfdom, the French carted off all they could from the country. What they could not take they either destroyed or dumped into the Atlantic ocean – typewriters, furniture, photocopiers, vehicles and all. It was a tragedy for Guinea.
Sekou Toure, a former labour leader with deep pan-Africanist, Marxist revolutionary convictions, turned to the Communist Bloc. Sekou Toure became the vortex of liberation movements on the continent. The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, known by its Portuguese acronym as the PAIGC, was headquartered in Conakry. Its leader, Amilcar Cabral, was assassinated by Portuguese and French agents in January 1973. He was, in my opinion, the greatest political theorist to have come out of our glorious continent.
France financed all sorts of opposition groups, exploiting the inevitable ethnic fissures that characterise the social structure of Guinea. The Fula or Peule, are the majority, with nearly 40 percent of the population. The Malinke make up 36 percent while the Susu and others make up the remaining 24 percent. The Fula, who dominate the economy and make up the bulk of the intelligentsia, have never ruled Guinea. They are believed to be highly clannish in nature. The Malinke and others believe that once the Fula get power the rest of them will become their slaves. As such, they have vowed never to surrender power to them. It is part of the open wound of Guinean society and politics.
In 1970, the Portuguese Armed Forces, with the aid of local opposition elements, launched Operation Green Sea, an amphibious military operation, to oust the regime. It failed. When the threats became unrelenting, the regime was transmogrified into a monstrous killing machine. Perhaps as many as 50,000 perished while many more fled into exile. The infamous Camp Boiro in the outskirts of the capital became the last bus stop for many a hapless political prisoner. For the sake of my mental health, I could not bring myself to visit its museum.
The most prominent victim of Camp Boiro was Diallo Telli (1925—1977), first Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Unity, OAU. A brilliant Fula jurist who earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne age 25; by 28, he was Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. In 1963 he was elected pioneer OAU Secretary-General.
Sekou Toure was never comfortable with that appointment. After his first term in office, Diallo Telli needed the backing of his country for a second term. He did not get it. Instead, Sekou Toure invited him to return home to serve in his cabinet. His wife Hadja Kadiatou Diallo Telli warned him that he was being offered a poisoned chalice. She even had a mental breakdown when she realised her husband would not listen to her.
He was made Minister of Justice in 1972. It was not before long that he was accused of being part of a Fula complot to assassinate the President. He was summarily gaoled in Camp Boiro. All his cloths were removed and he was tied in chains in a dark, solitary cell. The keys were thrown away. He had been administered what was notoriously known as “the black diet”, consisting of no water and no food. Boubacar Diallo Telli died of hunger and starvation in February 1977.
Sekou Toure himself died in March 1984. Colonel Lansana Conteh seized power in a coup d’état. He himself was no better. He amassed a vast fortune by cornering most of the rent from the mining companies. Guinea became an attractive destination for all kinds of vultures, drug dealers and soldiers of fortune. One or two other strongmen were to follow. The country was soon engulfed into even more darkness. As the novelist Camara Laye once lamented, “My perplexity was boundless as the sky, and mine was a sky, alas, without any stars…”
Today, Guinea’s fledgling democracy is being countermanded by the mild-mannered Professor Alpha Condé. He has shown himself to be a compassionate leader. But I fear that the problems of this wonderful country remain intractable. The people of Guinea have suffered untold tragedy. Everywhere one goes, poverty and destitution stare one in the face. It was not too long that the youths of Guinea fought the battle of their lives against the dreaded Ebola pandemic. They face even more formidable foes in the seven-headed incubi of poverty, disease, illiteracy and malnutrition. At US$558, the country’s per capita is among the lowest in the world.
Ironically, Guinea has more than 40 percent of the world’s bauxite deposits; with vast quantities of iron ore, uranium, gold, diamonds and cobalt. The agricultural potentials are immense. Futa Djallon, the source of the Niger River, has a near-temperate climate. Guinea’s waterfalls can generate enough hydro-electricity for all her needs.
What is needed is bold, visionary leadership. It is imperative to stabilise the country by forging a new coalition who subordinate ethnic chauvinism for national solidarity. There is also need to reform the key public institutions while building the foundations for the rule of law and good economic and political governance.
Les enfants de Conakry et de toute la Guinea, je vous aimer avec tout le chaleur de mon coeur.