Amandla Thomas-Johnson writes about how Kwame Ture played an important part in the life of newly independent Guinea, then led by Ahmed Sékou Touré. Ture became perhaps the foremost Pan-Africanist of his day and co-founded (with Kwame Nkrumah) the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, at the time the most significant Pan-African political party. Yet so little is known about Ture’s life. In these extracts from his book, Thomas-Johnson writes about Ture’s life in Guinea, and an extraordinary event in 1970.
By Amandla Thomas-Johnson
In Guinea, doors fly open at the mere mention of Kwame Ture’s name. A senior government minister met me within a few hours’ notice. And when I arrived at Villa Syli to meet a member of Sékou Touré’s old party, the PDG (Parti démocratique de Guinée), I was unexpectedly ushered into a luxurious salon, where I was instead met by Hadja Touré, the former president’s wife. Now in her eighties, she sat on a red and gold wooden carved chair, at the centre of a discussion with three men dressed in expensive fabrics cut in traditional styles. I recognised one of the men as the brother of the Senegalese radical Omar Blondin Diop. Hadja Touré acknowledged me with a deft nod of the head, as I tried to find the most appropriate French expression for the occasion.
Now used by the former first lady, Villa Syli was for several years the residence of Kwame Nkrumah. And it is easy to imagine Nkrumah and Kwame Ture seated on the red upholstered chairs around the dark wooden table at the far end of the room discussing his return to Ghana.
Hadja and Sékou Touré married in 1953. In the run-up to independence, Guinea was the only territory of France’s West African colonies to opt out of joining the French Community in 1958, which would have meant everything from foreign affairs to currencies to higher education would be effectively managed from Paris. When then French president Charles De Gaulle arrived in Guinea in August that year to try to persuade its leaders otherwise, Sékou Touré, then the vice president of Guinea’s government council, famously told him: “We will prefer poverty in freedom to riches in slavery.”
“He was very angry,” Hadja said of De Gaulle’s reaction. “The French tried everything to make us change our mind.”
By the time Guinea declared its independence on 2 October 1958, becoming the second independent Sub-Saharan African nation after Ghana, the sabotage had already begun. Days earlier, French troops had arrived and discreetly emptied the central bank, carrying off its contents by boat to France. Departing French officials then went on a bout of vengeful vandalism, cutting telephone wires in state offices, looting barracks and burning army uniforms. A non-interest loan from Nkrumah’s Ghana was a saving grace. But later, when Guinea adopted a new currency, the French flooded the country with counterfeit banknotes, crashing the economy.
“They tried everything to destroy Guinea. But those who have good intentions always succeed. We did not give up.”
But Guinea would suffer for years to come. Did her husband have any regrets?
“Regret what?” she snapped back. “He always wanted independence and he got it.”
Bordered by pro-French Senegal and Ivory Coast as well as colonial Portugal, Guinea felt increasingly adrift. The overthrow of Modibo Keita in Mali and Nkrumah in Ghana, its closest allies, compounded the sense of isolation. Sékou Touré would in time come to feel perpetually under threat and the paranoia would result in deadly political purges.
It was into this febrile atmosphere that Ture and his wife the singer Miriam Makeba moved to Guinea in 1969, where they were welcomed by the Tourés. “He was very close to Sékou,” Hadja said, “almost like a relative. We appreciated him a lot.” For his part, Ture admired the character and the politics of the Guinean president as much as he did Nkrumah and referred to them both affectionately as “his two fathers.”
And by inviting him to Guinea, Sékou Touré had saved his life. A raft of measures had been taken by the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI against Ture as part of its efforts to prevent the rise of a “Black Messiah”. One rumour floated by the FBI was that Ture was in fact a CIA operative, putting him in mortal danger from other Black nationalist groups. And American authorities would continue to pay close attention to him while he was in Guinea.
Guinea was under the one-party rule of Sékou Touré’s PDG. With Touré, a former trade unionist, at the helm, the party had dominated the pre-independence political landscape, appealing to worker solidarity and Islam, the dominant religion, as a way to rise above ethnic differences.
Touré sought to expand the public sector and promote agricultural collectivisation along socialist principles and as a revolutionary Pan-Africanist, he sponsored liberation movements, from South Africa to the Cape Verde islands. Touré’s Guinea also attempted to chart a non-aligned course through the choppy waters of the cold war. The Soviets were invited in to exploit Guinea’s vast bauxite deposits, but the country also remained open for business with the US.
As Kwame Ture travelled through the country on PDG business, he was moved by the humility and hospitality of ordinary Guineans, and by the traditional dances and the griots. Makeba incorporated the sounds of the local instruments, the balafon and the kora into her own music. The verdant landscapes and what Ture called the people’s “African humanism” made a strong enough impression for them to build a house in a lush valley in the Fouta Djallon mountains.
But it was a major incident just a year into his time in Guinea that left an indelible impression. Just as Ture and Makeba were retiring to bed at their beachside Conakry home, he heard loud gunfire and detected movements across the sand as men disembarked from ships. Suspecting a coup, he immediately informed the president.
Uncertain of what to do and without a rifle, having left it at Nkrumah’s residence, they waited anxiously by the radio for news. A Portuguese invasion was underway. They left the house at 4 a.m. and headed for the residence of the Tanzania ambassador, so that Makeba, who carried a Tanzanian passport, could get to safety.
“It was hair-raising because you couldn’t tell exactly what was going down. The streets were deserted, but you could hear gunfire everywhere,” Ture later recalled. A firefight had escalated at the headquarters of Amilcar Cabral’s party, the PAIGC, which led the independence movement against Portuguese rule in neighbouring Guinea-Bissau from Conakry and was the target of the invasion. As Ture drove past the party’s headquarters, he put his foot down on the accelerator, and ducked as bullets flew above his head.
Women, children as well as men poured onto the streets to defend the revolution, eyewitness accounts say, as Sékou Touré mobilised private citizens and militia to fight the invaders. The angry masses hunted down the suspects, some of them dissidents who were attempting to blend back into the population. After a seven-day manhunt the people’s justice won out.
“Sékou Touré said let the people try them. So the party members set up people’s courts and convicted many of them. Some were hung. So much for their welcome as liberators,” Ture later wrote.
The events of 22 November 1970 marked Ture to such an extent that his dying wish, nearly 30 years later, was to be buried on the anniversary of the attack. He saw it as no less than an African nation repelling a European invader. But it also drove home the manifold threats that Guinea faced. By raising the alarm, Ture had helped save the revolution, Sékou Touré loyalists said. Djibril Camara, a PDG member, said that Kwame Ture’s heroics strengthened the mutual admiration between him and Sékou Touré’s party.
Ismail Conde, one of the few remaining members of Sékou Touré’s inner circle, said that Guinea’s one-party system was crucial to thwarting the invasion and more than 20 plots during more than two decades of Sékou Touré’s rule. “Guineans were united as though it was one man and that’s why they succeeded in eluding all plots against them,” said Conde, a party ideologue with bushy eyebrows and two pens stuffed in his shirt pocket.
Despite the success, Sékou Touré, who escaped yet another assassination attempt during the invasion was shaken. He began to think there was a permanent conspiracy hanging over his head. Political purges and executions followed. Camp Boiro, an internment camp in the centre of Conakry became synonymous with torture, execution and starvation. Estimates vary, but a former US official claimed around 5,000 people died at the camp. Amnesty International puts the number at 50,000. Hundreds of thousands fled, among them a disproportionate number of ethnic Fulanis.
Was this a price worth paying to defend the revolution?
Under the eyes of a dusty portrait of “Comrade Sékou Touré” perched high on a shelf in his Conakry living room, Conde swears that it was. But for many, including Abbas Bah, a former political prisoner, it was too high a price.
Then a 24-year-old hydrologist, Bah was arrested at Conakry airport in 1971 as he made his way to Mali, and accused of involvement in a Western-backed plot to kill the president. He was sent to Camp Boiro. After eight days without food, he was brought to a room and electrocuted repeatedly until he signed a forced confession.
“At the third time, I agreed, and they gave me a paper with writing, and I signed it. I went on the public radio and confirmed that I was guilty of the accusations they put upon me.”
Bah and I sat on the terrace of his home in a Conakry suburb, in the dark, amid the whir of crickets and sounds of playing children.
Bah spent seven years inside Camp Boiro. He shared a 3 x 3.5 m cell with seven other prisoners. They had just one chamber pot between them. Nourishment was a handful of rice and a litre of water served once a day.
Bah would see people led out one by one, never to return and he feared that his day would soon come. “Each second, I was thinking that they would take me out of prison to kill me.”
Bah’s family have for 400 years served as the Imams of Labé—the capital of the predominantly ethnic Fulani region in central Guinea. Other family members, including his brother and sisters were also imprisoned at the camp. Touré and the PDG wanted to destroy influential families like his, Bah said.
After his release Bah was ordered to meet Touré at his office. “I told him that God sent me into prison and God released me. Today I am free and safe.” Bah, who is head of an association representing the survivors of Camp Boiro, said he has forgiven his captors, but still wants accountability. He expressed disappointment towards Ture for not speaking out.
“Kwame came from the United States and was defending human rights and Black people. How could he know that Sékou was unjustly killing people and remain his friend?” he asked. Ture biographer’s Peniel E. Joseph said his silence, despite such proximity to the ruling elite, was “a moral failure as well as a political one”.
But till the very end, Kwame Ture was unequivocal in his defence of Sékou Touré and his regime. While acknowledging “that conditions in Boiro were harsh” he dismissed many of the stories that came out of the camp as “either deliberate fabrications or grossly exaggerated.” Borrowing a phrase popularised by Malcolm X, he was adamant that the revolution had to be defended “by all means necessary”.
Attempts to destabilise Guinea began before independence and continued for years after, as the country struggled to survive in a sea of hostility. Maurice Robert, the head of the powerful SDECE (Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage), France’s foreign intelligence service, during Sékou Touré’s time, later admitted to training Guinean dissidents to “create a climate of security” in the country. “We had to destabilise Sékou Touré, make him vulnerable, unpopular and facilitate the seizure of power by the opposition,” Robert said in an interview in 2004.
Having wrestled a knife-wielding assailant to the floor before, Sékou Touré knew the grisly fate that awaited anti-colonialists of his kind. Amilcar Cabral had been assassinated right under his nose in Conakry. And others, such as Keita and Nkrumah had been ousted.
Having read Fanon and Nkrumah, Kwame Ture interpreted the purges as being justified forms of revolutionary violence even if there was collateral damage. In many ways, Guinea becomes the embodiment of the existential battle at the heart of his politics, between the forces of empire, neo-colonialism and white supremacy on one side, and Pan-Africanism, Black Power and anti-imperialism on the other. As far as he was concerned, you had only two options: you were for the revolution or you were against it. Ture also personally acknowledged the difficulties faced by families of purge victims and in some cases supported them materially, even if he did not speak out.
Nevertheless, Bah’s case raises important questions about some of the tensions inherent in political power, where states can exercise a monopoly on violence while at the same time claim to be working for the greater good.
It also raises the issue of accountability, and the human costs involved in defending state-led ideological projects. When is enough, enough? Bah’s torture and the lack of due process in his case suggests that it went beyond just defending a revolution.
In 1979, Stokely Carmichael, as he had until then been called, changed his name to Kwame Ture, in honour of his two African mentors. Joseph suggests that this represented a transformation from Stokely Carmichael, the American grassroots organiser, to Kwame Ture, the African revolutionary. “If Carmichael’s past vision of a liberated future rested on the grassroots, Ture’s beliefs leaned more toward the power of vanguard parties and the genius of African statesmen,” he writes.
This supposed optimism proved to be short-lived. In 1984 Sékou Touré suddenly passed away. A military coup led by Colonel Lansana Conte followed days later. The PDG was banned and 90 percent of its central committee executed.
Ture, now with a new wife and a baby boy, was in mortal danger and considered leaving. His decision to stay, however, perhaps represents one of the defining moments of his Guinea years. It showed that he was not just there for Nkrumah or Sékou Touré, but was committed to the country, its people, and was willing to fight without his governmental privileges. Ture would face an uphill struggle, but his decision to stay would endear him to ordinary Guineans for years to come.
Ture began to work in secret to rebuild the PDG, despite the risks. “It was tough, a complete and sudden reversal,” he wrote in his memoir. “From being the party of the government, we went back to being outlaws, hunted and repressed. And not by white racists, either, but by black reactionary puppets this time.” Kwame Ture may have gone global, as Joseph suggests, but Stokely Carmichael the grassroots organiser was also still there. And that’s when they came for him.
His arrest and imprisonment in August 1986 sparked a global campaign. The All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (A-APRP) quickly activated their networks. Protestors picketed outside the Guinean embassy in Washington DC and at the homes of black mayors. The Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Cubans also tried to intervene, and civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Ambassador Andrew Young lobbied hard for his release. And after four days Ture was once again a free man. It was the 40th arrest of his political career. Ismael Conde, by now working in the presidential office, was arrested, as was Hadja Touré, who recalls appreciatively that Ture drove hundreds of kilometres just to visit her. Both were eventually released.
Guinea turned to the West, bringing much-needed investment but also a spike in corruption. Back in its sphere of influence, France in 1990 mandated the country to open to a multiparty system or else lose French aid, a twist of irony that would lead to the re-emergence of the PDG.
Ture and Conde led the party’s re-emergence in 1993.
Ture joined the party’s central committee and was appointed the liaison with the Cuban embassy. His role in rebuilding the party is recognised in PDG documents where his name appears alongside Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré as one of the “illustrious Pan-Africanists” who have enriched PDG ideology. Conde described him as an “unstoppable revolutionary who believed in the liberty, dignity and pride of the black race and that imperialism in Africa was a shame for the black race”.
Sekou Mbacke, by this time living in Guinea and involved in the PDG’s youth wing, recalls travelling with Ture from neighbourhood to neighbourhood building work-study circles and “preaching the PDG doctrine to the masses”. For a time, things began to look up for the party as talk of the old president returned to the streets, despite government efforts to dirty his name, claims Mbacke. Ture’s own party, the A-APRP, pinned its continental hopes on a PDG comeback. Disappointment soon followed, however. In 1996, while Ture was away in the US, the PDG went into a political alliance with the regime of President Lansana Conte. Ture saw this as a betrayal and a turn away from its revolutionary objectives.
“He was surprised, he was mad. He could not hide that from me,” Mbacke said.
Looking out across the continent in 1995, Ture saw one counter-revolutionary setback after another. “There was very little good news,” he wrote. “The reports coming into Conakry from cadres in the field as well as from allies across the continent were almost all grim. Month after month, report after report, there were setbacks.”
Ture decried what he said was “neoliberalism brazenly resurfacing” and “arrogant military dictatorships puffing themselves up”, normalising opportunism, naked corruption and greed. Ture put this down to the delayed effects of the demise of the Soviet Union, the mere existence of which had acted as a bulwark against rampant neo-colonialism and imperialism in the Black world (though he admits that the Soviets were the lesser of two evils).
“In the liberation struggles of Africans and all oppressed and exploited peoples—some unfolding over generations, even centuries—there are low points and reverses. That’s all. The struggle continues.
Becoming Kwame Ture by Amandla Thomas-Johnson is published by Chimurenganyana Series and can be purchased here.