The Thing About Guinea

By Doug MerlinoAugust 3, 2017

The Thing About Guinea

A Socialist Peace? by Mike McGovern

OVER THE LAST four decades, the people of West Africa have suffered through a series of catastrophic civil wars that have erupted in Senegal, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Though each has risen from specific grievances, the overall cause of all can be traced to weak governments, elite competition for resources, and the mobilization of ethnic groups against one another. The withdrawal of the Cold War patronage system and a flood of weapons imported from the former Soviet Bloc certainly also played a part.

Guinea is the striking anomaly in the region. Though it has the geographic bad luck to share a border with all the restive nations listed above, the country has managed to avoid full-out civil war. This is especially notable since Guinea has experienced flares of internal violence and shares ethnic fissures and economic woes similar to or even worse than those of its neighbors.

In A Socialist Peace?, Mike McGovern, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan who has written prior books on Ivory Coast and Guinea, explores the reasons for Guinea’s relative cohesion. His work is based on 35 months of field research conducted between 1997 and 2013, including a period in-country during the early 2000s in which the violence in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone came very close to infecting Guinea. The book contains substantial first-hand observation.

McGovern’s thesis, developed throughout the book, is that a sense of national identity imposed by the socialist government of Ahmed Sékou Touré, Guinea’s first leader after independence from France, held the peace during Guinea’s most dangerous moments. Instead of succumbing to the temptations of ethnic grievance, Guineans were able to access a shared national story.

Touré, a charismatic strongman with an ideological attraction to Marxism, rejected overtures from Charles de Gaulle to remain part of a union of West African Francophone countries and instead opted for full independence. He ruled Guinea with an increasingly repressive hand from 1958 to 1984 as he also worked to form the various ethnic groups intermingled inside its colonial borders into a modern nation-state.

His efforts included the centralization of the economy, swift punishment for government officials implicated in corruption, and a rhetoric aimed to subsume Guinea’s ethnic divisions into a common whole. As such, the importance of the socialist cause was hammered home in state media, the schools, and the arts.

Touré tied these efforts into a larger narrative of postcolonial struggle for African pride and self-reliance, explaining to Guineans that the material deprivations they suffered in the present would pay off in a more glorious future. A favorite of neither Paris nor Washington, Touré constantly railed against the threat of foreign enemies, which McGovern notes helped to foster a national identity. At the same time, Touré’s regime imprisoned, tortured, and executed thousands of Guineans who it suspected of plotting against it. Thousands of others were forced into exile.

After Touré’s death in 1984, he was succeeded by Lansana Conté after a coup d’état. Though Conté began to implement some economic and civil reforms — and was more willing to use ethnic tensions for his own political ends — McGovern contends that the rhetoric of nationhood established during the Touré era remained operative in the minds of Guineans.

Much of McGovern’s field work was conducted in the forest region in the southeastern part of Guinea, which Liberia and Sierra Leone border to the west. Geographically, the region is closer to the Monrovia and Freetown, the capitals of those two countries, than to Conakry, Guinea’s own. It suffers from simmering tensions between “forestiers” — an umbrella term for several ethnic groups who are seen as native to the region — and the Mandinka, who have migrated to the area from the north for business and farming. In 1991, some 500 Mandinka were massacred by forestiers during a 36-hour period in the aftermath of local elections that pitted the groups against each other, a glimpse of the potential for even greater violence in the area (the “peace” referenced in the title would be better stated as “avoidance of complete civil war”).

In a chilling passage gleaned from his research, McGovern describes drinking palm wine with a group of forestiers in the late 1990s. The booze-fueled conversation descended into a discussion among the locals of how they would like to ethnically cleanse the region of Mandinka. In fact, the men said, they would kill their sisters who had intermarried first.

But when the instigators of the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia worked to export large-scale violence to the region in the early 2000s, they failed to spark a fire. When a group of Liberian fighters came over the border intending to massacre Mandinka, they were turned back by forestiers who, echoing the rhetoric of the Touré era, told them: “We are all Guineans.” Though there were many small-scale cases of violence, McGovern describes a process in which the people of the region, bereft of help from the national government, fell back on the discipline of the Touré era, setting up roadblocks, checkpoints, and other systems to keep widespread violence at bay. McGovern, who experienced all of this in person at the time, does well teasing out the nuances of a chaotic situation.

While McGovern does not endorse socialism as a governing system, he does think that scholars fail to fully appreciate the power that a forward-looking and fully articulated “national project” can have in forging social cohesion. He also suggests that scholars have focused overmuch on the horrific collapse of post-socialist Yugoslavia while not figuring in the relative stability of post-socialist Guinea and Tanzania. It’s a provocative statement, but one that is impossible to assess without a much deeper examination.

As McGovern acknowledges, it is extremely hard to prove a counterfactual. Perhaps there are other reasons for Guinea’s avoidance of civil war besides a national coherence built during the socialist era. Maybe the country was simply lucky to avoid producing a fatal strongman like Foday Sankoh, Charles Taylor, or Slobodan Milošević. Or there could be some other unexplained mix of factors at play. Nevertheless, this closely examined work certainly makes one think about the coercion that seems to be necessary to forge a modern nation-state as well as the paradox that such brutal beginnings may pay off in relative peace down the line — a Hobbesian lesson if ever there was one. The book’s central argument, however, could be bolstered by specific examples of how similar circumstances resulted in different outcomes in Guinea’s neighbors.

McGovern also makes clear that the overhang of the socialist era is now truly in the past. After the death of Lansana Conté in 2008, Guinea once again experienced a coup d’état. Temporary excitement for a fresh start quickly waned and for two years Guineans suffered under the horrifically incompetent and violent regime of a young Army officer named Moussa Dadis Camara. Though Camara attempted to emulate some of Touré’s strongman panache, McGovern notes he simply wasn’t capable of it — some of the tragedy of the Touré years repeated as deadly farce. Guineans, as a whole, were over it. Indeed, since the election of longtime Touré and Conté opponent Alpha Condé to the presidency in 2010, Guinea seems to have entered an era in which ethnic identity is the prime factor in political mobilization.

Though this book is most valuable as an exploration of the dynamics and history of post-independence West Africa, it also raises questions not only for the future of Guinea but of many other nations as well: what happens when the collective narrative that once encouraged social stability, coexistence among factions, and the consent of the governed no longer holds? No matter the limitations or drawbacks of such a story, its collapse would seem to herald a dangerous time in any polity.


Doug Merlino is the author of Beast: Blood, Struggle and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts and The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. He has reported on post-conflict reconciliation efforts in Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

LARB Contributor

Doug Merlino is the author of several nonfiction books and the co-writer of Speaking Freely: My Life in Publishing and Human Rights (2016), the memoirs of Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein. He reported on Rwanda’s post-genocide Gacaca courts for Frontline/World and wrote his master’s thesis on Sierra Leone’s post-conflict justice and truth and reconciliation efforts.


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