Sekou Toure, longtime ruler of the African nation of Guinea, was born Ahmad Sekou Toure in Faranah, Guinea (which, at the time, was a colony called French Guinea) on 9 January 1922. A member of the Mandinka tribe, Toure came from a line of warriors, and in fact his great-grandfather Samory Toure was a national hero who had led resistance against the French until he was finally captured.
In order to pay for his education, Toure took a job with the national postal service, and soon became involved in the labor-union movement. He helped to found the Postal Workers Union in 1945, and became deeply involved in Guinean nationalist politics. He became the leader of the Guinean Democratic Party, which advocated the independence of Guinea and the departure of all colonial powers from Africa. In 1956 he was elected as Guinea’s representative to the French National Assembly and became mayor of Conakry, Guinea’s capital. He used both positions to work against French occupation of the country.
In 1958 Franch held a referendum in its African colonies to determine if they wanted to stay in the French Union. Toure’s influence in Guinean politics resulted in the colony voting to leave the French Union, the only one to do so. The French government, which was caught off guard by Guinea’s voting to leave, had no choice but to grant the country its independence and grudgingly did so in 1958. Toure was made President, and set about consolidating his power. In 1960 he declared his political party, the PDG, the only legal one in the country.
Toure governed Guinea from a decidedly Marxist point of view, a philosophy he had come to believe in while involved in the labor-union movement. He nationalised businesses and industries controlled by foreign governments and/or companies and developed an economic strategy for the country based on a strong central-planning authority. He also jailed or exiled any and all opponents. While personally popular among Guineans, his economic and governing policies were beginning to disappoint large numbers of them, who saw little if any improvement in their economic and political situations. By the late 1960s there was growing resentment of and opposition to his rule, and his government became more repressive, with more opponents being jailed or fleeing into exile. Toure’s relations with France soured, and in 1965 he severed all ties with the country, moving closer to the Soviet Union. However, by 1978 his relationship with that country had deteriorated, and when France’s Valéry Giscard d’Estaing approached Toure with a plan for a state visit by the French president to his country to repair relations, Toure accepted.
Realistically, he had little choice: his main ally among Africa’s leaders, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, was overthrown in 1966 in a military coup, and other than the president of Mali and a few others, most African leaders were decidedly cold to him. Toure not only offered Nkrumah asylum but made him co-president of the country. Both he and Nkrumah helped form the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party to help free the remaining African colonies from their European owners. The group funded and gave support to a rebel group fighting Portuguese forces in the neighboring colony of Portuguese Guinea.
The Portuguese did not take that lying down, so to speak, and in 1970 the Portuguese military mounted an attack on Conakry, ostensibly to rescue Portuguese POWs who had been turned over to Toure by the guerrillas, but in reality the main objective was to overthrow Toure’s regime and capture or kill him. They did manage to rescue their POWs, but their other objective remained unaccomplished.
Toure’s relations with the US were rocky, but when US President John F Kennedy came to power in 1960, Toure was impressed with his outlook on Africa, what he considered a refreshing change from the policies of his predecessor, and his policies on civil rights in the US, and relations warmed considerably. A spate of labor troubles in Guinea in 1962 gave Toure the opportunity he was looking for: he blamed the troubles on Soviet meddling, broke relations with them and began to adopt a more pro-American policy.
However, after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, relations with the US took a turn for the worse. He came to the belief that the American CIA was plotting his overthrow and execution, and when a Guinean delegation to the new government in Ghana was thrown in prison, Toure took that to mean that the CIA’s “plot” against him had begun. His regime retreated into a state of paranoia, with mass arrests and imprisonment of opponents, both real and imagined, in detention camps, where many were tortured and killed (estimates are as high as 50,000). Tens of thousands of Guineans fled to neighboring countries. Eventually he came to his senses, and in 1978 he formally renounced Marxism as the official state policy and forged closer ties to the West.
Toure was “re-elected” as President in 1982, in an election in which his party was the only one allowed and in which he ran unopposed, and the country adopted a new constitution. Toure visited the US in the summer of 1982 seeking political and economic aid, and announced a program of economic reforms toward a more free-market economy.
On 26 March 1984, Toure died while undergoing treatment for heart problems at a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. His Prime Minister was appointed to replace him, but less than a month later he was overthrown in an army coup.