by Mark Wentling
Guinea’s first president, Ahmed Sékou Touré (AST) died on March 26, 1984, following emergency heart surgery at a Cleveland hospital. When Guinea gained independence from France in 1958, AST was the only leader of France’s African colonies to say “no” to Charles De Gaulle’s offer of continued association with France, stating loudly “We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery.” The French thus quickly abandoned with much vengeance their most wealthy West African Francophone colony, destroying everything they could not take with them.
I was in Guinea at the time of his death and attended his funeral in Conakry on March 30, 1984, along with many world leaders, including Vice President George H.W. Bush. In the tumultuous days that followed AST’s funeral, we all expected one of his family members or close cronies to replace him as president. To everyone’s surprise, Lansana Conté, an obscure officer in Guinea’s rag-tag army, and his collaborators were able to detain everyone associated with AST and put them in jail. Conté became Guinea’s new supreme leader on April 3, 1984. Conté’s spontaneous power grab was thus complete.
I served as the USAID Representative to Guinea from November 1983 to June 1987, including eight months as interim chargé at the U.S. Embassy in Conakry. Prior to leaving post in 1987, I was tasked with writing a report on the prospects of President Conté continuing to hold the reins of power. In this report, I focused on the dramatic week that followed an attempted coup against Conté in 1985.
History proved many of my views wrong. Among other things, I stated in my classified report that President Conté would not last long because he was from a minority coastal ethnic group (Sousou) and spent all his time on his farm outside of Conakry watching pornographic videos. He was also a diabetic and a drunkard. His health was poor, and he was expected to die within a year. I was more surprised than anyone when he remained Guinea’s president for 24 years, only two years less than AST.
My report recounted how Conté took over in 1984 and then noted key events until 1987. Of special note was how quickly he appointed Diarra Traoré, one of his strong supporters, as his prime minister (PM). As Traoré was from the same major ethnic group, Malinké, as AST, having him as PM strengthened Conté’s position. Many people from another major ethnic group, Peulh, thought it was their turn to rule. Nobody thought any person from the new president’s ethnic group could rule the country and stay in power for long. There is no doubt that ethnicity is a key factor in Guinea’s politics.
I also noted that in late June 1985, I accompanied my embassy colleagues to pay an official visit on the new PM. It was an odd meeting. The PM sat in a big, elevated chair and we sat in smaller chairs in a semi-circle at a lower level in front of him. He wore thick dark glasses and was dressed in a long traditional African robe. He held firmly in his right hand an intricately carved wooden cane. He had draped around his neck large gaudy necklaces from which dangled numerous amulets in small leather pouches. Such amulets traditionally contained written Islamic prayers intended to protect an individual from any harm. Seeing the PM dressed like this sent chills down my spine. I found myself wondering why he was dressed as if his life needed protection.
Our ambassador, James Rosenthal, opened the meeting with the usual pleasantries and extended an invitation to the PM to our upcoming July 4 American Independence Day reception at Conakry’s best hotel. We waited patiently for the PM to respond, but he never did. We then heard a silent snore that told us he was asleep. We guessed he had participated all night in some sort of African occult rituals and drank a powerful protection potion. We did not know what to do. After 10 minutes of waiting, we quietly withdrew from this mysterious encounter, feeling quite disturbed. I was scared by the PM’s trance and what this could mean for Guinea.
A week later, at our July 4th reception at Conakry’s finest hotel, the PM arrived dressed in a suit and tie and in good diplomatic form. We were pleased that most of the ministers and top military brass had also honored our invitation
At the reception, I was able to have a private conversation with the PM, who seemed to be very different from the man we had visited a few days earlier. He did not recall our courtesy visit. I tried to steer our conversation to happier topics, but the PM wanted to talk about how he had suffered under AST’s regime. He said that during the harsh reign of AST he and many other Guineans, regardless of their political standing or ethnic group, were kept off balance on a daily basis. They did not know whom to trust. He mentioned there were spies everywhere and even family members could report on you. He said there were times he did not know if he were going home or to prison.
On the long drive home that night, I was thinking that Guinea had at long last an opportunity to exploit its formidable natural resources. When I returned home, I set my radio to a local station to hear what it had to report about our July 4 reception. Instead of the usual local news broadcast, all I heard was non-stop martial music. I became alarmed and used my two-way security radio to contact Ambassador Rosenthal. He told me he was getting ready for bed, but he would also listen to the local radio broadcast.
Within minutes, the ambassador radioed back instructions to me to come to his residence. I immediately informed my wife to stay inside with our children and took off in our car. I arrived at the ambassador’s residence to find him waiting for me in his official vehicle with the flags mounted on its front fenders. He told me to drive us to the embassy. He said we were safer if we used his official car. I agreed and drove as fast as I could in the direction of the embassy.
When we arrived at the first major crossroads, we encountered a roadblock manned by armed soldiers. We were stopped and told to lower our car windows. We did as we were told. As soon as the windows were lowered, the soldiers roughly jammed the ends of their rifles in our faces. By the soft glow of their flashlights, I could see they had a mad look on their faces and their eyes were dilated. I assumed they had been drinking heavily or were drugged. We were able to convince them of our harmlessness and all we wanted was to go to our embassy. It was with great relief that we were allowed to pass. At the time, I thought we would be shot, and our dead bodies would be made to disappear. Yes, I was scared on that dark, moonless night in Conakry.
We found our communications technician already at the embassy and prepared to send any reporting cables we drafted. We learned that the ambassador’s deputy, Kathryn Clark-Bourne, had tried to go to the embassy, but she had been stopped and detained at a local police station. Informants advised us that the PM was trying to lead a coup to overthrow Conté. It appeared that the PM and others had used our July 4 reception to help disguise their intentions. They left our reception and began immediately carrying out their plans.
We stayed in the embassy all night to monitor the situation. Early in the morning I was designated to take one of our unmarked vehicles to see what was happening. I observed utter mayhem. People were running in all directions with stuff they had stolen. There was fighting among several groups. I saw one guy get out of a car and fire a pistol. When he fired a couple of rounds, people carrying stolen goods dropped their bags and fled the scene. He picked up the bags and tossed them into the trunk of his car and zoomed off. It was difficult to distinguish between who were the aggressors and who were the victims. In fear of being caught in the crossfire, I scurried back to the safety of the embassy. My report on this perilous outing caused Washington to be concerned about our safety, instructing us to be prepared to enact our emergency evacuation plan.
The coup failed and all suspects were apprehended and imprisoned. The PM was found hiding and was treated roughly in front of national TV cameras. He and his fellow coup plotters, as well as former associates of AST, were eventually executed. All the key people I had worked to convince that opening the economy to the private sector was a good thing for Guinea were killed. I was now at a loss as to with whom to re-start my economic reform talk.
I was responsible for seeing the Minister of Justice, Jean Traoré (no relation to Diarra Traoré), to put the U.S. government on record as being strongly against the extrajudicial killing of Guinea’s former leaders. I knew the Minister of Justice and we were on friendly terms. He received me with a stone face. I sat in a chair in front of his desk and read our official statement that expressed the U.S. government’s displeasure over the killing without due process of these officials. When I finished reading the statement, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Where was your government when most of my family members were killed by President Touré?”
I had no response to his troubling words. He quickly rose from his chair behind his desk and coldly said, “I knew you were coming, and I knew beforehand what you were going to say. Goodbye.”
(Adapted from Chapter 22 on Guinea from the author’s book, Africa Memoir, 50 Years, 54 Countries, One American Life, 1970 – 2020, to be published in December by Open Books Academic.)
Following two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Honduras, Mark Wentling first arrived in Togo, West Africa, in 1970 and served three years as a PCV. He then served as Peace Corps Director in Gabon and Niger. He began working for USAID in Niger in 1977, and served as the principal USAID officer in Guinea, Togo/Benin, Angola, Somalia and Tanzania. Following retirement in 1996, Mark continued to work for USAID as an advisor for the Great Lakes, then with USAID Missions in Burkina Faso, Niger, Zambia, Malawi, Guinea and Senegal. He also worked with CARE in Niger and Mozambique, and then with World Vision all over Africa. In addition, he was Country Director for Plan International in Burkina Faso. In these and other postings he has covered all of Africa.