Guinea: A Historical Profile

Contributed by: Mohamed Pathe Jalloh

INTRODUCTION  

Map of Guinea

The origin of the name Guinea itself is obscure. Some suggest that Guinea might be derived from the ancient Niger River Basin trading center, Djenne. More likely it derives, through Portuguese usage, from the Berber Akal-n-Iguinawen (land of the blacks). Yet another possibility is that it comes from the word geenay, meaning “women” among the coastal Soussou, and that somehow this name came to be applied to a widespread area of the African Coast.

GEOGRAPHY 

Climatically all of Guinea shares two alternating seasons: a dry season (November to March) and a wet season (April to October). Rainfall varies from region to region with as much as 170 inches per year at Conakry on the coast to less than sixty inches a year in Upper Guinea. The rainfall in Middle Guinea ranges from 63 to 91 inches per year while some areas in the Forest Region have more than 100 inches of rain per year. Temperature ranges also vary according to the different regions. On the coast and in the Forest Region the temperature ranges around an average of 81 degrees Fahrenheit. The Fouta highland of Middle Guinea may experience January daytime temperatures of 86 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit while nighttime temperatures may dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Mid-day highs of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit are not uncommon in Upper Guinea during the dry season.

Most of Guinea is composed of savanna grasslands and orchard shrub with soils largely composed of silicates of aluminum hydrate, except along rivers and the tidal areas. Major food crops include millet, maize, rice, manioc (cassava), and oil palms while some coffee and bananas are cultivated for export.

POPULATION 

Guinea’s estimated population of approximately seven million is composed of a variety of ethnic groups. The present-day boundaries of Guinea were determined by colonial powers with little regard to ethnic and linguistic groups. These boundaries, therefore, often split these groups. Within the country, though, the four major geographic regions largely correspond to the four major ethno-linguistic groups.

In Lower Guinea, Soussou, a Mandingo language, has largely replaced that of Landoma, Baga, Nalou, and other West Atlantic languages once widely spoken in coastal areas. In the Fouta Djalon of Middle Guinea the Pulaar (Peul) language is dominant, although minor indigenous ethnic groups like the Badyaranke, Bassari, Coniagui and Diakhante continue to maintain some of their traditional ways. Maninkakan, the language of the Maninka, is widely spoken in Upper Guinea, and has long been penetrating into the forest zone where three very different linguistic groups are still dominant. These three linguistic areas from east to west, are the Kpelle (Guerze), Loma (Toma), and Kissi. A number of other minor ethnic groups exist in Guinea but the process of creating a national identity in Guinea has made considerable headway since independence.

PRE-COLONIAL HISTORY

The pre-colonial history of Guinea still remains rather incomplete. Though archaeological research in Guinea has not made much progress, evidence seems to indicate that the area has been continuously inhabited by hunting-gathering populations for at least the past 30,000 years. It also seems probable that farming has been practiced in the area of Guinea for at least the past 3000 years. There is considerable evidence that iron smelting dates back 2000 years in this part of West Africa. But until further archaeological evidence is forthcoming, much of the early history of Guinea remains conjectural.

The pre-colonial history of Guinea becomes much clearer from about 900 A.D. as sources in Arabic and oral traditions become available. Travelers’ accounts in Arabic and professional history keepers’ oral narratives offer information on the genealogies of royal families and traditions of ethnic groups who lived in Guinea in the past millennium. For peoples like the Coiagui, Baga, and Nalou, who now live on the Atlantic Coast, ethnological evidence supports the view that they lived in the area of modern Guinea even before the Christian era. For these tribes living along the coast there was little outside migrational pressure. Their political development was minimal as they existed in a loose confederation of proximitous family groupings up and down the coast. Their staple crop was rice, introduced from the Niger River Basin in the first century A.D.

In the Forest Region hunter-gatherers from the Atlantic Coast and Mande speaking tribes lived a nomadic existence. Later, with the dissemination of iron smelting techniques, durable agricultural tools permitted a sedentary lifestyle to replace their nomadic ways. These nomads settled down to a life of subsistence farming characterized by slash and burn agricultural techniques. Others, like the Soussou and Maninka who probably came into the area about 900 A.D., and the Fulbe who arrived in large numbers in the 17th century, are almost newcomers.

Much of Upper Guinea’s pre-colonial history is closely tied to the three great centralized states of West Africa, Ghana, Mali and Songhai, which dominated the lands north and east of modern Guinea from about 1000 A.D. to the mid-16th century. These were primarily agricultural communities, with a highly developed social hierarchy. Trade became the catalyst which transformed and bound these disparate villages together into the beginnings of the great African empires.

ARRIVAL OF EUROPEANS

The coastal areas of West Africa were drawn into the European market systems from the mid-15th century on. Local rulers on the coast began to grow in power by recruiting members to their groups with the promise of trade privileges. The first European explorers to visit Guinea were the Portuguese, who sailed along the coast in the 1400s during the reign of Prince Henry the Navigator. Throughout the 1400s and 1500s, West African trade remained a Portuguese monopoly, as other European powers concentrated on exploitation and colonization of the Americas and the plundering of each other’s ships as they returned from the “New World.” The Portuguese established trading settlements along the West African coast, and it is known that ivory and slaves were being exported to Portugal from the Rio Nunez estuary of Guinea in the 1500s. During the 1600s, intense competition between the European powers for commercial trading rights developed. Among the first casualties were the Portuguese, soon followed by the Dutch, as England, France and Spain fought for global dominance.

For the better part of the 1700s the French left Guinea largely untouched, as they concentrated their commercial activities in Senegal, due to the relatively easily navigated Senegalese coastal waters. The trade in Guinea was left to Portuguese expatriates and their offspring who had permanently settled along the coast. The British-French wars and later the Napoleonic Wars caused a loss of French influence in West Africa as they alternately lost, gained, lost and gained again, through the Treaty of Paris in 1814, their former holdings in West Africa and equal trading rights with British and Portuguese interests. Though not one of the major slave trading areas of West Africa, Guinea was affected by wars and disruptions occasioned by this trade. By the end of the slave trade in the early 19th century, European trade goods had replaced many types of locally produced goods. Consequently, the French and British commercial interests which had achieved dominance on the coast were poised to intervene even more deeply in internal African affairs. It should not be supposed, though, that British and ultimately French trading interests played a very important role in the Guinean interior before the mid-19th century.

French colonization of the area came later in the 1890s, subsequent to some trade and peace treaties signed with local chiefs. Earlier, in 1849, the French proclaimed the coastal part of area as “Rivières du Sud” Protectorate. Later on, in 1881, the inland region of the Fouta was also made a French Protectorate. To conquer the Maninka lands to the North, the French faced a fierce resistance led by Samory Touré, a Maninka Statesman who formed an empire, by annexing several neighboring states in the region. Samory was defeated in 1898, and deported to Gabon where he died in 1900.

Soon after the region’s last bastions of resistance had been defeated, French colonial administration was officially inaugurated. At the beginning, Guinea, like all French possessions in West Africa, was put under the authority of Senegal. In 1891, Guinea was detached from Senegal and became “French Guinea”, a subdivision of French West Africa. Like the other colonies of French West Africa, colonial rule in French Guinea was in practice neither assimilation nor association. However, the French policy was officially proclaimed as assimilation, based on the self-proclaimed cultural superiority of the French over the indigenous people.

After the Second World War, a number of changes were introduced in the administration of the Colony, owing to the weak economic and political conditions France was undergoing at that time. French-educated Guineans were finally allowed to vote under the Loi Cadre in 1946, under which the French governor remained head of the territorial government, but was to be assisted by the Government Council chosen by a newly elected Territorial Assembly. Provision was also made for an African vice president to be selected among the assemblymen. These changes favored political and social progress in the colony, and led to the creation of political parties, paving the way to self determination and independence.

By the middle of the year 1958, the government of the territory was thoroughly reorganized and largely in African hands, and the Government Council had become the central executive authority. It is at this point that the P.D.G. (Parti Démocratique de Guinée) came forth as a popular party mobilizing the people for political action.

THE FIRST REPUBLIC: INDEPENDENCE AND THE REVOLUTION

In 1958, General de Gaulle, in a draft constitution inaugurating the Fifth Republic in France, proposed a referendum which gave colonies the chance to choose between the French Community or independence, by either voting “Yes” or “No”. A majority positive vote would mean that the colony in question was willing to accept the French proposal of a French community made up of colonies and the colonial power, while a majority negative vote would mean total rejection of the community and complete independence.

On September 28, 1958, among all the French African colonies, only Guinea voted “No”, hence obtaining total independence from France. On October 1958, the Republic was proclaimed. The colonial assembly became the Constituent Assembly for the newly independent republic, and Sékou Touré, the P.D.G. leader, became the President of the republic and the head of the government. He was in every aspect the founding father of the first Guinean Republic.

Soon after independence, external as well as internal political factors affected Guinea’s economic and political development. The immediate consequence of independence was the withdrawal by the French of all technical assistance and financial aid, and the diplomatic isolation of the new nation. This compelled the government to turn to the former Soviet Bloc. Guinea then became a socialist country with a single party system of government. The Marxist principle of centralized economic planning became the cornerstone economic policy of the government.

Over the first ten years of independence, Guinea continued to occupy a special position among African states in its unqualified rejection of colonial control or economic domination by more developed nations. Taking a militant pan-Africanist stance in African affairs, one of “positive-neutralism” in the “Cold War,” and combining a unique articulation of African Socialism and “cultural revolution” in internal affairs, Guinea, under the leadership of Sekou Toure, presented an image of radical experimentation in social and political development in Africa. Unfortunately, the rate of economic development was rather slow, and from 1960 onward a number of attempts were made to overthrow the government of Sekou Toure by assassination, coup d’etat and invasion.

In April, 1960, a plot to overthrow the government by armed force was alleged by PDG agents. The instigators of this plot were apparently Guinean citizens who resented the anti-capitalist thrust of the PDG regime. In November, 1961, Toure accused the Soviet embassy of supporting a teachers’ strike, which was crushed with considerable severity. In late 1965 leaders of a group seeking to form an opposition party were arrested and charged with plotting to bring about the downfall of the Toure government. In February, 1969, the army was purged along with other dissidents in the Party, and in June, 1969, an apparent assassination attempt on Toure, blamed on an exile opposition group, was almost successful. In November, 1970, a seaborne invasion of the capital, Conakry, launched by Portuguese troops and Guinean exiles proved abortive. Another purge of the Guinean political and administrative elite followed. In July, 1971, the army’s officer corps was similarly purged and in April, 1973, a number of cabinet ministers were accused by President Toure of plotting to overthrow his government. Such purges and accusations became increasingly commonplace in the last years of the Toure’s administration.

On April 3, 1984, just one week after the sudden death of Sekou Toure, the Military Committee for National Recovery (CMRN) took control of the government. This military council immediately abolished the constitution and the sole political party and its mass youth and women’s organizations, and announced the establishment of the Second Republic. In lieu of a constitution, the government was based on ordinances, decrees, and decisions issued by the president, Lansana Conte, and various ministers. One of the first acts of the new government was to release all prisoners and declare observance of human rights as one of its primary objectives. The CMRN declared its intention to liberalize the economy, promote private enterprise and encourage foreign investment.

Another of the first acts of the CMRN was to send a delegation to Paris. This move was in sharp contrast to the rejection of French assistance upon independence in 1958. For nearly three decades, Guinea had been cut off from French assistance in retaliation for Guinea’s vote for independence in 1958. The delegation sent to France in 1984 paved the way for a flood of French assistance and foreign investment in Guinea.

The policy of the new government since Toure’s death has been one of decentralization, whereby the people of Guinea are encouraged to develop rural areas without centralized government control. Guineans produce for themselves rather than for the state, as had been the case under Toure’s leadership, and small enterprise development is encouraged. The Peace Corps was invited to reenter Guinea in 1985 and since that time has been concentrating on teaching English and math, development of primary health care systems, community development, and natural resource management.

In December, 1990, a national referendum overwhelmingly approved a new constitution for Guinea, which entered into force at the end of 1991. This constitution establishes an elected presidency and national assembly and permits the formation of political parties. Early stages in the implementation of the Constitution began even before the official entry into force. In June, 1991, mayors and city councils were elected in Conakry and in smaller cities throughout the country. The elections were described as generally free and fair by outside observers. However, elections in some smaller cities, notably N’Zerekore and Kissidougou in the Forest administrative region, were marred by ethnic violence. Many of the electoral lists contesting these local elections were ethnically based, as are many of the nascent political parties.

In December of 1993, Presidential elections were held. Lansana Conte defeated seven other candidates, winning just over 50% of the vote. Legislative elections were then held in 1995. Though some outside observers and opposition parties felt the process to be flawed, Guinea did not experience widespread civil unrest. Recent events, notably the military mutiny in February of 1996 in which disgruntled members of the army shelled the Palais des Nations and briefly arrested President Conte, demonstrate Guinea’s ongoing struggle to establish and maintain stable democratic institutions. With abundant natural resources, an energetic population and a stable, democratically elected government, Guinea’s future looks promising.

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