A fractured nation
Those who fled the bloody reign of Sékou Touré have been kept at arm’s length, though a thaw may begin to bring them home to help Guinea’s development
Guinea in the 1970s shared a sad record with Uruguay, that of the country with the greatest per capita number of exiles. Nearly a third of the population had deserted the country to escape the bloody regime of Sékou Touré.
The country remains a land of exodus, undermining its economy and social cohesion, with the smartest, youngest and most well-off individuals still taking flight.
Nothing surprising perhaps for a continent hit by economic disasters and fratricidal wars. Nonetheless, the country of the ‘Non à de Gaulle’ distinguishes itself among its peers by also having one of the oldest communities of exiles.
The first left in the 1960s, during early rounds of bloodletting and ‘plots’ which were to decimate the elites and tear the social fabric. After the shopkeepers and intellectuals, it was the turn of the vagrants and peasants to succumb to the tropical Stalinism holding sway in Conakry. Whole villages crossed the frontier to escape, and the civil service was emptied of its skilled staff.
First spreading to the neighbouring countries, this population rapidly moved on to the rest of the world. During half a century, the exiles have had the time to reproduce and take root in these host countries. Cut from their roots, they have become a different Guinea, an enemy nation if not to say an unknown planet.
Unadapted to the realities of the country, Guineans of the exterior have never been able to inject their economic and intellectual potential into their country.
And they have never been helped to do so. Victims of a virulent ostracism from Sékou Touré and Lansana Conté alike, many of them have ended up by renouncing their country.
Among the Guineans of Dakar and Lyon, the exile, which seemed temporary, is becoming permanent. It is hard to say how many there are, as no systematic study has been carried out.
Julian Condé, himself an exile, founder of the national statistical bureau at independence and an expert in migration, estimates that there were 2m exiles in the 1970s, and some 3.5m today.
The death of Sékou Touré in 1984 raised hopes of a possible return. From the four corners of the world, charter planes full of exiles arrived, but a glacial welcome met them at the airport.
Previously they were considered ‘renegades’, ‘reactionaries’, ‘fifth columnists’ – but they soon came to be called ‘diaspora’ or more often ‘diapouris’ (rotten diaspora). Of the 500,000 that attempted the return, only 100,000 stayed on.
Those who persisted with their return, like mathematics professor William Sassine, who was one of the first to offer his services, were treated with disdain.
Suffering police humiliation and unnecessary unemployment, he eventually succumbed to solitude and despair.
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This rejection by the mother country has created a profound trauma in the diaspora, which has accentuated the divisions in a country already riven with old resentments and ethnic rivalries at the summit of the state.
To the country’s long-standing tribal and linguistic cleavages has been added the absurd chasm between Guineans at home and those living abroad – a deep separation but perhaps one that will not in the end outlast the laws of blood ties or the logic of the economy.
Honesty obliges us to say that even if the state has always been suspicious of this community of businessmen and university graduates (those with a propensity towards criticism and contest), it has sometimes tried to draw closer to it, even if occasionally under pressure of the donors.
In 1986, it allowed professors to teach episodically at university in the TOKTEN (Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals) project, designed by the UN to transfer knowledge.
At the beginning of the 1990s, there were even appointments of two ‘diaspos’ to the ministries of the interior and finance.
This ‘glasnost’ opening towards the ‘frères ennemis’ (enemy brothers) culminated in 1996 with the nomination of Sidya Touré, a Guinean living in Côte d’Ivoire, to the post of prime minister. Since then the climate has relaxed further; the Guinean embassy in Paris now takes an increasing interest in the exile community.
Before prime minister Lansana Kouyaté’s government was dismissed in May 2008, there had even been floated the idea of a national forum of Guineans in the diaspora, to help apply the skills and resources of this community to resolving the problems of the mother country, similar to schemes already under way for Mali and Senegal.
An idea that the incoming administration may repeat. Have the authorities finally realised that the diaspora are fully Guinean, and that they could play a key role in reanimating this moribund country? It is time they did.