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Reviewed by:
  • Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea, 1946–1958
  • Jay Straker
Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea, 1946–1958. By Elizabeth Schmidt. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007).

In this book, her second major study of the roots and trajectory of nationalism in Guinée française, Elizabeth Schmidt brings together a remarkable range of postwar archival documents and oral-historical accounts to forge new understandings of political militancy in a turbulent French West African territory. Seeking to counter studies asserting that Guinea’s slide toward postcolonial totalitarianism could be traced directly to the late-colonial political ascendancy of subsequent dictator Ahmed Sékou Touré, Schmidt laments that post-independence “repression has come to dominate our associations with Guinea rather than the story of the people who set themselves free” (183). Among her book’s crucial interventions in the literature on Guinean nationalism is its claim that the flamboyant Sékou Touré played a secondary, intermediary rather than leading role in the crystallization of the militant anticolonialism that spurred the local population to resounding rejection of membership in the Communauté française proposed by Charles De Gaulle in 1958. Drawing on compelling evidence, Schmidt argues that Touré’s reputation as principal artisan of Guinean independence has cloaked the fact that this famous icon of pan-African nationalism embraced the bold break with France very late in his country’s anti-imperial struggles, and “only after much debate, and under immense pressure from trade unions, students, and youth” (161–162). It was these latter groups, alongside Guinean women and peasants—all of whose importance is too often slighted in what might be called “Touré-centric” overviews of post-war political developments—that were the true forgers of Guinea’s abrupt assumption of independence in September 1958, at the moment when the other seven territories of French West Africa voted for continued “cooperation” with France.

For many readers, its strenuous interrogation of Touré’s contribution to the official birth of the Republic of Guinea will be far from the most remarkable aspect of Schmidt’s book. Rather Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea will be appreciated for its multilayered, compelling narrative of the volatile character and trajectory of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA)--the French West African political organization that was so vital in shaping political sensibilities and actions on intercontinental, inter-territorial, and local territorial levels throughout the era of “reformed imperialism” stretching from the late-1940s to 1960.

In its precise illuminations of the myriad, seminal roles played by the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) in the emergence of organized nationalist politics in French West Africa, Schmidt’s first chapter, “Reformed Imperialism and the Onset of the Cold War, 1945–1950,” may be the most important in the entire work, for Guineanists and non-Guineanists alike. Here Schmidt effectively expands the interpretive frameworks through which the storyline of Guinean nationalism is often approached. The chapter amply documents Guinean partisans’ material and ideological debts to the PCF, who “alone was willing to help the RDA promote its emancipatory program” not just in the metropole, but in the remotest localities of the African territories (29). Beyond stressing these debts, Schmidt shows how wide-ranging Africans’ orientations toward PCF-promulgated international trade unionism spurred contentious policy decisions and heated divisions within the RDA, at both federal and territorial levels. Later chapters elucidate the ways that decades-long clashes between inter-territorial RDA leader and future Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Sékou Touré can be traced back to questions of repudiation or allegiance to vigorously pro-union, anti-imperial PCF platforms. Schmidt’s account shows that it was Houphouët-Boigny rather than Touré who embodied political consistency in the 1950s. While the Ivorian leader unflaggingly opposed communist visions of a sovereign, unified federation encompassing all eight of the French West African territories, Touré oscillated between this vision and continued cooperation with metropolitan authority. According to Schmidt, it was “grassroots leftists” combining diverse sectors of Guinea’s urban and rural, educated and non-literate population who finally pressured their leader into an unyielding call for national independence (129). Regrettably however, the federal dream had by then collapsed, and Guinea...

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