An aerial view of the city of Conakry in Guinea. Photo by Flightseeing-Germany
By Benjamin Troupe and Gaïna Dávila
“We prefer poverty in freedom to riches in slavery,” proclaimed Sekou Toure, Guinea’s first president.
In 1958, Guinea became the first West African colony to declare independence from France, however, it came at a cost. The French withdrawal was both swift and vindictive, destroying infrastructure, pulling investment, and leaving the young country isolated. Toure’s declaration reflects what the first American Ambassador to Guinea, John H. Morrow, would later describe as the nation’s “jealously guarded self-respect and dignity.” Morrow observed then what many “dusty-road” diplomats serving in Guinea see today: A dignified people in a nation with vast opportunities for transformational engagement.
Rich natural and cultural beauty is juxtaposed with socio-political and economic challenges. Surrounded by vibrant colors from the workplace to the marketplace, Guinean culture has no shortage of unique fabrics, artwork, music, and food. Guinea has world class iron ore deposits, precious metals, and the world’s largest bauxite reserves. This resource wealth, however, is not felt by the average Guinean. It would be easy to assume these issues might infuse resentment into the country’s character, but the reality is far different. Guineans are among the most welcoming and enterprising people in the world.
Conakry is a melting pot of the many cultures of Guinea. This becomes clear upon driving outside the capital, and discovering the ancestral heartlands that color the Guinean countryside. Heading north or south along the coast, river deltas provide a rich fishing and agricultural base for the Susu people. When traveling east through the Fouta Djallon region, one will be surrounded by wide landscapes of mountains and plateaus. Home to the Fula ethnic group, villages of circular huts dot the valleys between towering waterfalls and high peaks in what was a stratified eighteenth century agricultural theocracy. Continuing east, one will reach Kankan. The Malinke people have lived in this central region for centuries, serving as a major crossroads and trade route between the Sahel and coastal West Africa. In the south, the savannah transitions into tropical rainforest. Here, in Guinea’s forest region, one is met with one of the most culturally diverse areas in rural West Africa. This tri-border region between Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia hosts dozens of ethnic groups and the Mount Nimba UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In December 2013, a young boy in Guinea’s forest region fell ill with an unknown disease. What would transpire over the following months resulted in the largest Ebola epidemic in history. Outbreaks of hemorrhagic fevers are a constant threat in Guinea. In 2021, the country was hit with a second Ebola outbreak followed by cases of Marburg’s Disease and Lassa Fever. With sustained U.S. government assistance since the first Ebola outbreak, the government of Guinea successfully responded to the second outbreak and demonstrated its ability to manage up to six simultaneous epidemics of various diseases, saving countless lives. Health is therefore a major demonstrated area of cooperation between the United States and Guinea. This health focus has led to a diverse array of inter-agency personnel who come not only for the challenge, but to save lives. The work requires a whole-of-mission approach. Some individuals can be found in the field, building capacity and resiliency in rural communities or mitigating disease spread in urban settings. Others may be working on public messaging, helping small businesses institute protective health measures, or responding to and preventing threats to the embassy community’s health. Guinea is one of the few places in the Foreign Service where change is measured and observed daily. American diplomats are on the frontline working in partnership with Guineans to confront major challenges.
Guinea led the way for decolonization in Francophone Africa. What began as a standard bearer for democratic and pan-Africanist principles, devolved into a ruthless dictatorship under Guinea’s first president Sekou Toure. Over Toure’s 24-year reign, hundreds of thousands of Guineans were imprisoned, tortured, executed, and exiled. Following his death in 1984, power changes in Guinea occurred via coup d’états. Military dictators consolidated power and stifled democracy, while political leaders and opposition figures were imprisoned or exiled. Following the withdrawal of international support and mounting internal tensions, Guinea’s 2008-2009 military junta announced elections. More than 50 years after independence, Guinea held its first truly democratic election in 2010, choosing Alpha Conde as president. Locally, and internationally, many at the time believed Conde would be Africa’s next Nelson Mandela. His humanitarian and democratic activism brought hope to a country yearning for change. However, change was slow to happen. Guineans watched with empty pockets and empty promises as lucrative resources were stripped from the country. Endemic corruption mirrored growing poverty. Though elected to a second term, Conde faced mounting discontent as average Guineans only saw the rich getting richer.
Taking a page from his predecessors, Conde carried out a constitutional referendum to allow himself to run for a controversial third term in 2020. This attempt to consolidate power led to widespread protests. Opposition parties were forced from their headquarters, barred from exiting the country, and arbitrarily detained. Conde, nevertheless, was successful in changing the constitution, setting up a showdown between himself and longtime rival Cellou Daelin Diallo. Unrest continued as elections neared. On Oct. 18, 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, members of the embassy community observed streets lined with anxious and excited voters waiting hopefully to exercise their civic duty. The announcement of Conde’s victory, however, was met with outrage in the streets. Diallo contested the results immediately, claiming electoral fraud and corruption. The embattled democratic experiment in Guinea was mired in intense debate as emerging leaders and grass roots activists sought to turn the tides.
In the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 5, 2021, downtown Conakry erupted with the sounds of small arms fire and mortar round explosions. Rumors of an attempted coup d’état swirled throughout the country as soldiers fought in the streets. By midday, videos posted on social media showed Conde disheveled and detained, his 11-year reign ended in a matter of hours by Guinean special forces soldiers commanded by the charismatic Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya. Disbelief turned to reality. Draped in a Guinean flag and surrounded by his comrades and an adoring population, Doumbouya went on state television to announce his successful power grab. That afternoon, Guineans joyously flooded the streets of Conakry and major cities across the country, seeing the coup as liberation from an oppressive regime. The promise of a new Guinea had come again in the form of a 6 foot 5 inch dashing man in camouflage. Promising government accountability, reconciliation, and strong democratic institutions, Doumbouya became Guinea’s interim president—a leader whose tenure has not yet been defined.
Guinea is a country with crowded markets and streets, filled with pick-up soccer games and vendors, creating a harmonized pulsating rhythm to life. A country constantly in motion, where the issues are as intimate as the people, in the midst of this swirl of life, is where American diplomats are found. For those who have served in Guinea, there is no shortage of personal and career enhancing opportunities. The Department of State’s service in the country fosters a community of diplomats from all ranks and backgrounds. The strong leadership and mentorship from this community nourishes a new generation. Under Secretary Thomas A. Shannon described them as “dusty road diplomats.” These diplomats are those who, “have dedicated themselves to countries in transition, countries that have struggled to make democracy real for their people, and to provide the prosperity and security necessary for human development.” Guinea is where one comes to roll up their sleeves and affect real change. Whether building local farmers’ capacity and climate resiliency, promoting English language learning, or working with NGOs to combat corruption and promote human rights and democracy, American diplomats have worked hand-in-hand with Guineans for more than 60 years. They have not only witnessed human rights atrocities, crushing poverty, and political violence, but also instances of immense joy and hope for a brighter future.
Americans have a complex, shared history with Guineans. Scars left from the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism overlap with still unreconciled legacies of American civil rights activists and Cold War policies.
As Morrow wrote in 1968, “It is my belief that the Republic of Guinea served as a laboratory not only for Africa, but also for the West and the East. It revealed what can happen to an emerging nation when it is struggling to achieve stability and viability and is attempting, at the same time, to safeguard its sovereignty.”
Those words remain true today. Guinea faces many challenges both internally and externally, exacerbated by uncertainty over when the country will return to democracy. The coming months and years are sure to be turbulent, but one constant remains: America’s dusty road diplomats continue to help build a new and more prosperous Guinea.
Benjamin Troupe is the deputy public affairs officer at Embassy Conakry. Gaïna Dávila is the public affairs officer at Embassy Conakry.