In September of 1958, the electorate in the French overseas territory of Guinea, West Africa was rallied by a labor union leader called Ahmed Sekou Toure into rejecting the constitution that established the Fifth Republic in France.
The referendum on the constitution did not only seek the foundation of a new republic but as French leader Charles de Gaulle explained, it was a vote of destiny for colonies like Guinea. If they chose to support the constitution, the colonies will continue to be in the so-called French Community and be guided by the values of liberté, égalité et fraternité.
But a colony that wanted away from the Community was going to lose any measure and kind of support it received from Paris. Succinctly, France framed the referendum as some sort of Hobson’s choice for the colonies – take the available amity with France or nothing at all.
But Toure and the Democratic Party of Guinea-African Democratic Rally did not particularly see things as the French did. For starters, the freedom fighters did not think the referendum was a Hobson’s choice because refusing a continued membership in the French Community was tantamount to embracing national sovereignty.
Sovereignty was of intrinsic value.
Perhaps, the French government did not believe colonies in Africa would seek to be untied from the suzerainty. Maybe it was out of arrogance or even naïveté but for whatever reason, the French seemed to have misread the African animus against colonization in the late 1950s.
Guinea was the only country on the continent that defied the colonizer’s expectation and voted against the new constitution, and by extension, for independence. The consequence of Guinean defiance was that it became the first French colony in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence, a historic feat that awoke the rest of Franco-Africa to France’s referendum bluff.
By the end of 1960, 13 more French colonies in Africa had negotiated and fought for their independence. But the French had not left Guinea’s rebellion in 1958 unpunished.
France responded to Guinea’s independence vote with dramatic petulance. A Washington Post article in 1984 summed it up better:
“In reaction, and as a warning to other French-speaking territories, the French pulled out of Guinea over a two-month period, taking everything they could with them. They unscrewed lightbulbs, removed plans for sewage pipelines in Conakry, the capital, and even burned medicines rather than leave them for the Guineans.”
The pettiness bordered on horrific comedy. The French literally pulled down buildings too, just so the newly-free Guineans would have to start from the ground up.
Toure did not seem to mind France’s shenanigans. Buoyed by what he had seen his friend Kwame Nkrumah do in Ghana, Guinea’s first president fought for his country’s freedom as a matter of Pan-African necessity.