In September 1958, Guinea claimed its independence, rejecting a constitution that would have relegated it to junior partnership in the French Community. In all the French empire, Guinea was the only territory to vote “No.” Orchestrating the “No” vote was the Guinean branch of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), an alliance of political parties with affiliates in French West and Equatorial Africa and the United Nations trusts of Togo and Cameroon. Although Guinea’s stance vis-à-vis the 1958 constitution has been recognized as unique, until now the historical roots of this phenomenon have not been adequately explained.
Clearly written and free of jargon, Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea argues that Guinea’s vote for independence was the culmination of a decade-long struggle between local militants and political leaders for control of the political agenda. Since 1950, when RDA representatives in the French parliament severed their ties to the French Communist Party, conservative elements had dominated the RDA. In Guinea, local cadres had opposed the break. Victimized by the administration and sidelined by their own leaders, they quietly rebuilt the party from the base. Leftist militants, their voices muted throughout most of the decade, gained preeminence in 1958, when trade unionists, students, the party’s women’s and youth wings, and other grassroots actors pushed the Guinean RDA to endorse a “No” vote. Thus, Guinea’s rejection of the proposed constitution in favor of immediate independence was not an isolated aberration. Rather, it was the outcome of years of political mobilization by activists who, despite Cold War repression, ultimately pushed the Guinean RDA to the left.
The significance of this highly original book, based on previously unexamined archival records and oral interviews with grassroots activists, extends far beyond its primary subject. In illuminating the Guinean case, Elizabeth Schmidt helps us understand the dynamics of decolonization and its legacy for postindependence nation-building in many parts of the developing world.
Examining Guinean history from the bottom up, Schmidt considers local politics within the larger context of the Cold War, making her book suitable for courses in African history and politics, diplomatic history, and Cold War history.
“A compelling narrative of the history of nation building in Guinea.... Schmidt deftly portrays the events from an African perspective, using colonial archives, interviews with activists, the era’s popular political songs, and photographs.... What simultaneously emerges in this nuanced treatment is a richer understanding of the pragmatic rather than purely visionary leadership of the famous Sékou Touré.”
“Schmidt’s study is a masterpiece of African, Guinean, and colonial historiography that should be read by all students of empire.”
“(A) vivid portrait of the political environment and pressures facing the Guinean RDA in the years following the Second World War.…Schmidt’s contributions to the study of the RDA and decolonization in Guinea will likely remain unparalleled for the foreseeable future.”
“The publication of Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea is a welcome event. Its archival and oral documentation create original possibilities for Anglophone readers in particular to explore diverse dynamics and tensions within late-colonial Guinean society and politics.
“Although other political histories of Guinea use independence as a starting point, in this work Elizabeth Schmidt takes a critical step back to analyze how Guinea arrived at its historic ‘No’ vote.”
“By setting African divisions against an international background of cold war and French repression, (Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea) provides a welcome and informative account, in English, of the distinctive Guinean struggles for independence.”
“Unlike a considerable number of works on decolonization in Africa, especially those published in the immediate aftermath of these epochal events, Schmidt moves away from the staple historiography privileging the role of the educated elite and restores the voices of the masses—including those of women—to the history of decolonization.”
“By shifting the focus from elite to grassroot politics, Schmidt paints a picture of French decolonization in sub-Saharan Africa that is a welcome corrective to those earlier studies that appeared to view decolonization as the outcome of an essentially linear and orderly process, rather than the product of political struggle.”
“Supported by clear and strong historical evidence, (Elizabeth Schmidt)shows that political decision making in Guinea was far more influenced by the bottom rather than the top.... (Cold War and Decolonization in Africa) is rich with data and empirical examples that illustrate some of the major themes in the history of decolonization, African nationalism, and the rise of one-party states in Africa.”
“For students and scholars of diplomacy, Schmidt demonstrates how activists on the local level, in this case Guinean activists, shaped and determined their own destiny in the face of high-level Cold War politics, rather, as is often supposed, than being manipulated by the Great Power actors.”
“Schmidt highlights a surprisingly overlooked aspect of the decolonization process by integrating Cold War tensions on the macro level into the transformation of local politics on the micro level.”