A Socialist Peace?: Explaining the Absence of War in an African Country

A Socialist Peace?: Explaining the Absence of War in an African Country

by Mike McGovern

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For the last twenty years, the West African nation of Guinea has exhibited all of the conditions that have led to civil wars in other countries, and Guineans themselves regularly talk about the inevitability of war. Yet the country has narrowly avoided conflict again and again. In A Socialist Peace?, Mike McGovern asks how this is possible, how a nation could beat the odds and evade civil war.  
Guinea is rich in resources, but its people are some of the poorest in the world. Its political situation is polarized by fiercely competitive ethnic groups. Weapons flow freely through its lands and across its borders. And, finally, it is still recovering from the oppressive regime of Sékou Touré. McGovern argues that while Touré’s reign was hardly peaceful, it was successful—often through highly coercive and violent measures—at establishing a set of durable national dispositions, which have kept the nation at peace. Exploring the ambivalences of contemporary Guineans toward the afterlife of Touré’s reign as well as their abiding sense of socialist solidarity, McGovern sketches the paradoxes that undergird political stability.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226453743
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/22/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Mike McGovern is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Making War in Côte d’Ivoire and Unmasking the State, both also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

A Socialist Peace?

Explaining the Absence of War in an African Country

By Mike McGovern

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-45360-6


Explaining the Absence of War

[T]he social sciences should not pretend to reach truth, which is probably impossible of attainment, but more modestly some amount of wisdom — the achievement of which is supremely difficult, as a matter of fact.

— Claude Levi-Strauss, "Anthropology and the 'Truth Sciences,'" 1978

This book tries to explain why people in certain places and times choose to avoid war while in other places they choose war. I have lived and conducted research during the last twenty-five years in the Republic of Guinea, where people I lived with spoke about planning ethnic cleansing. I saw examples of small to medium-scale massacres leading in that direction. Further, when the chaos and ambient violence of the nomadic West African war of the 1990s and 2000s came into Guinea from Liberia, those same people had the opportunity to act on their plans. Yet they did not. Why? In the pages that follow, I focus on a crucial six-month period in 2000–2001. I describe and analyze that period during which people in the area where I lived contemplated, debated, and ultimately decided against war. I also give the back story of that decision and show how improbable it was.

I argue that the fragile yet resilient peace that held against long odds during the postsocialist period from 1984 to 2010 is best explained by understanding the culture and discourse of the socialist state that ruled from 1958 to 1984 and its long afterlife. The argument is ethnographic and historical. It builds upon the analysis I developed in a previous book (McGovern 2013) that described the hardening of ethnic distinctions and the role of the socialist state in disseminating ethnic stereotypes in Guinea's forest region. Paradoxically, the efforts of the state to "civilize" Forestiers (as the multiple small ethnic groups of the forest region are called) created both resentment and sentiments of national belonging. These policies sowed the seeds of bitterness and polarization that led in some cases to interethnic massacres and almost to civil war. At the same time, they created a sense of national identity and national unity and instilled the durable dispositions among citizens that have helped Guinea — alone among its six West African neighbors — to avoid separatist insurgency and civil war.

These durable dispositions had multiple forms. Some were physical. During the socialist period, the state policed boys' and girls' hairstyles at school, the minimum acceptable length of skirts for women, and the permitted degree of tightness of trousers for men. People's bodies were requisitioned, gathered, and made to move according to rhythms both regular and irregular. Citizens walking by any state building had to stand at attention, silent with hands out of their pockets, if the national flag was being raised or lowered. Inhabitants of neighborhoods or of villages were required to attend party cell meetings every Friday afternoon, national celebrations several times a year, and participate as either performers or audience during the biannual artistic festivals in which Guineans competed at district, municipal, regional, and national levels in revolutionary performance.

Other dispositions took shape in language. Throughout this book, I pay close attention to both the form and the content of socialist language and the ways it perdured into the postsocialist era. The lines between things and words were often blurry: The rhetorical construction of dangerous enemies of the revolution was fundamental to the violence that was visited upon the bodies of those so identified and to most Guineans' acceptance of or even participation in these practices. In other parts of the book, I explore the construction of a stereotype of the savagery of some of Guinea's ethnic minorities, based partly upon accusations of eating foods that were disgusting to the majority of the population.

Attention to language also points us toward those dispositions that reside in people's minds. When we talk about political culture or social imaginaries, it is inevitably an argument about concepts, patterns of thought, and shared understandings that undergird the possibility of an intelligible conversation about society and politics. The assumptions, aspirations, and unspoken expectations on which such conversations can be built are not fully articulated. Indeed, it is the "goes without saying" nature of such assumptions that makes them so powerful. Neither are they shared or held with equal conviction by all members of a community, whether that community be defined by national citizenship, ethnolinguistic identity, ormembership in a kin group. Nevertheless, I reconstruct elements of discourse that were broadly shared in Guinea by triangulating written texts, people's explanations of their actions, and the actions themselves and by shifting the frame to look at these materials in different places and at different times in Guinea in order to identify notable patterns.

A key category of this analysis is what I call "orientations toward the future." Its most important element is that Guinea, like most socialist countries, had a government that articulated its estimation of where Guinea and Guineans were at present, where the government aspired for them to be at various points in the future, and how it intended to get there. This type of orientation toward the future was perhaps best exemplified in the five-year plan. Both the descriptions of the present and the predictions for the future in five-year plans were often dissociated from reality, making them objects of anticommunist derision during the Cold War. Neither their inaccuracy nor the fact that Guinea repeatedly fell short of its goals, however, necessarily undermined their potency for Guinean citizens.

Even when left unachieved, coherent and plausible narratives about the way forward and the roles of both the state and its citizens in constructing that shared future have value in themselves. They facilitate the psychological and social attachments that constitute the suspension of disbelief that is the necessary lubricant in the machinery of any polity. Lauren Berlant (2011) has astutely identified the ways that these attachments can represent types of "cruel optimism," in which "something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing" (1). Nevertheless, she argues that the fantasy structure surrounding the various facets of "the good life" in postindustrial Europe and North America is as indispensable to people's psychic, ethical, and political lives as it is treacherous. The situation in independence-era Guinea was not so different. Guineans' attachments to the ideals of a socialist postcolonial good life included personal and national sovereignty and self-actualization; eradication of colonial and precolonial forms of inequality (chieftaincy, gender hierarchy, marginalization of youth); and rapidly expanding access to education, healthcare, and nonagrarian, cosmopolitan lifestyles.

In the context of forward-looking optimism, the identification and systematic brutalization of dissenters was justified to Guineans by their government as among the several sacrifices required by the process of achieving the good life aspirations of the majority. Guineans' relationship to the violence their state visited upon its own citizens was one of cruel optimism. This was certainly true among the true believers (who still exist, thirty years after Sékou Touré's death). It was also true among those who reviled the violence but hoped it would soon end or who remained uncertain of the point at which the balance between brutal means and noble ends would tip into the realm of the unacceptable.

The tragedy of postcolonial cruel optimism could serve as the foundation for narrating the failure of postcolonial nationalist projects in Africa (just as Berlant uses it to narrate the anomie of neoliberal petit bourgeois life). I take the insight in a different direction, arguing that the same attachments to a narrative of national unity and a shared social project were recruited as sources of social resilience when Guinea was faced with the conditions of possibility of a civil war in 2000–2001. Even failed promises may yield better outcomes in times of severe social stress than no promises at all.


My use of the indefinite article implies that Guinea is one among several similar cases of socialist peace. Many readers will have noted that the title bears a resemblance to the well-known theory of the "Democratic Peace" (Doyle 2011; Russet 1994). Though much debated and considerably diluted from its original strong formulation, many political scientists still adhere to the principle that the more democratic a country is, the less likely it is that it will engage in war, especially against another liberal democracy. This theory was born of the Cold War in the United States. The mirror image of this theory can be found in the presumption that socialist states are prone to authoritarianism and war. Examples exist in the grotesque mass violence of the Stalinist, Maoist, or Khmer Rouge regimes.

The argument of this book is that the socialist legacy is crucial to understanding the reasons why Guinea has managed to hang together, seemingly against all odds. This contradicts the folk model that most Americans and Europeans have of this scenario, which was shaped in important ways by the dissolution of Yugoslavia into a series of vicious civil wars. The common perception of the ex-Yugoslavian wars is that harsh socialist policies and the personal charisma of Josip Tito helped to "keep the lid on" a simmering multiethnic stew that promptly boiled over as soon as socialism ended and an open society replaced it. Other countries that were at least nominally socialist at one point, including Iraq, Syria, and Sri Lanka, have also experienced devastating civil wars that appeared to be driven by a kind of "return of the repressed," a set of intercommunal hatreds that came back with added ferocity because they had been suppressed for so long.

I have no desire to explain away these examples, but by the same token, I insist that they should not be allowed to foreclose the exploration of other postsocialist countries where the outcomes were quite different. Not only Guinea, but Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries have had more successful outcomes than ex-Yugoslavia. Often, these countries are poorer than those ex-socialist countries that did fall into civil war. They also often have high levels of ambient violence, directed at residents by the state itself. These are all topics that I take up in subsequent chapters. My argument in this book is not that poor postsocialist countries are ideal places to live, but rather that many of them exhibit very specific types of resilience, some of it originating in shared suffering as much as in national pride.


Not everyone agrees that Guinea was ever a socialist country. To scholars of socialism in Europe or Asia, it would seem peculiar, for instance, that the Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG) embraced religion as a central part of its platform for moralizing politics. Muddying the waters from a political economic perspective, Guinea entered into a 51 percent Guinea-owned/49 percent internationally owned partnership with US and Canadian aluminum multinationals at the beginning of the 1960s to mine Guinea's massive bauxite reserves and provide the country with foreign currency.

Guinea's weak insertion in the world economy, coming in the wake of colonization and French attempts to sabotage its bid for independence, meant that Sékou Touré and his government had to improvise a series of economic and political alliances with whatever partners it could find. Cuba provided professors of medicine at the university. The Vietnamese sent agronomists to teach Guineans how to grow paddy rice instead of the low-yield upland rice they preferred. Czech intelligence specialists taught Guinea's secret police techniques of torture to use on their own citizens, and East Germans taught them how to surveil their populations through electronic listening devices and by building networks of citizen spies. US Peace Corps volunteers undertook agroforestry projects and taught in Guinean schools, and Canadian agronomists worked in Guinean villages. Guineans received scholarships to study in Moscow, Bulgaria, and Romania, but also in the United States and West Germany.

Any country at that time that aligned itself at all with the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and the Eastern bloc was considered socialist, even if, as nonaligned Guinea did, it also maintained relations with capitalist countries. At that time, many African countries were in the anticommunist camp and completely rejected the advances of the socialist nations. In this regard as well as through networks of institutional and individual influence and exchange, Guinea was undoubtedly in the group of African socialist countries — along with Tanzania, Zambia, the Republic of Congo, and Algeria, later to be joined by Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique.

And so, we can ask again, what sort of socialist state was Guinea from the 1960s through the 1980s? Guinea's socialism was characterized by its proud nationalism and its vociferous anti-imperialism, but also by a commitment to a strong central state that reached into all corners of the national territory. What may be the most important aspect of all is the rhetorical work in which the Guinean state engaged to explain its ostensibly socialist policies to its citizens. Guinea remained poor throughout the 1958–1984 period, partly because France isolated Guinea politically and economically and partly because of poor management by Guinean bureaucrats. Guineans knew that Ivorians, Senegalese, Liberians, and other neighbors were better off than they were, and the government knew that they knew this (roughly one-third of the country's population lived in these neighboring countries by the 1980s). The PDG promulgated a well-elaborated rhetoric to explain these facts and to explain the sacrifices that Guineans were being asked to make.

The rhetoric of asking citizens to sacrifice now for a future goal is not unique to socialism, but it is characteristic of socialist countries. Guineans were never treated to the optimistic narrative that everyone could achieve prosperity simultaneously, as were Ivorians (and the citizens of most capitalist European and North American countries). The notion of sacrificing now for a future societal goal is one of the elements central to what I am calling a socialist peace. Both the justification of present suffering and the future orientation are fundamental to this discourse. So, too, is the orientation toward a collective goal, which is quite different from the Calvinist-capitalist justification of self-abnegation in the service of personal salvation and demonstration of grace, so well described by Weber ([1905] 1930).

The other area where Guinean socialism shaped its citizens' views of the world was in the type of citizenship it theorized. Guineans were told, ad nauseam, that their ethnic, religious, and regional identities were of minimal importance next to their citizenship in a unitary, revolutionary, modernizing nation. Many Guineans look back on the socialist period and comment on how such social goods as scholarships to study abroad were distributed meritocratically. Others describe how pressures by families and ethnic groups on civil servants and government ministers to favor their kin or ethnic networks were regularly brushed off with the admonition that Guineans answered to a higher calling: that which was best for the revolutionary nation and, by extension, for mankind. Sometimes, the revolutionary approach to leveling the field for all citizens was experienced otherwise. Many ethnic Fulbe experienced the revolutionary government as dominated by Sékou Touré's Maninka ethnic group, and as persecuting Fulbe, the Maninkas' most plausible ethnic competitors for political power.

Many Forestiers also felt they had been treated unfairly. Socialist Guinea's "land to the tiller" laws surrounding land ownership and use asserted first that the state owned all land and second that any Guinean citizen putting land to good use retained the right to continue doing so (gaining de facto temporary ownership) for as long as they used it. This law had the intention of making land available to all citizens and encouraging active cultivation of the land. In the agriculturally rich forest region of Guinea, however, it was experienced as facilitating a kind of internal colonization. This was because a large number of northern Mande (Manya, Koniyanke, Malinke) made use of the new laws to grab land and plant cash crops in ways that contravened centuries-old customary rules about social relations between newcomers and "owners of the land." As we shall see, the postsocialist reversal of the land to the tiller laws opened the door not only to land disputes at the village level but also to a logic of ethnic cleansing and a number of interethnic massacres.


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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Table
One / Explaining the Absence of War A?
Orientations toward the Future
Temporality and the Legacies of Socialism in Africa
Counterfactual Arguments and Anthropology’s Advantages
Choosing War
  Part I: Resentment

Two / “Those Who Eat Monkey Will Never Rule over Us” The Setting
The Interplay of Stereotypes
A Troubled Succession, 1984
Religion and Politics in West Africa, 1800–1958
The Ethnic Calculus, 1950–90
Disgust and Political Exclusion
From Autochthony to Culture
“It’s Our Turn”
Interlude: Palm Wine and Ethnic Cleansing

Three / Articulating Betrayal Case Study: N’Zérékoré, 1991
Secrecy, Trust, and Betrayal
Narratives of Betrayal
From Words to Acts
  Part II: War Averted?

Four / An Exceptional Case: The Killings in Nuvanuita Case Study: “Nuvanuita,” October 2000
Socialist State Practices and Their Legacies
Macenta as Microcosm
Part III: Afterlives

Interlude: “I’m not putting my life on the line . . .”

Five / The Rhetoric of Counterinsurgency Case Study: The Antirefugee Attacks of September 2000
Postsocialist Publics and Counterpublics
The Touré Legacy: Semantic, Rhetorical, and Organizational
Six / The Symbolic Death of Sékou Touré The General Strikes of 2006–7
The Death of the Father: The Afterlife of a Socialist Regime
The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Trade Unionism in Guinea
The Two Bodies of the King and the Timing of the Strikes
  Interlude: Ga li?

Seven / The Cinquantenaire and the Dadis Show The Annual Ceremony, 2008
Following the Money
“La Vérité Finira Toujours par Triompher un Jour”
A Musical Interlude
The Dadis Show
The September Massacres and the Resurgence of Disgust
Eight / Conclusion The Current State of Play
On Sacrifice and Suffering Works Cited

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