Anchor Marco Werman speaks with African expert Elizabeth Schmidt about the significance of the stadium in Conakry, Guinea..where a massacre of Guineans took place on September 28th. 157 people were killed and more than a 1,000 were wounded when government troops opened fire on protesters.
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MARCO WERMAN: We move to West Africa now and the crisis in Guinea. Last week the country’s military government cracked down on protestors. Human rights groups say soldiers opened fire on civilians gathered at the national stadium killing 157 people. This happened on September 28th inside what is officially known as the September 28th Stadium. That was very significant to Guineans according to Elizabeth Schmidt. She teaches African history at Loyola University in Maryland.
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: September 28th 2009 is actually the 51st anniversary of referendum in Guinea whereby the Guinean people voted for independence from France and Guinea was the only territory in all of the French empire to cease the opportunity to vote for independence. Everyone else voted to stay in the French empire. And so the stadium was named for that event. Very momentous in Guinean history. And this demonstration where there was the bloody massacre took place not only at that stadium but on September 28th 51 years later.
WERMAN: Now just before declaring independence from France Guinean nationalist leader Sekou Toure made a famous speech. Here it is.
SEKOU TOURE: [SPEAKING FRENCH]
WERMAN: Alright we can barely hear what he’s saying there in French but this speech is often cited because of what Sekou Toure said – the famous no that you were referring to to France. It’s an iconic statement revered by people all across West Africa isn’t it?
SCHMIDT: It is. What he actually said in English would have been: We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery. And that was a direct response to French Premiere Charles de Gaulle’s threat that if Guinea dared to vote no, even though that option was being presented to them as a possibility, but if they dared to take that opportunity to vote no they would bare the consequences that France would severely punish them.
WERMAN: Right it’s kind of a version of live free or die. And Guinea was the only colony in West Africa, the only French colony in West Africa, who went their own way.
SCHMIDT: Not only West Africa but French Equatorial Africa and other territories in the French Empire.
WERMAN: And did France live up to its threat?
SCHMIDT: Oh it did. In fact it lived up to its threat even before the referendum. De Gaulle was so convinced that Guinea was going to vote no that he started ordering the transfer of hard currency out of Guinea even before the referendum. French teachers who were working in Guinea were ordered out of the country and then after the referendum all development aid ceased. Construction projects were called to a halt including an important dam that would have given Guinea hydroelectric power it would have needed to convert bauxite reserves into aluminum. Medicines were taken out. Vehicles were stolen from health centers. They destroyed the archives. They ripped the telephones out of the walls. They even cracked the state dishes. It was vicious. And then the French also tried very hard to isolate Guinea diplomatically. And as a result Guinea turned to the east to the Soviet Union and the eastern block countries for assistance. And that became a post fact of justification. See he was a communist all along.
WERMAN: When you heard last week about these horrific things at the stadium – people shot and many killed, women raped – all in broad daylight. I’m wondering what went through your mind in terms of the historical continuum of the stadium of Guinea’s rocky history. I mean can you see a connection? Not just a coincidence between September 28th 1958 and September 28th 2009?
SCHMIDT: Although I haven’t seen any evidence of this, I have to believe that the decision to hold that demonstration in that stadium, on that day, September 28th, September 28th, was not a coincidence. That these were pro-democracy demonstrators who were getting together to protest the decision of the current military dictator to so-called run in the presidential elections that are going to be held in a few months. And when he ceased power he swore, as so many military dictators do, that he would turn power over to a civilian government and that he would not run in the upcoming presidential election. So really the demonstrators on September 28th 2009 were in the tradition of the Guinean people who voted for independence, for liberty on September 28th 1958. Certainly philosophically they are in that tradition.
WERMAN: Elizabeth Schmidt teaches African history at Loyola University in Maryland. She’s the author of Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea. Thank you very much for talking to us.
SCHMIDT: Thank you very much.
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