Guinea’s Ethnic Conflict

Guinea’s Ethnic Conflict

Photograph showing a street, its median at the center, sparse pedestrians and cars on the sand-colored road, mid-rise buildings on both sides
Conakry, Guinea (2013), by Maarten van der Bent (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The 2009 assassination attempt of Dadis Camara, Guinea’s first acting President from the minority Foresters tribe, shed light on the ethnic divisions and conflicts in Guinea. In the days after the attempt, a Guinean resident, Mohamed Lamine Soumah, said, “I am worried that if Camara comes back and he chooses to blame other ethnicities for supporting the attack, it could cause trouble.”1 Balla Dopavougi, a Foresters repairman in Guinea, said, “Dadis was chosen by God to lead Guinea . . . He must come back to lead.”2 This is a common belief that is held by the Malinke ethnic in Guinea. At the time, Guinea was still recovering from three civil wars that decade, and even today, the country still has not put to rest their ethnic conflicts.

On September 28, 2009, there was a protest held in the capital’s stadium, Conakry, and many gathered to express their discontent with then-President Dadis Camara. As a result of the protest, more than 150 people, mostly Fula, were killed by the military.3 I was in Guinea during the protest, and the violence that day did not only occur in the stadium but also in my neighborhood. Two of my uncles and one of my male cousins went to the protest. My two uncles were locked up and were released a week later. My male cousin had to pretend he was dead and laid next to dead bodies in order for him to escape the stadium alive. My family belongs to the Fula tribe, and I have witnessed firsthand the injustices that occur in Guinea as a result of ethnic differences.

Most of the ethnic violence in Guinea is toward the Fula tribe, who is the majority but has never been in power. Leading up to the assassination attempt, President Camara had set up multiple military camps, mostly composed of Guerze (another tribe within the Foresters) soldiers, outside the capital to secure his place in office after the assassination attempt.4 Display of military prowess is a tactic used by every single president in Guinea to secure their ehnic group in power. My goal for this paper is to further explore the ethnic conflict mainly between the Malinke tribe and the Fula tribe in Guinea. As a result of the ethnic conflict, people from the Fula tribe that are legally considered as Guinean citizens are stripped of their rights. Through all the conflicts, people of different ethnic groups all over West Africa have emigrated in search of education and economic opportunities.

Origin of the Fula Tribe

The Fulani tribe were nomads, and they were the last among other tribes to settle in West African countries. There have been disagreements among scholars regarding the origin of Fula people, but most agree that Fula people come from either Egypt or somewhere along the Nile River. The Fula tribe identity includes Islam and their value in cattle. According to the European colonial view, the Fula people were Mohammedan people (descended from the last prophet in Islam), lithe and well built, resembled the Berbers of North Africa and showed results of intermarriage with the Negroes. To provide explanations for the lighter skinned Fula people, European settlers believed that Fula people intermarried with Berber nomads who were escaping persecution from Morocco in the eleventh century.5

Fula people migrated as early as the seventh century to Guinea. Their goal was to find a place to settle where they can practice Islam freely and pursue their economic interest. From 1725 to the end of the nineteenth century, the Fula maintained a theocratic kingdom.6 Their power centered on the territorial control of Fouta Djallon and resource accumulation from ancestors. Within the Fula community, there was a sense of loyalty and pride of identity because of their shared culture, such as origin stories, myths, history, and religion.7

Guinea’s Demographics

In Guinea, the Susu tribe lives in the low-lying Coastal Region known as Lower or Maritime Guinea and composes of about 17 percent of the national population. To the east of Guinea, the Fula dominates the plateau of Fouta Djallon, which is located in Middle Guinea, or Moyenne Guinée. Fula people are the largest ethnic group in Guinea, making up 36 percent of the population. Further east is Upper Guinea, or Haute Guinée, the savanna-like homeland of the Malinke, who accounts for approximately 23 percent of the population. The Forest Region or Guinée Forestière, located in the southeastern part of the country, which has a humid climate and mountainous topography, is home to the Foresters, who make up 14 percent of the population. The Malinke, Susu, and Forester people are classified as Mandé people because of their shared cultural traits, including origins and linguistic similarities.8 The Fula tribe has nothing in common with the other tribes in Guinea, instead has more in common with other Fula people in Senegal and Mali.

Colonization’s Impact on Guinea

Once the Europeans settled at Guinea in the fifteenth century, all of the boundaries set for one tribe, rules about belonging, identity, and resources had to be redefined. The Portugese also introduced ethnic division by putting different unified groups under different political administration. Colonial favoritism—when colonizers pit different ethnic groups against one another through the distribution of favors at various moments—heightened tension and established identity and interest-based conflict between tribes that perceived a distinct socioeconomic, security, and political cleavage between themselves and others. During the precolonial period, ethnic related conflicts were not major concerns because there were sociocultural, political, and economic factors that encouraged and facilitated peace through integration, assimilation, pacts, alliances and other symbols of cooperation among groups. Colonization destroyed the fluid and amorphous character of pre-colonial Guinean tribes. Competition for territory, resources, and markets became the dominant feature in intergroup relations, resulting in the development of new and predatory form of kinship ties and alliances.9

Guinea’s December 1990 constitution guarantees the civil, political, and social rights of citizens, according to British Sociologist Thomas H. Marshall’s defined in his threefold definition of citizenship. According to Chapter 2 of the Constitution, everyone is equal before the law in their liberties, responsibilities, and fundamental rights. Liberal citizenship, which is now practiced in Guinea, puts emphasis on individual rights and dates back to French rule. During colonization, the French gave citizenship to Guineans who met cultural requirements of assimilation, such as dress, language, and religious conversation. Before 1956, only a few hundred of Guineans gained French citizenship, the rest faced harsh taxation, forced labor and indigenous courts. Surprisingly, an elaborated version of the French constitution was put in place twelve days after independence.10

The December 1990 constitution created an extremely strong presidential regime with only a few checks and balances. The president duties include determining and managing national policy, disposing of regulatory powers through decrees, naming all ministers, setting ministerial attributes, naming all civilian employees and magistrates, naming all military employees, presiding over the National Defense Council and exercising extensive pardoning powers. Ever since the constitution was put in place, there have been many violations committed by every single president; however, none of them have been held criminally responsible since the constitution does not specify punishments. Violations included harassment of teacher and student strikers in May 1991, illegal home searches during the 1993 campaign, and tribal favoritism in the distribution of government jobs. 11

In precolonial Fula and Malinke kingdoms, patrimonial bureaucracy consisted of loyal individuals, appointed by the ruler, who derived income from their offices. There was more emphasis on communally based citizenship rather than liberal citizenship. With communally based citizenship, nearly all urbanized Guineans throughout the country belonged to organized hometown associations that promoted village development. Individuals from the same village were expected to plan projects, raise money and monitor the progress of roads, bridges, dams, and wells in their localities.12 Even in the United States, before the American revolution, the Dred Scott case, and the Civil War,  the government assigned rights based on common law, instead of referring to citizenship rights.13 It is always when a new government is put in place in a region where people have different identities the government feels the pressure of assigning rights and roles as an attempt to maintain peace.

Guinea’s instability caused by tribal divisions was exacerbated by the September 1958 vote for immediate independence from France.14 Being the only former French colony to opt out of the French Community, an association of former French colonies, Guinea faced a hostile attitude from France and its West African Francophone counterparts. As a result of their unique international situation, Guinea’s task of training and equipping an army capable of defending national sovereignty was more difficult than it should have been.15 When the French were in power, they used the Malinke ethnic group as allies in their colonial project and granted them access to strategic posts in the area, drawing a fierce reaction from other communities in the region.16 Even after independence, the colonial favoritism that occured with the Portugese and the French determines who holds the most power within the country.

Formation of Different Identities within Guinea After Receiving Independence

In addition to adopting the power structure the colonizers established in Guinea, the newly formed government also borrowed their terms and ways of governance. The Western definition of the word “citizenship” at ethnic group and regional levels has encouraged some groups to see themselves as more or less Guinean than others. Among the Mandeng people, the Malinke tribe has the strongest ownership over the country. The Malinke tribe see themselves as the inheritors(the true citizens) of the Mandeng Kingdom and Mali Empire, to which Guinea once belonged. The reasoning for their claim involves group origin, kinship, ancestral homeland, language, and cultural characteristics.17 The Susu, also a part of the Mandeng people, has mobility within Guinea and obtains scholarships, government jobs, business contracts, and army posts. Members of the Malinke and Susu tribe have encouraged nepotism and ethnic favoritism.18 The Malinke are simply continuing the legacy that was left for them by the colonizers.

After Guinea received independence, the Malinke tribe were determined to keep their sense of ownership alive. Sekou Touré [a Malinke man], the first president of Guinea, was responsible for the start of the persecution of the Fula in Guinea. After 1965, Malinke demands for political entitlement intensified, and the idea of Malinkaization was invented. Malinkaization of the civil service occurred in three important arenas: the party, the public bureaucracy, and union ranks. Most of Guinea administrative units were held by Malinke, and the Fula held only 11 percent of administrative units. Malinkaization in the 1960s resulted in Guineans losing basic rights such as freedom of expression and travel. In 1961, schools were closed and teachers and students were arrested because of an open discussion regarding problems in education. When a second political party was created in 1965, Touré organized for the arrest of the collaborators, which included Mohamed “Petit” Touré and Diawadou Barry.19

In 1976, Sekou Touré used the Fula as scapegoats for the country’s problems ranging from the shortages of medicine, the cholera epidemic, and the national soccer team defeat in the 1976 Africa Cup finals. Touré announced, “We will annihilate them [the Fulbé people] immediately, not by race war, but by radical revolutionary war.”20 To create fear among the Fula, he was arrested and sentenced many to death. He also executed a prominent figure in the Fula Community, Telli Diallo, who had served as minister of justice and the first secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity. Malinkaization is still present in Guinea. The Fula are still considered guest or outsiders. The Fula are obsessed with receiving equality of opportunity and retribution for past crimes. The Malinke government has not made an effort to apologize for past tragedies and the people of the Malinke tribe still will ever accept a Fula as president but will accept a Susu or Forester person.21

As a result of Malinkaization within Guinea, Fula people are not presented with much opportunity for mobility and are forced to look for it outside of Guinea. Alimou is a Fula man that traveled to Senegal for the pursuit of his economic goals. In an interview conducted by an ethnologist, Sussana Fiortta, in February 2010 for her research on seeking personhood in Fouta Djallon, Alimou said that life in Fouta Djallon is amazing, “if you don’t work, you can just walk around and there is always plenty to eat.” After making that statement, the interviewer asked, “if Guinea is so good, why are you here?” Alimou attempted to avoid to answer but eventually, he said, “Of course being there is better than being here! But to buy clothes and shoes, to have money to build a house, you have to make money. And there is no way to make money if you stay in Guinea.”22 Fula men leave Guinea to help support their parents and older family members, their current and future wives and children, and, more broadly, the villages, towns, and regions they call home. Although many of the migrants do not succeed in making money after years of trying, they also stay because they are in search of social personhood. Fioratta uses the term personhood to describe more broadly the constellation of consciousness, roles and responsibilities that motivate Guinean migrants and non-migrants alike.23 The majority of the time, going abroad allows Fula men to gain status and reputation and to present themselves as striving to be responsible for the communities they leave behind, especially since there is not much mobility for them in Guinea due to high rates of nepotism and ethnic favoritism.

Since Guinea gained independence, they have had two coups in 1984 and 2008, and it only takes one successful coup to trigger political instability. In 2010, the national budget allocated only 1.7 percent to healthcare  and 7 percent to pre-university education, while the rest was allocated to the military.24 There is a great amount of corruption within the government in West African countries in general, resulting in the rise of emigration across West Africa. Lamin F. Bojang fled the Gambia after he was threatened with arrest in 2009 for publicly contradicting the president’s claim that he could cure AIDS. Many other people feel that they can come to the United States because it has been portrayed by the media as the land with educational and professional opportunities. 25

During former-President Lansana Conté’s rule (1993-2008), he tried to minimize Malinkaization and increase Fula mobility; it was after he died in 2008 ethnic conflict drastically increased. President Conté allowed for Fula people to become leaders in commerce and trade, for Foresters to hold government jobs and for Susu people to serve in the military. President Conté purposefully stripped Malinke of their entitlement to Guinea in order to win over other ethnic groups and attempt to bring about mobility for them. In the 2010 elections, the two main candidates were Alpha Condé (a Malinke man) and Cellou Dalein Diallo (a Fula man). Their campaign supported ethnic conflict resulting in violent confrontation between the two support groups and the same confrontations are still happening to this day.26 As a result of the confrontations, Malinkaization is on the rise again in Guinea.

West Africans in New York City

Many West Africans after emigrating to a new country searches for a new community. In the early 1990s, translocal communities began to form among West African emigrants in West Harlem, which is now known as Little Senegal, and the Concourse Village, a section in West Bronx. Most of the West Africans that emigrated to the United States become traders or vendors and are Muslim, giving them a common identity regardless of their tribe, to navigate their way through a foreign environment. Fear of immigration and other races or ethnicities forces all West Africans to form a community. The story of a detainee, Fauziya Kasinga of Togo, was known among the West African community. Kasinga fled Togo to avoid cliterodectomy but was immediately detained in New Jersey and placed in Esmor. At Esmor, she was stripped of all her clothes, even while she was menstruating. Kasinga is Muslim so she had to perform ablution in the shower in order to perform morning prayers, therefore she broke the shower rules for going before 6:00 a.m. When the guards found out, they put her in an isolation cell for five days.27 Kasinga is one of many detainees who have been, and continue to be,  treated poorly in detention centers, and West Africans fear to be detained, therefore they stick together to avoid ending up in detention centers.28

Common knowledge among New Yorkers during the early 1990s was that West African vendors did not pay taxes and were shrinking public service resources. Although West Africans did not identify with black Americans, they were forced to battle the still existing white supremacist ideals carried by this country because of the color of their skin. In addition to fighting racism, black Americans in their neighborhood were hostile to them because the black Americans accused West Africans of having sold their ancestors into slavery.29

Boubé Mounkaila came to New York City in September 1990 and he has lived in multiple unpleasant locations. His first apartment was in a hotel in Chelsea and he disliked the apartment because it had “too many roaches and bandits . . . and the place smelled bad too.”30 Boubé was overpaying for a one room apartment with no toilet, bath or shower facilities, causing him to move. In his new apartment, although the conditions were still bad, the owner was more reasonable with rent because he understood West Africans worked hard to support themselves and their families back home.31

The best known location for Africans in New York City was the Park View Hotel at 55 West 110th Street. Francophone West Africans called it Cent Dix. In 1994, City Hall cited it for a variety of code violations, that included the presence of leaks, urine, feces, roaches, trash and garbage in public areas. Although West Africans hated living there, they remained because they did not know where else to go, and Cent Dix provided them with fellowship. A lot of West Africans expressed their appreciation for the economic opportunities they have enjoyed and exploited in the United States but they always complained about the loneliness, sociocultural isolation and alienation from mainstream American social customs. Immigration reinforces social isolation and leads to the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness, therefore community for West Africans is very important. In March 1998, a Malian art trader said America is like a prison for him.32

A big coping mechanism to life in New York City is the shared practice of Islam among traders. Another West African trader, El Hadj Horouna said, “My Muslim discipline gives me great strength to withstand America . . . And even if I lose all my money, if I am able, Inshallah, to live with my family, I will be truly blessed.”33 Islam provides explanations for absurdities and problems faced in life which keeps traders encouraged to pursue their economic interest in New York. The belief that one day they will return home to grow old with their families also keeps them grounded. Harouna also said, “when I am old, even if I have no money, my children will look after me. I will do no work. I will eat, sleep and talk with my friends.”34 That is a culture that is embedded in every single West African household.


By examining Guinean history across many transformations in governance from pre-colonial times to present day, it’s clear that ethnic conflict is introduced by elite government officials and militaries, and the conflicts are regulated by the very same people who are responsible for implementing solutions. In the United States, they do not know of the different tribes in West Africa or understand the conflict; all Americans understand is whether you will be considered black or white. Therefore when West Africans come to the United States, the propaganda that is normally spread back home by elites disappears. West Africans are given the liberty to create a new goal of forming new communities based on religion or shared culture from any West African country to navigate through a foreign land together. President Conté attempted to unify all tribes, but it was not able to last because the current President, Alpha Condé, is reinforcing Maninkaization. Guinea needs a leader that will dismantle the practice of Maninkaization among the public and will redistribute positions in government fairly, instead of through nepotism and ethnic favoritism.

  1. Quoted in Richard Valdmanis and Saliou Samb, “Ethnic Tensions Simmer in Crisis-Struck Guinea,” Reuters, December 13, 2009,
  2. Quoted in Valdmanis and Samb, “Ethnic Tensions Simmer in Crisis-Struck Guinea.”
  3. Valdmanis and Samb, “Ethnic Tensions Simmer in Crisis-Struck Guinea.”
  4. Valdmanis and Samb, “Ethnic Tensions Simmer in Crisis-Struck Guinea.”
  5. Emmanuel Mbah, “Heterogeneous Societies and Ethnic Identity: Fulani and Cattle Migrations, ” in Environment and Identity Politics in Colonial Africa: Fulani Migrations and Land Conflict (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 57.
  6. Robert J. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” Africa Today 45, no. 3/4: 415.
  7. Mbah, “Heterogeneous Societies and Ethnic Identity,” 45.
  8. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” 414.
  9. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” 49.
  10. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” 412.
  11. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” 412.
  12. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” 413.
  13. William J. Novak, “The Legal Transformation of Citizenship in Nineteenth Century America,” In The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003): 94.
  14. Mamadou Diouma Bah, “Stability in Deeply Divided Societies: Escaping Ethnic-Based Armed Conflict in Guinea,” African Identities 14, no. 4 (November 2016): 292.
  15. Mamadou Diouma Bah, “The Military and Politics in Guinea: An Instrumental Explanation of Political Stability,” Armed Forces and Society 41, no. 4 (2015): 73.
  16. Bah, “Stability in Deeply Divided Societies,” 301.
  17. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” 413.
  18. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” 17.
  19. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” 416.
  20. Sekou Touré, “Le racisme Peulh, nous devons lui donner un enterrement de premèire classe, un, enterrment définitif,” Horoya, August 29 – September 3, 1976, 34.
  21. Groelsema, “The Dialectics of Citizenship and Ethnicity in Guinea,” 418.
  22. Fioratta, “Beyond Remittance: Evading Uselessness and Seeking Personhood in Fouta Djallon, Guinea,” 295.
  23. Susanna Fioratta,“Beyond Remittance: Evading Uselessness and Seeking Personhood in Fouta Djallon, Guinea,” American Ethnologist 42, no. 2 (May 2015): 296.
  24. Bah, “The Military and Politics in Guinea.”
  25. Sam Roberts,  “Influx of African Immigrants Shifting National and New York Demographics,” New York Times, September 1, 2014,
  26. Bah, “Stability in Deeply Divided Societies.”
  27. Paul Stoller and Jasmin Tahmaseb McConatha. “City Life: West African Communities in New York.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 30, no. 6 (December 2001): 657.
  28. Stoller and McConatha,“City Life,” 661.
  29. Stoller and McConatha,“City Life,” 661.
  30. Quoted in Stoller and McConatha,“City Life,” 659.
  31. Stoller and McConatha,“City Life,” 659.
  32. Stoller and McConatha,“City Life,” 667.
  33. Quoted in Stoller and McConatha,“City Life,” 669.
  34. Quoted in Stoller and McConatha,“City Life,” 669.
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