On November 22, 1970, Guinea’s fate almost changed. The declining Portuguese empire is in difficulty on its current Guinea-Bissau territory. Lisbon will try its best to organize a lightning attack outside its borders for the first time in its history and in the greatest secrecy. Objective: to overthrow the regime of Sékou Touré, the main supporter of the PAIGC’s insurgency. The coup failed in part, but in 1971 triggered the greatest repression in Guinea’s history.
From our correspondent in Conakry
His hands shake as he turns on the wet sides. The “white paper” now has the ocher color that passes the time. The cover has disappeared to give way to a portrait of Ahmed Sékou Touré. The reader is about to dive into the troubled waters of Guinea’s memory.
“This book contains the depositions of the accused after the attack on November 22,” explains Moussa Soumah, pointing to faces. The voice also begins to shake: “no one has come out of prison.”
Known by Guineans as “Portuguese aggression”, the operation on the Portuguese-speaking side is codenamed “Mar Verde”, secretly drafted by a handful of officers who will try to change the colonial war and Guinea’s fate.
In 1970, Lisbon was under international pressure. The military dictatorship refuses to give its colonies independence and to a murderous war on many fronts. The PAIGC, the independence uprising in Bissau supported by the Eastern Bloc, Cuba and Guinea, is making it difficult. The attack also takes place daily in the capital.
To reverse the balance of power, an idea sprouts in Commander Alpoim Calvão: a lightning strike in Conakry to neutralize the PAIGC fleet, destroy its rear base and overthrow its ally, President Ahmed Sékou Touré, and finally release the Portuguese prisoners of war held in the capital.
Calvão obtains sealed suction cup mines in South Africa, Soviet uniforms for more discretion, 250 AK47s, 12 RPG7s, 20 82-millimeter mortars and ammunition passing through Lisbon.
“We knew there was a group of Guinean refugees, called the Front de liberation national de Guinée, who were in contact with the Portuguese government. They demanded our support for military action against Sékou Touré, “recalls Calvão, who is committed to uniting the political wing of the movement, led by David Soumah and Thierno Diallo’s military wing, who were briefly arrested in Dakar.
Other interceptions risk confidentiality. In late September 1970, Ahmed Sékou Touré condemned on Radio Conakry “the existence in Guinea-Bissau of training camps for Guinean mercenaries”.
Lisbon still gives the green light, provided there is nothing to identify the perpetrators. The boats are repainted to the lifebuoys, the Portuguese paint their faces black, the blood type plaques, the magazines, the matchboxes are thrown into the sea.
The six ships approach in silence and in scattered order. “Conakry in sight” said the telegram. 430 soldiers take part in the operation: 200 members of the FLNG, 150 African commands and 80 especiais fuzilleiros, the elite unit of the colonial army.
“Like in the movie, but this was the reality!”
On November 22, 1970, the moon is new, the tide is full and no wind shakes the mantles. Alpoim Calvão did not just choose dates based on meteorological criteria: on Saturdays, the dance halls and cinemas in Conakry are sold out.
Moussa Soumah does not suspect anything, he applauds Gregory Peck’s achievements in The Guns of Navarone which was shown that night at the cinema on November 8. At home, the first detonations ring out “like in the movie, but that was the reality!”
In the port of Conakry, a fireball rises to the sky. The offensive begins. The PAIGC fleet was quickly destroyed and the city plunged into darkness. Calvão reckons with the power outage to destabilize the enemy.
The rubber boats glide towards the ground, fuzileiros storm the Boiro camp, then the militia camp before jumping over the wall that separates it from Villa Silly, the head of state’s residence. They climb up the stairs four to four but upstairs the bed is still ready: Sékou Touré is in a safe place.
No trace of Amilcar Cabral, founder of PAIGC. The invaders nevertheless destroyed the party’s facilities and liberated the Portuguese prisoners. “I woke up in the middle of the night with shots approaching fast,” recalls the most famous of them, pilot sergeant Antonio Lobato. Then a bazooka shot blew the window. When I heard all this, I was sure that these men were among us. ”
The day begins to dawn and the counter-offensive begins. In the wireless district, Guinean tanks regain control of the Samory camp. Alpha Oumar Bah puts his nose outside: “I thought: ‘but he will not shoot anyway! “But the battle is over and there … I admit I was faster than the sound of getting away! “
These unexpected reinforcements destabilize the attackers who, when they arrive at the airport, find no trace of the military aircraft they are about to destroy. Even worse: one of the Portuguese officers has just abandoned: “This son of a lieutenant has fled with twenty of my men, he betrayed me miserably”, we can read in a telegram from Captain Morais. Failure to control the sky interrupts the air attack. It is not possible to take the risk of being identified by the loss of a ship, Calvão leaves his pension.
“Guinea’s people, you are victims in your capital Conakry of aggression by the imperialist forces,” Sékou Touré said in the voice of the revolution. The attackers failed to silence the national radio. As the FLNG continues to fight on land, the freed prisoners reach the ships already weighing anchors.
“Goodness and injustice”
Did the people respond to the call for weapons launched by the supreme leader of the revolution? The versions differ. For the regime, this is proof of the existence of an “international conspiracy” and the possibility of unleashing one of the most violent oppressions in its history: the “great cleansing” of 71. In the prefectures of the country, revolutionary people’s courts are condemning with all their hands. On January 25, schoolchildren from Conakry were called under the bridge on November 8 to see the bodies of four senior regime officials swinging at the end of a rope, accused of involvement.
“It upset us,” Moussa Soumah testified. “I understood that it was about removing those who constituted an obstacle for the president, like the peasants on the board,” he said, lowering his voice. The subject remains sensitive: in Guinea, history is a political issue.
That same day, at the height of his six years, Mohammed Barry saw his father cry for the first time: “I discovered arbitrariness and injustice.” In the Sans-Fil district, he picks up bullet cases without really knowing why. Fifty years later, he is one of the most active human rights activists in the country.
To consult: RFI SAVOIRS -Guinea: a history of political violence