Massacre as a Tool of the African State

by Michael Schmidt

As Zabalaza goes to press, the West African country of Guinea is preparing to go to the polls in the second round run-off of its first democratic presidential elections ever (the first round was held in June), half a century after its ‘independence’ from France. Its first president, former postal worker Ahmed Sékou Touré, drew heavily from Marxist-Leninism in building a one-party state and ruling with an iron fist until his death 27 years later in 1984, with the blood of an estimated 500,000 people on his hands. He was followed by Lansana Conté who likewise ran an authoritarian military regime until his death in 2008. But is the dawn of bourgeois democracy a guarantee to the Guinean popular classes that they shall be freed from five decades of oppression and exploitation? I argue that when both privateering states such as Guinea that have plundered their citizens and their neighbours, and conventional ‘contractual states,’ have resorted to massacre to ensure the dominance of their parasitic elites, the only solution is a class-line, anti-nationalist social revolution.

Pirates of the SomalianIt was a black day in the Guinean capital Conakry on Monday 28 September 2009, when troops loyal to junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara opened fire on a rally of pro-democracy activists, killing an estimated 157 people. Camara had seized power in December 2008, just 21 months after I warned in the mainstream South African press that a coup was imminent in Guinea. I’d based my prediction on the observations of different interest groups, including the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent organisation used by the United Nations as a bellwether, which had noted as far back as 2004 that there were isolated uprisings in Guinea, directly related to the collapse of state services. The ICG stated in early 2007 that while the ‘fragile but successful peace processes in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia have greatly diminished the external threats to the stability of Guinea … its internal instability remains a source of immediate concern for the whole region as Guinea is at risk of becoming West Africa’s next failed state.’

Of course the spectre of the ‘failed state’ spooks all but the boldest of robber-baron capitalists. In the African theatre, the fragmenting ex-state that used to be called Somalia, without an effective government since 1991,[1] and Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe’s zero-sum regime, are held up as their scarecrows. But this brief article is not concerned with states which ‘fail’ in the sense that they do not conform to the normal ‘contractual state’ channels of capitalist repression, exclusion and exploitation that characterise much of post-colonial Africa (Egypt and South Africa, for example). Neither am I interested in those states designated by imperialist powers such as the USA as ‘rogue states’ (Sudan and previously Libya), because they resist incorporation into those powers’ spheres of direct influence.

Rather, I am interested in the concept of the ‘privateer state,’ a condition rather more common in Africa. This is where the state consists of a narrow-based consortium of hard-nosed business entrepreneurs, ethnic factional leaders adept at populist politics, a tiny bureaucratic class, and the better-trained sections of the military, usually the paratroopers (where such exist), armoured infantry and the presidential guard. The privateer state survives not only by extorting its citizenry, but by extending its extortionist operations into neighbouring states.

Another term, coined I think by J. Patrice McSherry in her study of the southern Latin American dictatorships,[2] is ‘predatory states,’ states which predate upon their own people in much the same way as the South African apartheid state and Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko did. Ironically, as noted by Boaz Moselle and Benjamin Polack:[3] ‘This ‘predatory’ state can result in lower levels of both output and popular welfare than either organised banditry or anarchy,’ (‘anarchy’ here meaning nihilistic chaos).

Organised banditry is primitive accumulation, however, while predatory states have advanced up the capitalist developmental scale. In Africa, I argue, the practice of predation is given the distinct colour of being enforced by divide-and-rule ethnic violence – and by exporting such violence abroad under government sanction. So I use the term ‘privateer states,’ a privateer being a state-licensed pirate who pillages external enemies. Under this definition, the apartheid state’s raids and invasions abroad were geostrategic and ideological, not driven by mere plunder, so that state was far more a predatory than a privateer state.

But Guinea offers a clear case of a privateer state. As the ICG noted in 2005: ‘Over the past 15 years it [Guinea] fuelled almost all the region’s wars [especially Liberia’s bloody conflict] and the mayhem it sowed is starting to rebound.’ Let us not forget the destruction of the 3,240-strong Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) section, organised among the diamond miners of neighbouring Sierra Leone and the forcing into exile in Ghana of IWW militants such as Bright Chikezi,[4] during the civil war in the mid 1990s, fuelled by both Guinea and fellow privateer state Liberia under war criminal Charles Taylor.

West African human rights activist Ibrahima Kane has said that the Guinean people were looking at neighbouring countries that had experienced pro-democratic change in recent years: Mali, where military dictator Moussa Traore was given the boot; Mauritania, where President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was ousted; and Guinea-Bissau. ‘The only country that is not changing in 30 years in the sub-region is Guinea,’ Kane said.

In the months prior to President Conté’s death and Captain Camara’s coup, organised labour in Guinea flexed its muscles in an unprecedented show of strength, with general strikes in February and June 2006, and again in January and February 2007. But in response to the latter two strikes, Conté’s forces in two bloody showdowns massacred 60 and 23 people respectively, establishing martial law. The massacre by Camara’s forces last year merely reinforced the established pattern whereby Guinean privateer regimes use massacre to prop up their shaky authority against the anger of the popular classes.

African responses to massacre, both at the time they occur, but also as viewed in the long lens of memory, have been remarkably diverse, but have always served the interests of ruling statist parties – and those who aspire to that parasitic position. In South Africa, the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre when police fired on a Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) anti-pass law march, killing 69 people, is remembered with sombre ceremony every year. At the time, the state’s use of the massacre was to try to crush the PAC (and by extension the African National Congress, ANC) and drive it underground – but the response of the resistance was the formation of the PAC’s armed wing Poqo, and the ANC’s armed wing uMkhonto we Sizwe, aimed at establishing the current contractual state.

In similar fashion, the 1960 Mueda Massacre in Cabo Delgado province in the far north of Mozambique, when police arrested community leaders handing in a petition to the governor and Portuguese troops fired on the agitated crowd killing tens of people (Portuguese version) – or as many as 600 (nationalist version), was the key factor that united three disparate resistance movements, forming the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo) and initiating its liberation war. The end result of this was the Frelimo predator state, albeit moderated over recent years by its improved contractual nature.

A brutal fact that is inescapable to those who believe that Guinea and the rest of Africa should pursue the path towards bourgeois-democratic governance under contractual states is that massacres have been committed both by imperialist contractual states and by liberation movements attempting to establish their own states, for example:

  • The 1961 ‘Secret Massacre’ in which Paris police attacked a peaceful demonstration by Algerians demanding independence, killing between 40 (official version) and 200 (Algerian nationalist version) people and throwing their bodies in the Seine River. Despite the fact that the massacre occurred in public in the heart of a major Western capital, the slaughter was only officially acknowledged in 1998.
  • The 1962 Oran Massacre in the port city of that name in Algeria on the day of the country’s liberation, when indigenous Algerians went on the rampage and killed between 153 (names listed on the massacre’s online memorial) and 1,500 people (French newspaper reports at the time), most of them white Algerians.

The nightmarish ‘One Hundred Nights’ experienced by Rwanda in 1994, in which the organised ethnic banditry of the Akazu (Little House) and its Zero Network of soldiers and Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi killers hacked their names into our hearts with spiked clubs and machetes, is properly condemned – but its memory has been used by the post-genocide regime to prop up its despotic ‘contractual’ authority, and to justify punitive raids into neighbouring countries. Thus the Rwandan regime has used the massacre committed against its own (Tutsi) tribe as an excuse to dominate and exploit all worker, peasant and poor Rwandans, regardless of ethnicity, although with a specific bias against the Hutu.

The African Socialist International, a London-based body aligned to the PAC, said back in 2007 that its West African affiliate, the regional Africanist Movement, proposed a solution to the Guinean people’s crisis that would see the ‘establishment of a democratic national revolutionary government of workers and peasants,’ which would allow free speech, assembly and association, and nationalise ‘the strategic components of the economy, especially the extractive mining sector,’ with profits being turned towards social development.

By comparison, the slogan of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) is ‘For a Regional Social Revolution by a Front of Oppressed Classes,’ in other words, the organisation takes an anti-national, internationalist class line against all governments, whether democratic or dictatorial, and against all states, whether contractual, rogue, predatory or privateering. It calls on all oppressed people – workers, peasants and the poor – to unite across the artificial borders imposed on us by both colonial and post-colonial regimes, and to build revolutionary social change from below, socialising, rather than nationalising, the means of production and power, building popular-class counter-power, to develop society in a directly-democratic, human-scale horizontal fashion.[5]

As Guineans prepare to choose their president, with the chill shadow of last year’s massacre lying across their shoulders, they would do well to use this rare window of opportunity offered by the lowered guard of the military/capitalist class during the bourgeois-democratic elections to push well beyond the normal channels of dissent allowed by the state. The state and its capitalist co-conspirators fear losing control of Guinea to the popular classes – and so securing that counter-power should be the aim of those classes precisely because it is the only way to prevent a return to the conditions of suffering under a privateer state propped up by repeated massacre.


  1. The ZACF does not see warlord-ridden free-marketeering ex-Somalia as operating under an anarchist system simply for want of a state, and yet many mainstream analysts have been surprised at the unexpected improvement in various aspects of stateless Somali social life: the media and telecommunications have expanded dramatically; the currency (prior to the transitional wannabe government’s flooding of the market with bank-notes in 2000) was remarkably stable; the service sector has grown; and even electricity and infrastructural provision has expanded. For a summary of these views – with links to the original studies – see here. For an anarchist-communist analysis, read Somalia, Kenya and the instability of some modern African nations, Chekov Feeney, Workers’ Solidarity Movement, Ireland, 2000, online here
  2. Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America, J. Patrice McSherry, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, United Kingdon, 2005.
  3. A Model of a Predatory State, Boaz Moselle and Benjamin Polak, The Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Oxford University Press, United Kingdom, 2001.
  4. Update on Sierra Leone IWW, Kevin Brandstatter, IWW, United Kingdom, online here
  5. For a ZACF analysis of how an African regional social revolution would distinguish itself from organised ethnic banditry, no matter how libertarian, read Regional Tribalism or Revolutionary Transformation?, Michael Schmidt, an introduction to Anarchism & Revolution in Black Africa, Stephen P. Halbrook (1971), African Resistance History Series, Zabalaza Books, South Africa, 2008.