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Sekou Toure's legacy to Guinea: warming ties to West, repression

Whoever succeeds Guinea's President Ahmed Sekou Toure, who passed on last week, faces a formidable task. The unexpected death of the ''supreme guide'' of Guinea's socialist revolution since independence from France in 1958 leaves a large political vacuum.

His departure also presents his successor with the daunting challenge of restoring some economic shine to what the French regarded as the jewel of French West African countries: Guinea was the most richly endowed but most poorly exploited.

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Sekou Toure, also known as the ''Grand Syli'' (big elephant), was a larger than life personality. He ruled with an iron fist for 26 years, crushing all opposition. His successor may find it difficult to assert the same authority or to control demands for greater democracy.

At time of writing, the political succession was still unclear, although under the Constitution the successor should be decided within 45 days. One of the main contenders is Lansana Beavogui, prime minister since 1972 and Sekou Toure's most faithful follower. But Beavogui, in his 60s, has been in bad health.

Other contenders are the late President's half-brother, Mining Minister Ismael Toure, and his nephew Siaka Toure, transport minister and head of the secret service.

For many Africans, Sekou Toure was a symbol of black African independence and dignity - the man who in 1958 rejected General de Gaulle's proposal for a Franco-African community.

''We prefer freedom in poverty to slavery in riches,'' he told de Gaulle.

The French departed, stripping the country of most of its assets. Spurned by the West, Sekou Toure then looked to the East bloc for support in implementing his brand of revolutionary socialism. There followed nearly 20 years of repression as he tried to force Guineans to follow his political path. Tens of thousands were killed or imprisoned, or fled the country. An estimated 25 percent of the 5.5 million population now lives in exile.

By the mid 1970s, with Guinea nearly bankrupt and cut off from the rest of the world, Sekou Toure began renewing contacts with Western nations whom he realized were alone able to finance Guinea's development. Relations were restored with France in 1975. Sekou Toure then went abroad in search of funds, going to the United States and France in 1982.

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But investment has been slow in coming. Investors have been hesitant to sink funds into a nation where electricity, water, and communications are practically nonexistent outside the capital. A grossly overvalued, unconvertible currency and difficulties in repatriating earnings are other problems. Foreign observers will be watching to see if the recent rapprochement with the West and moves to liberalize the economy continue.

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