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African tragedy

AS an American official in the early 1970s, I spent three days traveling through Guinea with its President, Ahmed Sekou Toure. With one hand on the wheel of his open convertible, he waved with the other to crowds that lined the road. He responded with a smile to orchestrated shouts of ''Down with colonialism,'' ''Down with imperialism,'' and ''Long live our President.''

Against the sound of the Guinean radio, I listened to him as he spoke. With considerable eloquence, he expressed his anger at de Gaulle for the French reaction to Toure's refusal to join the French Community of nations. Not once, but several times, I heard of factories removed, telephones ripped out, clinics deserted, and, above all, of the humiliation he felt as an African.

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Proud, charismatic, and sensitive and pragmatic on some issues, he was at the same time ruthless, paranoiac, and a prisoner of a philosophy that blunted his talents and impoverished his country. Toure, who passed on last month, epitomized the pride and the tragedy of much of post-independence Africa.

During our three-day auto trip through Guinea, as music of Guinean songs and dances came over the air he would speak with pride of West African culture and of the role he played in placing it upon the world's stage. In those days, Guinean troupes were seen on every continent with their exciting expressions of Africa.

He spoke of the problem of motivating Africans in development in a land where ''the fruit falls from the trees.'' Except for his pragmatic protection of foreign investment in the bauxite mines, his answer was ''socialism.'' He acknowledged its weaknesses, but continually found a defense.

On one occasion in a subsequent trip, I spoke to him about help to improve Guinean agriculture. He acknowledged that his policies had been a failure. I thought, perhaps, we were approaching reality. Then, suddenly, his tone changed: ''But that is the fault of the imperialists and the feudalists.'' Pragmatism ended; rhetoric prevailed.

In his anger against the French, he turned, soon after independence, to the Soviets and the Chinese. They were of little help to him in his economy, but they undoubtedly fed his paranoia against the West and against suspected rivals. They almost certainly taught him the measures of control he used to sustain his ego and his power.

I learned that the crowds that lined the village roads and cheered were not always there by choice. The stories I heard of threats and pressures were highlighted by a song sung by a women's chorus in an evening cultural performance: ''We are with you, Mr. President. Do not worry about us. We will inform upon our fathers, we will inform upon our brothers. . . .''

Overwhelming all his drives was a deep suspicion of those who might be rivals.

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Former Guinean ambassadors to the United States seemed particularly vulnerable to his paranoia.Two very intelligent men, Karim Bangoura and Fadhialla Keita, who represented their country with great effectiveness in Washington, disappeared, upon their return to Conakry, into prison and presumed death. On one visit, I greeted another former ambassador to Washington at the Conakry airport who, in a panicky aside, urged that I not try to see him.

On occasions, I spoke to other Africans about the flawed excesses of men such as Toure, Amin, and Bokassa. The answer was always the same. ''We cannot intervene in the internal affairs of another country. We will not serve the critics of Africa by highlighting the faults of an African brother.''

Toure in his early years did much to express the pride, the independence, and the hopes of Africa. No outsider can fully fathom what personal or national pressures may have converted those laudable expressions into the ruthless actions that characterized his rule. Those who knew this fascinating man mourn his passing but cannot forget his deep-seated fears, and his lost opportunities. At the same time, we mourn those who were, tragically, his victims.

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