Guinean first ladies and big (political) business
The wives of (former) heads of state form an important part of the political elite in Guinea, considerably shaping the country’s sociopolitical and economic past and present.
Toward the end of 2021, Hadja Andrée Touré—the 87-year-old première dame of the Guinean First Republic (1958-1984) and wife of the country’s first president after independence, Ahmed Sékou Touré—received high-ranking visitors at her home in Conakry. It was September 28th, 2021, Guinea’s Independence Day, and merely 23 days after his successful coup d’état, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya paid her a visit. By seeking recognition and legitimization from the country’s best known first lady—whose image still represents the struggle for independence and her husband’s postcolonial state-building efforts—the transitional president thus paid homage to the most well-known of Guinea’s leaders and the country’s founding father. In a country where the economic and political sphere are closely interlinked, Mamady Doumbouya was networking with one of the most influential female members of Guinea’s political elite: Hadja Andrée Touré represents, despite her age, big (political) business.
And so do the Guinean first ladies who followed her: they are the wives of (former) heads of state, but they also form an important part of the regional political elite, considerably shaping the country’s sociopolitical and economic past and present. By engaging in various charitable activities, (mis)using their positions for significant economic ventures, enhancing their husbands’ (party) politics, acting as intermediaries in times of political crisis, and promoting a particular interpretation of Guinea’s history, they have considerably shaped Guinea’s development, be it as national darlings, power brokers, or businesswomen. This article introduces the lives and contexts—often neglected by political scientists or country analysts—of some of Guinea’s first ladies since independence, thereby uncovering traces of these (political) heavyweights.
Unlike Hadja Andrée Touré, the wives of second Guinean president Lansana Conté (1984-2008)—his three “official” wives, Henriette Conté, Hadja Kadiatou Seth, and Asmaou Baldéas, and his “unofficial” wife, Mamadie Touré—no longer appear publicly. Henriette Conté became popularly known as the “first first lady of Guinea” or as “Mama Henriette Conté.” She was active in charities, had strong ties to the Guinean military elite, and held a growing influence over her sick husband in the early 2000s; it is even said that she actively tried to influence her husband’s succession. Until her death, Henriette Conté was involved in her late husband’s political party and strongly defended his legacy, not least because they shared the same ethnic affiliation. When she died in March 2020, her funeral mobilized the masses.
Meanwhile, little is known about the life and whereabouts of Asmaou Baldé, who was more than forty-five years younger than Lansana Conté. Hadja Kadiatou Seth, Lansana Conté’s second wife, is a former Miss Guinea and known for her business acumen; she was well connected to the Lebanese business community and was involved in the telecommunications sector. As a result, she probably had access to the president’s inner economic and political circle. Kadiatou Seth and her oldest son Mohamed, who studied in the US, popped up in relation to an affair in the telecommunications sector that was publicly discussed in 2014 (see here and here).
As for Mamadie Touré, it remains unclear whether she was officially married to Lansana Conté, so she was called the “unofficial” first lady, or “the pretty one.” What is clear is that she played a crucial and infamous role in one of Guinea’s biggest corruption scandals, described by British newspaper The Independent as “the corruption deal of the century.” The scandal concerned mining rights to extract iron ore in the Simandou mountains, one of the world’s richest and still-unexploited iron ore deposits in Guinea’s southeast. In 2008, the government of the by-then very ill president, Lansana Conté, withdrew the license that the multinational mining company Rio Tinto had obtained in the late 1990s. He then handed the right to extract half of the iron ore to Beny Steinmetz Group Resources (BSGR) for a heavily discounted price.
As the Panama Papers have disclosed, Mamadie Touré was the owner of Matinda, an off-shore company that was actively involved in the preparations for that deal. The NGO Global Witness has demonstrated that Mamadie Touré’s company received several millions of dollars for ensuring that the Guinean government gave BSGR the mining rights in Simandou. This example shows that Mamadie Touré had her influence—particularly during the later days of Lansana Conté’s presidency, when he lost much of his vitality and his entourage gained ground and took their sinecures.
A more recent first lady, Hadja Djènè Kaba Condé, the wife of President Alpha Condé (in office 2010-2021), was born into the influential Kaba family in Kankan, Guinea’s second-largest city and the stronghold of President Condé. After her husband’s election to the presidency, Hadja Djènè Kaba Condé left France, where she had studied and was employed, and returned to her country of origin. There, she launched her own foundation for the promotion of maternal and infant health and actively supported Alpha Condé’s politics.
Still more recently, Lauriane Doumbouya stood next to her husband, Mamady Doumbouya, during his October 1st, 2021, inauguration ceremony as transitional president. The new first lady, a former French police officer who grew up in a small town in southeastern France, had married Mamady Doumbouya in 2011; together, they have three children. In Guinea, her white skin color, her tall height, and, above all, her nationality have triggered many comments about France’s ongoing influence in its former colony. Mamady Doumbouya, on his part, promised that he will not stand in any upcoming votes but only lead the transition. The future will tell whether he will keep his word. In the meantime, he successfully performs as the country’s president while the first lady does philanthropy.
While some Guinean first ladies have been admired for their public appearances, beauty, and style, others have played crucial roles within their husbands’ political parties or have been praised for being peacemakers and for their philanthropic activity. Most of them, however, have been infamous for their abuses of power and for their engagement in clientelist networks and dubious business endeavors. Many have also provided their families with access to business opportunities and state employment. All in all, and even though the Guinean first ladies have different backgrounds, all the premières dames are illustrious, represent big (political) business, and have left a considerable mark on the country.
Without a doubt, Hadja Andrée Tourée is—not least because of her age—one of the most famous Guinean first ladies. In December 2021, current president Mamady Doumbouya renamed Conakry’s international airport to “Ahmed Sékou Touré International Airport.” It would have been much more courageous—and would probably have been less criticized—if he had instead called it the “Hadja Andrée Tourée International Airport.”