A revolutionary life

Mike Phipps reviews Amílcar Cabral: The Life of a Reluctant Nationalist by António Tomás, published by Hurst

By the mid-1960s, Portugal, one of the most backward countries in Europe but with significant colonial possessions, was facing three military insurgencies in Africa. While the situation in Mozambique and Angola would stabilise at least for a few years, the uprising in Guinea became one of the most successful wars of independence in African history. The brain behind it was an agronomist named Amílcar Cabral.

Cabral was born in Guinea in 1924, but brought up in Cape Verde, where the poverty was brutal. “Because the Cape Verdean islands were cyclically hit by droughts which killed thousands of people,” writes Tomás, “from an early age Cabral saw people starving to death on the streets.”  He won a scholarship to attend college in Lisbon where he gained a degree in agronomy and was exposed to anti-colonial ideas, working politically alongside Agostinho Neto, the future leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and the country’s first post-independence president.

As a professional agronomist, Cabral travelled extensively in Portuguese-speaking Africa and what began as cautious involvement in the nationalist struggle developed by the late 1950s into complete commitment and the adoption of a clandestine life.  In this he was profoundly influenced by the independence of former French colony Guinea-Conakry in September 1958. He formed the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) and for ten years from 1963 led its guerrilla campaign against the Portuguese.

In August 1959 Portuguese police opened fire on Guinean dockers who were striking for higher pay. At least fifteen Guineans died and another fifty were injured, an event which convinced Cabral of the impossibility of developing peaceful means of protest against the regime. The decision was taken to pursue a strategy of guerrilla warfare. Preparations for this, including training, access to arms, how to relate to the civilian population, needed to be meticulous if the movement’s efforts were not to be destroyed at the outset.

But Cabral was always more publicist than soldier and saw the armed struggled primarily as a way to draw the attention of the international community to the plight of the Guineans under Portuguese domination. This was vital: even other African nationalists, let alone the wider world, were unaware of the brutality and apartheid nature of Portuguese colonialism, so successful had settler propaganda been.  

The other purpose of the guerrilla strategy was to lay the foundations for a post-colonial administration.  Particular attention was given to health, education and the administration of justice in territories liberated from colonial rule. In fact, it was Cabral’s unyielding commitment to this that contributed to the divisions in the movement that led to his assassination in 1973 at the hands of his own men.

From the outset, Cabral insisted on the obedience of the party’s military commanders to the bodies of the party and fought the tendencies towards warlordism within its ranks. Insubordination was punished severely, including by death for those who abused the civilian population.

As the war dragged on, Cabral’s strictness on this supplied grounds for discontent among some of his commanders. PAIGC bursary students abroad were also fiercely critical: in the Soviet Union alone the party had more than 400 students enrolled in academic programmes. Many of these, detached from the everyday life of the liberation movement, were rebellious. Some would later conspire in Cabral’s murder.

Cabral became the focus of the party’s failure to make swift progress. He was abroad over thirty times in 1972, vital, he would argue, for raising funds and undertaking diplomatic work – including shedding the perception of his organisation as communist, and winning Catholic opinion to support his cause and oppose the Portuguese dictatorship. But these trips fuelled whisperings about his lifestyle. The colonial authority, under General Spínola who would later go on to cast himself as a liberal in the Portuguese Revolution, was also now infiltrating the PAIGC with a view to decapitating it, by killing Cabral.

Precisely on whose authorisation Cabral was assassinated remains unclear. The official version was that Portuguese agents directed the operation, but this was partly based on confessions extracted under torture. It was a convenient narrative for a party profoundly divided by ethnicity, politics and personal loyalties.

Cabral controlled every aspect of the life of the PAIGC. He was its deepest thinker. With his death, concludes Tomás, “the party was lost.” It’s precisely because of this that any biography of Cabral needs to be about his ideas as much as anything – and this is where this one falls a bit short.

Central to Cabral’s thinking was the search for a unifying political identity – in conditions where profound divisions existed between Cape Verdeans and Guineans, given the role the islands had played in colonising the mainland. Marxism, Pan-Africanism and the ideas of the black consciousness movement were key influences on Cabral’s thought.  While his guerrilla warfare strategy was “saturated with Maoism” and influenced by the Cuban experience, this too was adapted to finding ways to overcome ethnic divisions and forge unity within the resistance movement.

Cabral’s assassination underlines that this unity was not achieved. The author is blunt about the reality today:  “Portuguese colonialism was evil, but the promise of independence had not been fulfilled. For the Guineans, the ethnic strife that Cabral unsuccessfully tried to resolve had become the glue of the nation-state. And most Cape Verdeans, who had not wished to secede from Portugal, were left with an independence for which they did not fight.”

The life of revolutionists is often short. It would be tempting, from the life story of Cabral, to agree with the dictum of Simon Bolivar: “Those who have served the cause of revolution have ploughed the sea.”

But these revolutions were essential to ending brutal colonial occupations. Furthermore, armed resistance in Portugal’s colonies was a central factor in sparking the 1974 Portuguese Revolution. Ironically, it was Spínola who was forced by the pace of events to speak out in favour of the decolonisation of the Portuguese territories and recognise the PAIGC as the legitimate representative of the populations of Cape Verde and Guinea. Whatever happened in these countries later, this was a crucial victory, owed to a significant extent to people like Amílcar Cabral.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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