Amílcar Cabral and the limits of utopianism

Antonio Tomás’ new book on Amilcar Cabral takes us back to the crucible of decolonization and permits us to assess its aspirations and limitations anew.

Image credit Balou46 via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

The past decade has seen a resurgence of scholarly interest in the life and work of the “founding fathers” of decolonization. In this literature, Lusophone African intellectuals and activists have been accorded limited attention, at least in the English language literature. The Angolan-born and South African-based anthropologist António Tomás now offers a valuable contribution in his nuanced and non-hagiographic account of the life and times of the revolutionary Amílcar Cabral.

Amílcar Cabral was born in Bafatá in what is now Guinea-Bissau in 1924.  He died at the hands of a group of his own Guinean PAIGC soldiers led by the disgruntled Inocêncio Cani, in neighbouring Guinea-Conakry in 1973. Having spent his formative years in Cape Verde, from where both his parents hailed, he was educated as an agronomist in Portugal under the fascist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. Cabral’s father, Juvenal, was arguably part of the intellectual elite of Cape Verde, but was expelled from the seminary of Sáo Nicolau after a brawl with a fellow Guinean student, and forced to take up a lowly position as a primary school teacher in Guinea-Bissau. His mother, Iva Pinhel Évora, having duly expected more from marriage to an educated man, had to work several jobs in order to stave off poverty after the couple’s return to Cape Verde. As Tomás correctly notes, Juvenal Cabral did in effect work for the colonial state, and was as such part of the Cape Verdean elite of “subaltern colonizers” who “made up large parts of the military units and occupied the majority of posts in the public administration in Guinea-Bissau.” Juvenal Cabral was also “a staunch defender of the colonization of Guinea by the Portuguese” and saw the appointment of António de Oliveira Salazar which followed in the wake of the military coup in Portugal in 1926 as “an act of divine intervention.” It is no doubt one of history’s manifold ironies that two of Juvenal’s sons, Amílcar and Luís Cabral (1931-2009), would later lead the movement to free Guinea and Cape Verde from colonial domination.

Cabral as a maker of utopias

Tomás’ rendition of Cabral’s life is rich in historical and contextual detail, but relatively short on theory. That is both a source of weakness and strength in the book. For Tomás, the life of Cabral originated as a biography first published in Portuguese under the arguably more appropriate title Cabral, O Fazedor de Utopias (Cabral, The Maker of Utopias) in 2007. Having started as a journalist in his native Angola, Tomás went on to do a PhD. in Anthropology at Columbia University in New York, and currently holds a position as an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. The two most significant theoretical influences on Tomás biography of Cabral are David Scott and Mahmood Mamdani. From Scott’s seminal Conscripts of Modernity, Tomás adopts the generative idea that “if anticolonial critique were the answer to the problem of colonialism, postcolonial critique should be concerned with the question itself, and not whether we arrived at the answer, as if we still live in those historical times.” Scott’s is of course a warning against the widespread tendency to read decolonization’s moments of stasis, failure and disillusionment into the foundation of decolonization. From Mamdani’s equally seminal Citizens and Subjects, Tomás extricates the idea that “the colonial state…redefined itself as the guarantor of tribal cohesion.” Tomás’ book is written in a very accessible form and format, and there is of course much more to be made of Mamdani’s productive framework than what Tomás’ biography ultimately allows.

Guinea-Bissau will in many respects have been seen as an unlikely arena for the revolutionary uprising against Portuguese colonialism that Amílcar Cabral led there from 1963 to 1973, and which after his death manifested in the form of the country’s independence under the leadership of Luís Cabral from 1973 onwards. For as Tomás notes, Guinea-Bissau not only remains “one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world,” it had long before that been “the most underdeveloped colony of the Portuguese empire.” After the end of the lucrative transatlantic slave trade, in which the Portuguese were certainly  among the most central actors, the Portuguese colonies became more of a source of expenditure than income, argues Tomás. One suspects that this is a debatable point, but one better left to economic historians rather than this reviewer.

In the Portuguese colonial scheme under Salazar, Guinea-Bissau was mainly of interest as a source of cheap labor for the production of primary goods. Portuguese colonialism shrouded itself in a mythology of benignness, underwritten by a propaganda about “lusotropical” tolerance for “interracial liaisons,” belied by the fact that rates of intermarriage were lower than even in the segregationist US South. On the international arena, few really seemed to care about the excesses of Portuguese colonialism. Levels of illiteracy in the population in Guinea-Bissau were abysmal up to independence and beyond: Cabral and the PAIGC made intense use of radio broadcasts in order to mobilize Guineans for the war against the Portuguese colonialists.

In highlighting how the racially bifurcated Portuguese colonial state radically divided Guineans and Cape Verdeans, Tomás’ account will by no means be welcomed by all. In the racial hierarchy of Portuguese colonialism, Cape Verdeans were both seen by the Portuguese and saw themselves as superior to Guineans, and for the most part lived worlds apart, whether in Guinea-Bissau or Cape Verde. They were in other words, in Mamdani’s classical formulations from Citizen and Subject, “citizens” and “subjects” respectively. This colonially imposed bifurcated legal and political status—made into a lived and experiential “reality” in so many colonial contexts—must also, according to Tomás, go a long way towards explaining the simple fact that Cabral and his fellow revolutionaries found so few willing takers in their uprising against Portuguese colonialism in Cape Verde. Practically all the fighting took place in Guinea-Bissau, and apart from a small cadre of revolutionary leaders and commanders of the uprising who, like the Cabral brothers, were Cape Verdeans, all the actual fighting and bleeding on the Guinean battlefield were undertaken by Guineans. It is not hard to understand why, over the course of a war that lasted for 10 years and was both brutal and bloody, this would breed a resentment that Tomás sees as a contributing factor in the assassination of Cabral.

Tomás’ description of Cabral as a “maker of utopias” in the original Portuguese title of this biography seems particularly apt, as it is precisely because it required an act of a truly radical will on Cabral’s part to think that “Guineans and Cape Verdeans could be brought together through the armed conflict” and into “accepting new forms of identity” merely by “being forced to live together under these circumstances.” For, even if one were prepared to go along with Cabral’s Marxist analysis, in which “race and ethnic affiliation” are not a priori categories, but rather the outcome of concrete conditions, it requires a fair amount of utopianism to imagine that the racialized legacies of the Portuguese colonial grid could be so easily undone.

Which way to Cabral’s Marxism?

The first actions against Portuguese colonial military units in Guinea-Bissau took place in Tite in January 1963, and were ordered by Amílcar Cabral. After his premature death in 1973, Cabral became a sort of proverbial “man of all seasons” for revolutionary and anti-colonial Marxists. In Tomás’ rendering, Cabral’s turn to revolutionary militarism was a gradual one, and marked by hesitancy and ambiguities: his natural inclinations being towards diplomatic and intellectual means of achieving the independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Where other and more hagiographic biographers have tended to portray Cabral as a thoroughly committed Marxist determined to wage war on Portuguese colonialism from Guinea-Bissau from an early stage, Tomás’ Cabral is a man who “had always been a pragmatist” who tried “as much as possible not to identify with any ideology” in light of the fact that “the world he was trying to navigate was complex and demanded flexibility of language.” Yet “ultimately, the liberation movement shared the same theoretical backbone as communist revolutions, inspired by Marx, Lenin, and Mao and Cabral himself was “marked profoundly” by “Négritude, Marxism and nationalism” that he had been exposed to as a student among other students from the Portuguese colonies in Africa in Lisbon. The “reluctant nationalist” of the book’s title, is the Cabral who only became fully committed to the nationalist cause in 1960, when he left Portugal and moved to Guinea-Conakry, which had then recently achieved independence under the leadership of Ahmed Sékou Touré.

Cabral’s turn to the endorsement of anti-colonial violence was a result of the brutal force used by the Portuguese in the face of a PAIGC-supported cessation of work by Guinean dock workers at the Port of Bissau in August 1959, which left 15 Guineans dead, scores injured and corpses floating down the Geba river. “These events convinced Cabral of the impossibility of developing peaceful means of protest and that “armed force was the only way to adequately respond to the violence of the Portuguese.”  Cabral had little by means of military training to draw on: his theory of guerrilla warfare to a large extent drew, as one would expect, on what he had learned from the writings of Mao and Che Guevara. Tomás’ is not first and foremost an intellectual biography, and one duly expects the question of the nature and inflections of Cabral’s Marxism as interpreted by the author to give rise to some heated scholarly debates.

What to this reviewer seems as one of the more important and original contributions to scholarship about Cabral that this biography makes, is the underlining of the profoundly transnational character not only of the anti-colonial struggle in which Cabral and his contemporaries were involved, but also of the profoundly transnational Lusophone African character of this struggle. For among those who, according to Tomás, influenced Cabral’s decision to take up a clandestine life and the struggle against Portuguese colonialism, were Viriato da Cruz and Azancot de Menezes, Cabral’s Angolan comrades from Lisbon, who would later become founding members of the MPLA in Angola.

Not an hagiography

Though the military achievements of the PAIGC in the ten-year war against Portuguese military forces in Guinea-Bissau were significant, and gave rise to the idea of Cabral being a brilliant military strategist, Tomás points out that the envisioned “mobilization” of the Guinean peasants and the attempt to maneuver between the Balanta, the Fulani, and the Mandinka of Guinea-Bissau proved challenging. To Cabral and the PAIGC, the long-standing divisions in Guinea-Bissau were to be transcended in the name of nationalism, but it seems clear that this vision could not be sustained in the long run. Cabral himself was not above brutality in his dealing with PAIGC soldiers that had gone rogue or who were seen as posing a threat. Tomás notes that Cabral oversaw the military tribunal of the PAIGC in Cassacá in February 1964, which saw at least two militants accused of abusing the local population executed in front of them. Similarly, in Madina do Boé in June 1967, a PAIGC tribunal executed two soldiers on suspicion of having been involved in a conspiracy to kill Cabral.

Tomás also indicates that the anti-colonial war in Guinea-Bissau and the Guinean declaration of independence of September 1973 may be seen as one of several important factors that would ultimately lead to the military coup in Portugal and the ensuing Carnation Revolution of April 1974. For though Tomás provides no figures on this expenditure, the cost of holding more than 30,000 Portuguese soldiers in Guinea-Bissau in order to defend a relatively small territory and to protect a white population of no more than 3,000 by 1968 must have been significant for the fledgling Salazar dictatorship. Add to this that Salazar’s Portugal, at this point, was also waging wars to quell armed uprisings in the significantly larger colonies of Angola and Mozambique, and the strain on the colonizer’s financial resources and domestic political capital emerged as significant. The military officer who was a leading figure in the Carnation Revolution that brought down the Salazar regime in April 1974 would, in fact, be none other than General Antonío Spinola, who was the Portuguese commander-in-chief in Guinea-Bissau from 1968 to 1973 and who coordinated and oversaw the most brutal phase of the war against Cabral’s PAIGC. In the course of these years, Spinola and the Portuguese intelligence service PIDE also tried on several occasions to have Cabral assassinated.

The assassination of Cabral outside his house in neighboring Guinea-Conakry took place in the evening of January 20 1973, and was witnessed by his second wife Ana Maria. According to Tomás’ account, the assassination was part of an attempt by Guinean PAIGC soldiers to wrest control over the PAIGC from the Cape Verdeans by means of an internal military coup. The racial resentment that Cabral had imagined could be undone through the crucible of military struggle had in fact ended up as a significant factor in his own death. All the Guinean PAIGC soldiers rounded up after the assassination of Cabral and accused of being involved were summarily executed, some of them badly tortured before being shot. On the orders of Sékou Touré, Cabral was given a state funeral. Cabral’s brother Luís became the first president of independent Guinea-Bissau, built a de facto one-party state and embarked on a Soviet-supported attempt to construct socialism in Africa by means of industrialization, which ultimately proved a failure. He was deposed in a military coup orchestrated by his erstwhile PAIGC comrade Nino Vieira—who, for several decades, played a key role in Guinea-Bissauan politics until  he too was assassinated in 2009. The revolutionary pipe-dream of unity between Guineans and Cape Verdeans never materialized, though the PAIGC continued to rule a nominally bi-national state until the first free multiparty elections in 1991.

We should be grateful for Antonio Tomás’ important contribution to the field. Especially in the context of the burgeoning and important scholarly literature taking us back to the crucible of decolonization and permitting us to assess its aspirations and limitations anew.

Further Reading