A ‘simple African’ revolutionary

Amilcar Cabral remains inspirational for Africans and non-Africans challenged by injustice and oppression.

Amilcar Cabral. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

On January 20, 1973, a charismatic African leader was assassinated in Conakry, the capital of the Republic of Guinea. The country was the host of Cabral’s liberation movement, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). The armed struggle against Portuguese colonial domination in neighboring Guinea-Bissau had entered its 10th year. The murder of Cabral by one of his comrades, in collusion with the Portuguese, reverberated around the world and provoked loud condemnations of Portugal. The New York Times profiled Cabral as “one of the most prominent leaders of the African struggle against white supremacy,” while The Times of London portrayed him as “one of the most extraordinary leaders and thinkers of modern Africa.” In February 2020, Cabral was voted second greatest leader of all times (after Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Sikh Empire) by more than 5,000 readers of the BBC World Histories Magazine, which commissioned historians to compile a list of 20 great leaders in world history.

Born in Guinea-Bissau on September 12, 1924, Cabral was the son of Cape Verdean parents who repatriated the family when he was eight years old. After high school in Cape Verde, where he saw people tormented by droughts, starvation, and death, he went on to study agronomy in Lisbon. As a black man in Portugal, he experienced racism, in spite of being a civilizado. Nevertheless, he actively engaged in clandestine student campaigns against the fascist dictatorship. Committed to fight against Portuguese colonialism, he returned to Guinea-Bissau in 1952 to work as an agronomist. Conducting the colony’s first agricultural census, which involved extensive travel, Cabral acquired vital knowledge of the societies and peoples of his country. On September 19, 1956, together with a few fellow nationalists, he clandestinely co-founded the PAIGC in Bissau. When, on August 3, 1959, the Portuguese brutally suppressed a strike by dockworkers in Bissau and reportedly killed more than 50 strikers, Cabral established the headquarters of the PAIGC in Conakry to prepare for the liberation of his country “by all means possible, including war.” After four years of intensive mobilization in Guinea-Bissau and military training in the Republic of Guinea and abroad, the war against Portugal was launched in January 1963.

While busy conducting the armed struggle, Cabral was also coordinating an anti-colonial alliance that forced Portugal to fight in three warfronts: Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. He was the face and voice of the African Revolutionary Front for the National Independence of the Portuguese Colonies (FRAIN), which included the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto and the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) headed by Eduardo Mondlane, until his assassination in Tanzania by the Portuguese in February 1969. Both these leaders were close friends of Cabral during his student days in Portugal, and he was actively involved in the creation of their respective movements.

Guinea-Bissau was the most intensive theatre of war—known as “Portugal’s Vietnam” —where the NATO-armed 42,000-strong Portuguese forces with unchallenged air power dropped napalm bombs on civilians. With some 7,000 guerrillas, Cabral outwitted the Portuguese, scored significant victories, and liberated about two-thirds of his country. In his new year’s message in January 1973, he announced the imminent proclamation of the independence of Guinea-Bissau, thus raising the stakes for the Portuguese.

Before his untimely death, Cabral had secured heavy artillery and surface-to-air missiles.  The Strela-2 (or SAM-7) missiles became the critical game changer. By the end of April 1973, the Portuguese Air Force was virtually grounded, with the operational group commander among the early fatalities. Operation Amilcar Cabral, launched on May 18, besieged important garrisons in the territory and left the Portuguese highly demoralized. In August, war-fatigued junior officers meet in Bissau to vent grievances and frustrations about the costly conflict. Thus was born the “movement of the captains” that came to accept the inevitability of the end of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. On  September 24, 1973, the Republic of Guinea-Bissau was unilaterally proclaimed and seven months later ( April 25, 1974), Portuguese soldiers led by war veteran “captains” overthrew the 48-year-old dictatorship. In November 1975, the independence of Angola completed the collapse of the Portuguese empire in Africa.

An agronomist, a pan-Africanist, and an outspoken internationalist in solidarity “with every just cause,” Cabral, the self-styled “simple African,” was also one of Africa’s most original thinkers. A prolific writer, his scientific publications include voluminous studies on agronomy and agriculture, while his political works, mainly in Portuguese, comprise several English language editions. These include, Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle (1969), The Struggle in Guinea (1969), Our People are Our Mountains: Amilcar Cabral on the Guinean Revolution (1971), Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral (1973), and (posthumously) Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amilcar Cabral (1975).  A Marxist revolutionary theoretician, he critiqued the concept of class and insisted on “the existence of history before the class struggle” to refute the notion that the colonized are “peoples without history.”

As a revolutionary practitioner, Cabral was uncompromising about contextual specificity, believing strongly that revolution is not exportable. He pursued the goals of the liberation struggle with an incredible display of integrity, insisting with his comrades to: “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” Cabral’s legacy remains inspirational for Africans and non-Africans challenged by injustice, deprivation, exploitation, and oppression.

Further Reading