Fidel Castro once described him as one of the most lucid and brilliant leaders in Africa. He was regarded globally as one of the greatest African and Marxist thinkers of the 20th century.
As a nationalist leader, he coherently articulated the devastation wrought by colonialism in Africa and beyond. His militancy was not seated in a desire for self-aggrandisement, but one of the liberation of the people of the Cape Verde Islands and Guinea-Bissau.
In similar vein that the revolutionary theory espoused by the likes of Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon transcended their own physical space, his philosophy resonated throughout the Africa and beyond the continent. Amílcar Cabral was a giant of his time.
Cabral was born on September 12, 1924, in Bafatá (Guinea-Bissau), on the western coast of Africa. His parents Juvenal Cabral and Iva Pinhel Évora were from Santiago, an island in the offshore Cape Verde archipelago. Cabral’s parents trained him at home until he was seven, when they sent him to Cape Verde to attend primary and secondary school.
An exceptional student, he completed his programme in eight years, rather than the normal 11, and scored high enough on his final examinations to continue his studies in Lisbon. These formative years in Cape Verde significantly influenced Cabral’s later commitment to the liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, which until 1973 and 1975, respectively, were Portuguese colonies.
Throughout their history the Cape Verde Islands suffered periodically from drought and the resulting famines. Cabral was still in Cape Verde during the drought of the 1940s. This disaster, complicated by the increased economic pressures World War II had placed on all African colonies, made the islands a particularly difficult place to live. The catastrophic drought killed between 50,000 and 60,000 people, almost one third of the archipelago’s population.
This crisis, which was caused in part by Portugal’s exploitative economic policies, affected Cabral and his contemporaries. One response Cabral’s generation, like earlier ones, had to the crisis facing the islands was to write poetry, short stories, and other creative works about their situation. They discussed ways to improve their lives.
Cabral’s writings from this period show that even before his training in Portugal he had begun thinking about ways to free his people from the grips of this vicious colonial system.
After struggling for over a year to secure a scholarship, Cabral left for Lisbon in 1945. Because of the harsh economic realities in Cape Verde, he chose to study agricultural engineering at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia. While in Lisbon, Cabral and other African students, including Vasco Cabral, Agostinho Neto, and Mário de Andrade, formed cultural associations in which they discussed their homelands.
Cabral and his colleagues from Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique continued to write creative texts, reaffirming the beauty and vitality of their African cultures. These students, like some of their contemporaries from the French colonies in Paris, also questioned assimilation policies and talked about the need for political change.
When Cabral had completed his training as an agronomist in 1951, he felt obliged to use his skills in Africa. He returned to Guinea-Bissau in 1952 with a contract from the Department of Agricultural and Forestry Services. Cabral’s calculated decision to leave for Guinea-Bissau rather than to remain in Portugal or go to another colony reflected his desire to begin helping his people prepare for their struggle against colonial rule.
In 1953 and 1954, Cabral conducted an agricultural survey or census of the colony. Cabral travelled throughout Guinea-Bissau talking with peasants about their economic activities, their problems as agriculturalists, and their histories and cultures. He analysed the country’s soils and crops and offered suggestions about how to improve the economic situation in the colony.
Conducting this survey gave Cabral an opportunity to learn from the people themselves what colonial exploitation meant. The knowledge he gained from this intimate contact with peasants helped him later when the armed struggle against Portuguese colonialism began.
In 1955, Cabral returned to Lisbon and worked as an agricultural consultant in Portugal and her colonies until 1959. On a brief visit to Bissau in September, 1956, Cabral, Aristides Pereira, Julio de Almeida, Elisée Turpin, Fernando Fortes and Luiz Cabral (Amílcar Cabral’s half-brother) founded the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde).
The PAIGC’s goals were the liberation of both countries and the unification of these Independent nations. The colonial authorities saw Cabral as a threat; consequently he returned to Lisbon. His compatriots stayed in Bissau and continued organizing the party underground.
In August, 1959, a dock workers’ strike at Pidjiguiti resulted in the massacre of 50 protesters. The authorities blamed the PAIGC for fomenting discontent among the workers, and the party’s supporters had to rethink long-range strategies for achieving their goals.
In September, 1959, Cabral and several PAIGC members met in Bissau and decided nonviolent protest in the city would not bring about change. They concluded that the only hope for achieving Independence was through armed struggle. For their own protection they had to leave the country, but at the same time mobilize the people in the countryside –– the majority of the population.
The Republic of Guiné (Conakry), Guinea-Bissau’s southern neighbour, gained its Independence in 1958, and its leader Sékou Touré agreed to allow the PAIGC to use his country as a base.
From late 1959 until 1962 Cabral and the PAIGC built a military force to fight the national liberation war against Portuguese colonial rule. The PAIGC’s guerrilla war began in late 1962 and lasted until 1973. The party sent cadres to Guiné to study in the schools it established. For more advanced programmes, PAIGC militants went to supportive countries for military training and to study medicine, education and engineering. The PAIGC infiltrated Guinea-Bissau slowly and mobilized the rural population.
Cabral’s experience with the agricultural survey in the 1950s meant that he had contacts in the rural areas and that he understood how to appeal to the peasants. Cabral knew the party had to improve peasants’ lives if it expected their support. As Cabral wrote, “keep always in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for things in anyone’s head. They are fighting . . . for material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children . . .”.
Consequently, Cabral and his party developed programmes designed to make life better in the areas the guerrillas liberated. By 1969 the PAIGC controlled two thirds of the country. They established schools, medical clinics, and courts, as well as people’s stores, in these areas.
Cabral believed that political liberation in and of itself was not enough. Rather, he understood the need to create a new society with political, economic, and social structures that reflected the needs of the people. Operating the facilities established before the war ended prepared the party and its supporters for the Independence period.
The PAIGC’s army used its guerrilla warfare techniques to defeat the larger and better equipped Portuguese army. By 1972 the party’s powerbase in the liberated zones was strong enough to hold elections in preparation for Independence.
The Portuguese were unable to admit defeat. In January, 1973, the Portuguese secret police (PIDE), in collaboration with a disgruntled former PAIGC rival Inocencio Kani, shot and killed Cabral in the city of Conakry. PIDE believed by eliminating Cabral they could destroy the PAIGC and change the course of history.
PIDE and its supporters in Lisbon failed to understand that even though Cabral was the guiding spirit of the party, he had anticipated that he might not live to see Independence in Guinea-Bissau or Cape Verde. Therefore, throughout the struggle Cabral tried hard to build a party that could survive without him.
The party, dedicated to seeing Cabral’s programme for liberation through, declared Guinea-Bissau’s independence in September, 1973. Portugal refused to recognize its colony’s declaration until after the 1974 coup d’état that ended almost 50 years of fascism in Portugal. Although Cape Verde ultimately gained its Independence in 1975, the PAIGC’s second goal of unification remained a long-term and difficult programme.
Cabral’s vision and his ability to formulate a theory of liberation made him a unique statesman. His contribution to the national liberation war and the achievement of Independence in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde was instrumental to the PAIGC’s success.
Furthermore, Cabral’s writings continue to provide a framework for understanding colonialism and decolonization in the Third World generally.