By Dr. Ama Biney.*
Source: Pambazuka News.
In this special issue on Amilcar Cabral (photo) we seek to return to the life, writings, legacy, political, social, economic and cultural insights of this revolutionary figure whilst examining what he means to Africans and their struggles of today.
Amilcar Cabral would be 90 years old on 12 September 2014 if his life had not been cruelly cut short by reactionary forces on 20 January 1973. He was 49 years old at the time and therefore 20 January 2014 marks forty one years since his brutal assassination. Cabral risks becoming an obscure figure to new and younger generations not only in Africa but globally who are able to reel off sportsmen and women, musicians and celebrities, rather than revolutionary internationalist figures such as Cabral. Therefore in an attempt to reinsert Cabral into the consciousness of African people and progressive peace loving citizens around the world, Pambazuka News celebrates the short life, thought and contribution of this almost forgotten figure who was not only an agronomist, guerrilla fighter, but a poet and political theoretician committed to the unity of Africa and Africans.
Forty-one years since the assassination of Cabral, much has changed in the world and much has remained the same. Apart from Africa’s last colony of Western Sahara, the rest of Africa has achieved flag independence but remains economically enslaved to Western neoliberal capitalism whilst the majority of Africa’s people continue to live in wretched conditions. In studying Cabral’s life and writings they will give further inspiration to the present generation who face new conditions of a globalised world in which empire has reconfigured itself with African allies of imperialism and as globalised imperialism seeks to depoliticise ordinary people and disconnect them from African history. In returning to the writings and speeches of Cabral, we reconnect ourselves to a struggle devoted to genuine socio-economic and political transformation in Guinea Bissau which ordinary people were empowered to be subjects of history and reconstruct a new society. Revisiting this national liberation struggle should inspire us to do the same today.
CABRAL’S IMPORTANCE IN OUR TIMES
In our times Cabral’s praxis, that is, theory combined with practice, remains relevant to progressive Africans, activists in social justice movements in Africa and around the world. His thoughts and practice can teach us something in our own specific struggles and concrete conditions of today. However, to this, Cabral, if he were alive today, is likely to have cautioned that: ‘rice is cooked inside the pot and not outside.’ This political principle and practice that he strongly upheld is beautifully conveyed in this African proverb. As the political theoretician he was, he insisted to militants of his Partido Africano da Independencia da Guiné e Cabo Verde (African Party of Guinea and Cape Verde, otherwise known as the PAIGC) that it was essential ‘to start out from the reality of our land - to be realists.’ To put it differently, he insisted that it was fundamental that the positive and negative, strengths and weaknesses of every reality had to be carefully evaluated on its own merits. He told PAIGC militants: ‘A very important aspect of a national liberation struggle is that those who lead the struggle must never confuse what they have in their head with reality.’ The correct diagnosis of a particular reality was for Cabral fundamental ‘so as to guide the struggle correctly.’ Moreover, he insisted that: ‘reality never exists in isolation,’ for the reality in Guinea and Cape Verde was integral to the reality of West Africa and with the reality of the world, ‘although there might be other realities between these.’
‘WE MUST AT ALL TIMES SEE THE PART AND THE WHOLE’ – CABRAL
Cabral, like Frantz Fanon, was clear that the characteristic failure of post-independent Africa was the absence of ideology underlying the political programmes, policies and vision of political parties. At the Tricontinental conference, Cabral said:
‘The ideological deficiency within the national liberation movements, not to say the total lack of ideology – reflecting as this does an ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform – makes for one of the greatest weaknesses in our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all.’
To a group of African American militants in 1972, he said: ‘To have ideology doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to define whether you are communist, socialist, or something like this. To have ideology is to know what you want in your own condition.’
Neither did Cabral have pretensions to be Marxist or Leninist. When asked in 1971 by a European journalist to what extent Marxism and Leninism as an ideology had been relevant to the national liberation struggle of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, Cabral responded thus:
‘Moving from the realities of one’s own country towards the creation of an ideology for one’s struggle doesn’t imply that one has pretensions to be a Marx or a Lenin or any other great ideologist, but is simply a necessary part of the struggle. I confess that we didn’t know these great theorists terribly well when we began. We didn’t know them half as well as we do now. We needed to know them, as I’ve said in order to judge in what measure we could borrow from their experience to help our situation – but not necessarily to apply the ideology blindly just because it’s very good. This is where we stand on this.’
In short, we must take from Cabral that today’s progressive individuals and their movements must theorise out of their concretely lived situations of self-understanding within the context of their specific history. Yet, they must learn from the experiences of others, to the extent that the experiences of others are useful to them in finding solutions to socio-economic, political and ecological problems. In this way, for Cabral, theory and ideology were neither static nor dogmatic but both were in ceaseless and uncompromising efforts of open-ended reflection in relation to a particular reality and specific history.
At the first Tricontinental Conference in Havana in 1966, Cabral said: ‘It is useful to recall in this tricontinental gathering, so rich in experience and example, that no matter how close may be the similarity between cases and between the identities of our enemy, national liberation and social revolution are not for export. They are – and every day they become more so – the outcome of a local and national elaboration that is more or less influenced by external factors (favourable or not), but essentially is formed and conditioned by the historical reality of each people, and is carried to success by right solutions to the internal contradictions which arise in this reality.’
CABRAL AND CULTURE
Much has been written on Cabral’s position on national liberation and culture and specifically that the national liberation struggle was a struggle to reclaim African culture; and yet how that cultural reality is dictated by economic conditions of underdevelopment. Whilst he acknowledged the strengths of ‘various African cultures,’ we should note Cabral recognised a plurality of African cultures. He also observed that ‘culture develops in an uneven process, at the level of a continent, a ‘race’ or even a society.’ He was a realist and a candid political theoretician in also pointing out the weaknesses of African culture. From 19-24 November 1969 he held a series of seminars for PAIGC cadres at which he said:
‘Our struggle is based on our culture, because culture is the fruit of history and it is a strength. But our culture is filled with weakness in the face of nature. It is essential to know this… Various comrades who are sitting here have an amulet at their waist, in the belief that this will allow them to escape Portuguese bullets. But not one of you can say to me that no one of the comrades who already died in our struggle had an amulet at his waist. They all had them! It is just that in our struggle we have to respect this, we have to respect this because we start out from reality.’
Cabral advanced to point out that such practices are also an ‘obstacle to the struggle’ which is also complex. In many parts of the African continent particular reactionary cultural practices and notions exist that impede socio-economic development. For example, in the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s many soldiers wore amulets believing that they would protect them from injury and death from opposing militias. Similarly in some African countries albino individuals are murdered believing their body parts hold magical powers to be used in rituals. Today it is only the rapid and widescale advancement of education and science that can eradicate such pernicious ideas and practices.
Moreover, Cabral did not consider African cultures as sealed from other cultural influences. In his own words he said:
‘A people who free themselves from foreign domination will not be culturally free unless, without underestimating the importance of positive contributions from the oppressor’s culture and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture. The latter is nourished by the living reality of the environment and rejects harmful influences such as any kind of subjection to foreign cultures. We see therefore, that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practise cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.’
Therefore, one of the many challenges confronting African people in our current globalised world is to critically evaluate aspects of the seemingly hegemonic nature of Western culture that is positive and negative. By internalising the harmful aspects of Western culture we continue to be unconsciously perpetuating our own oppression.
Cabral also identifies the fact that ‘political leaders – even the most famous – may be culturally alienated.’ There are African leaders today who use the slogan of culture to oppress others who are gay or lesbian by upholding heterosexism as the cultural norm and defining what is culturally acceptable and unacceptable for African women to wear, whether that is trousers or mini skirts.
PARTY PRINCIPLES AND POLITICAL PRACTICE IN AFRICA TODAY
Basil Davidson, the great British historian referred to Cabral as not only the ‘inspirer’ of the PAIGC but ‘its leader, its relentless critic: a man of unforgettable moral resonance and strength of purpose’ whom he met in 1960. Deplorably today Africa’s leadership lacks men and women of the integrity of the generation of the era of Mandela and Cabral. In Cabral’s address entitled, ‘Our Party and the Struggle must be led by the best sons and daughters of our people’ there are a number of ethical and political principles he outlines that remain relevant to political parties and social movements in Africa today. Cabral is outspoken in denouncing party militants who ‘have sought comfort, to flee from responsibilities, an easier life, to begin enjoying themselves, thinking that they already have independence in their grasp.’ He continues with this frankness when he says: ‘And we must throw out those who do not understand, however much it hurts us.’ He urges each individual to be vigilant ‘for the struggle is a selective process; the struggle shows us to everyone, and shows who we are.’ Inevitably struggles for social and political justice soon separate the wheat from the chaff; the politically sincere from the politically insincere, the politically honest from the politically dishonest. That is why he states that: ‘struggle is daily action against ourselves and against the enemy.’ This enemy now manifests in Africa in the form of a petty bourgeoisie who are Eurocentric in their aspirations and support neoliberal economic policies whilst colluding with outside interests in order to fulfil their own narrow class interests and power base. Therefore, at this present juncture in Africa’s history, progressive forces must be aware that this particular class in Africa is as detrimental to the interests of the African poor as are the forces of ‘stealth imperialism’ operating in the form of the IMF, World Bank, AFRICOM and various multi-lateral aid agencies.
Cabral identifies patriarchcal attitudes embedded in the views of some male militants within the party who resist women taking up their responsibilities as a problem. To cite him at some length:
‘A particular instance was the occasional stubborn, silent resistance to the presence of women among the leadership. Some comrades do their utmost to prevent women taking charge, even when there are women who have more ability to lead than they do. Unhappily some of our women comrades have not been able to maintain the respect and the necessary dignity to protect their position as persons in authority. They were not able to escape certain temptations, or at least to shoulder certain responsibilities without complexes. But the men comrades, some, do not want to understand that liberty for our people means that women as well must play a part, and that the strength of our Party is worth more if women join in as well to lead with the men. Many folk say that Cabral has an obsession about giving women leadership positions as well. They say: ‘Let him do it, but we shall sabotage it afterwards.’ That comes from folk who have not yet understood anything. They can sabotage today, sabotage tomorrow, but one day it will catch up with them.’
Cabral also castigates those male PAIGC commissars who prefer a woman to become a mistress instead of him helping her to become a doctor, teacher or soldier using the authority of the party to satisfy not only his own stomach but his lust. Today, despite the progress some African countries have made in the political representation of women in national assemblies such as South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi with women claiming over 30% of parliamentary seats, in many African universities and schools young girls and women continue to be subjected to sexual harassment and sex for grades as the sugar daddy phenomenon exists. Men in positions of power abuse these positions for sexual gratification and the perceived status and ego derived from such sexual exploitation.
Cabral urges opportunists within the Party to be unmasked and emphasises collective leadership in opposition to ‘the tendency of some comrades [is] to monopolise leadership just for themselves.’
Today this destructive monopolisation of leadership continues. Post-colonial Africa has witnessed waves of civil wars e.g. Liberia, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Sierra Leone, the DRC, the CAR and currently in South Sudan, to name a few. These wars were clearly not guided by ethical or ideological principles in the conduct nor goals of the war. Civilians were hacked to death in many of these countries and women raped. Today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), and in South Sudan, deaths and atrocities of African people continue with impunity as these conflicts make victims of innocent civilians.
Political leaders such as former Vice President of South Sudan, Riek Machar, who was sacked by President Salva Kiir in July 2013 does not abide by the rules of the political game and has resorted to violence for political ends. The ongoing conflict in South Sudan is a political rivalry of male egos that has been played out in many African countries since independence and has tragically resorted to each side resorting to their phallic guns as a means of resolution of their political ambitions to rule. Machar and war leaders in the CAR and the DRC are bereft of any noble political and ethical ideals that motivated Cabral’s generation. Meanwhile, it is stunning to know that in a country that is just over two years newly born, two and a half billion dollars of oil money has been stolen by South Sudanese officials and ministers. What kind of ethics underlies the behaviour of such individuals who deprive their citizens of life in medicine, functioning roads and a future through education? How is it possible to morally justify the use of children as child soldiers in Africa’s various past and on-going wars?
Clearly the watchwords of many of Africa’s leaders have been antithetical to those Cabral advocated. It could be argued that idealism infused Cabral’s political thought. He was clear that certain principles were essential to political work such as: ‘explain to the population what is happening in the struggle, what the party is endeavouring to do at any given moment, and what the criminal intentions of the enemy may be.’
Cabral was a dialectician in that he was sensitive to the contradictory character of human existence; he strived within himself and encouraged others to become better human beings. Hence he urged:
‘Educate ourselves, educate other people, the population in general, to fight fear and ignorance, to eliminate little by little the subjugation to nature and natural forces which our economy has not yet mastered. Convince little by little, in particular the militants of the Party, that we shall end by conquering the fear of nature, and that man is the strongest force in nature. Demand from responsible Party members that they dedicate themselves seriously to study, that they interest themselves in the things and problems of our daily life and struggle in their fundamental and essential aspect, and not simply in their appearance … Learn from life, learn from our people, learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning.’
Many of the general watchwords of Cabral reveal his deep commitment to ethics. For example, he tells PAIGC members: ‘We must constantly be more aware of the errors and mistakes we make so that we can correct our work and constantly do better in the service of our Party. The mistakes we make should not dishearten us, just as the victories we score should not make us forget our mistakes.’
He evokes Gramsci’s ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’ when he pronounces the following:
‘So in the light of favourable prospects for our struggle, we must study each problem thoroughly and find the best solution for it. Think in order to act and act in order to be able to think better. We must as always face the present and the future with optimism, but without losing sight of realities and particularly of the special difficulties of our struggle. We must always bear in mind and carry out the watchwords of our Party: hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.’
CABRAL: DEMOCRACY AND PAN-AFRICANISM
Cabral’s watchwords have a pertinence in our times for we must ‘know well our own strength and the enemy strength.’ Most important of all his watchwords and relevance for our times is the need for Africans to foster the principle and practice of criticism and self-criticism with integrity. In his own words:
‘Develop the spirit of criticism between militants and responsible workers. Give everyone at every level the opportunity to criticize, to give his opinion about the work and behaviour of the action of others. Accept criticism, wherever it comes from, as a contribution to improving the work of the Party, as a demonstration of active interest in the internal life of our organisation.’
The failure to destroy the colonially inherited institutions of the state is one of the principal failures of post-independent political parties,  but equally disastrous has been the failure to practice and nurture democratic values among multi-ethnic communities in the forging of a new and tolerant Africa. Consequently, during the post-colonial period and currently, this lack of democratic tolerance and inclusivity has given rise to many examples of ethnic cleansing, communal tensions, extremism in the form of Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, genocide and xenophobia in various parts of Africa.
Cabral’s intimate knowledge of Guinea through his work as an agronomist put him directly in touch with many of the country’s ethnic groups such as the Fulas, Balantes, Manjaco, Mandinga, Baiote, Beafada, Saracole, Mancanha, Bijago, Sosso. He believed that whilst there were economic, social and cultural differences among these diverse groups, they could unite around principles and interests. This belief led him to wage a struggle to unify the islands of Cape Verde with mainland Guinea. His belief in unity of his country was amplified to the rest of the continent in founding the Conference of Nationalist Organisations of Portuguese territories (CONCP) in 1961 which incorporated Angola and Mozambique. This organisation worked for the independence of all the former Portuguese colonial territories. His Pan-Africanist convictions are also revealed in his informal talk with over 120 African Americans in 1972 where he connects the struggles of people of African descent to those in Africa. Cabral’s honesty is evident here in the manner he answers the questions put to him by his audience. He also tells them that as they ‘become conscious of their responsibilities to the struggle in Africa’ it does not mean they all have to leave America and ‘go fight in Africa’. He says to his audience:
‘That is not being realistic in our opinion. History is a very strong chain. We have to accept the limits of history but not the limits imposed by the societies where we are living. There is a difference. We think that all you can do here is to develop your own conditions in the sense of progress, in the sense of history and in the sense of the total realization of your aspirations as human beings is a contribution to us. It is also a contribution for you to never forget that you are Africans.’
His brutal honesty is also seen in his interaction with the African Americans when he is asked about the role of women in the struggle for liberation. Cabral responds by pointing out the differences in Fula society in which a woman is considered to be like a piece of property; in Balante society where women are not owned and other matriarchcal societies. He points out that whilst the PAIGC has made great achievements, there remains much to be done. This is Cabral’s candid view on the question of the oppression of women:
‘We are very far from what we want to do, but this is not a problem that can be solved by Cabral signing a decree. It’s all part of the process of transformation, of change in the material conditions of the existence of our people, but also in the minds of the women, because sometimes the greatest difficulty is not only in the men but in the women too.’
In short, Cabral is correct in identifying that patriarchcal ideology has also been internalised by women who also resist change as many men may do and this gravely complicates overhauling the status quo of gender relations.
CABRAL’S INTERNATIONALISM, HUMANISM AND AID
Cabral’s Pan-Africanism also had an internationalist dimension for he believed that racism ‘is not eternal in any latitude of the world. It is the result of historical and economic conditions. And we cannot answer racism with racism. It is not possible.’ In his ‘Message to the People of Portugal’ broadcast in 1969, he made clear that a distinction needed to be made between the people of Portugal and Portuguese colonialism. He called for fraternal cooperation with the people of Portugal. He appealed to them to oppose the slaughter of their own sons in a continued war; he thanked the Portuguese people who had recently participated in demonstrations against Portugal’s colonial wars. Cabral’s humanism towards prisoners of war is revealed when he states: ‘We consider that a prisoner-of-war deserves respect, because he is giving his life, whether or not the cause he is fighting for is just.’
In his address to African Americans he acknowledged the support from the countries making up the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) as well as moral, political, and material support from the Soviet Union and China.
In regards to aid, he was blunt in stating that: ‘we let each people give us the aid they can, and we never accept conditions with the aid.’ If Cabral had lived, it would have been interesting to see how he would have navigated the entanglement of conditionalities of donor countries and multi-lateral aid agencies which many African countries have failed to escape from in the last 50 years of so-called independence. In the late 1960s Cabral was uncompromising on aid and volunteers, for he said to Basil Davidson: ‘We want no volunteers… We shall turn them back if they present themselves. Foreign military advisers or commanders, or any other foreign personnel, are the last thing we shall accept. They would rob my people of their one chance of achieving a historical meaning of themselves: of reasserting their own history, of recapturing their own identity.’ Perhaps it is the case that among the army of Western and African development consultants in the various NGO outfits and personnel up and down the African continent, many also rob Africans of the chance of ‘reasserting their own history, of recapturing their own identity’ today?
Since the decade of the 1970s Africa has received billions of dollars of aid which has instead maintained client regimes of one kind or another in Africa with little regard to whether these regimes were providing a decent living for their citizens with the funds allegedly allocate to ‘aid’ these countries.
The issues of identity and dignity that Cabral wrote about are reflected in other struggles around the world apart from the African continent. In Brazil and Columbia, just to give two examples among many, struggles by indigenous people to remain on their land as logging and new highways and dams are built are destroying the livelihood of indigenous people. That land is intimately tied to a people’s identity and dignity was profoundly understood by Cabral. If he were alive today he would certainly identify with the struggle of the indigenous Awa, a group of nomadic hunter gathers who are threatened in Marahao state in Brazil by loggers encroaching on their land and the hundreds of African communities who have been dispossessed of their land through land deals to foreign investors by neo-colonial African governments.
UNITY AND STRUGGLE CONTINUE
The vast majority of African people continue to struggle on the continent despite the myth of an ‘Africa is rising’ narrative. African people continue to fight against GMOs, land deals, unfair mining practices and oil extraction that leaves ecological pillage and plunder in communities; against unfair working conditions; and for human rights. As Cabral poignantly pointed out in one of his oft repeated quotes:
‘Always remember that the people do not struggle for ideas, for things in the heads of individuals. The people struggle and accept the sacrifices demanded by the struggle, but in order to gain material advantages, to be able to live a better life in peace, to see their lives progress and to ensure their children’s future.’
The revolt in Guinea Bissau that turned into a revolution led by the PAIGC in 1956 was inextricably tied to the creation of new socio-economic structures. “Build the revolution as you fight” was both the slogan and concrete practice of the PAIGC. Consequently the mobilised masses of people of Guinea Bissau together with the PAIGC built alternative schools, clinics and engaged in economic programmes throughout the liberated areas as the beginnings of the new type of society they wished to live in.
In this Pambazuka special issue on Cabral, we have a number of articles that examine the impact of Cabral’s legacy on the Black Liberation Movement; revisit his ‘weapon of theory’; evaluate Cabral’s position on imperialism, neo-colonialism, Pan-Africanism, socialist revolution and cultural politics. They are by no means an exhaustive evaluation of Cabral’s political and social thought. However, they are a small contribution to the much needed celebration and reflection on his critical relevance for Africans today.
*Ama Biney (Dr) is a scholar-activist and Acting Editor-in-Chief of Pambazuka News.