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Claim no easy victories: What I learnt from Amilcar Cabral

A contemplation on a righteous and revolutionary life. The writer here goes through a preliminary meditation so as to inspire and return to the source, the current struggle and context of the continent. Grounding it in the life of Amilcar Cabral and the people he struggled with.



No revolutionary leader from the National Liberation Struggle against colonialism has exerted as much influence on my thinking as a young and upcoming African than Amilcar Cabral. A giant of a man who strategised, organised, and mobilised the righteous forces of his land in the fight for independence and self determination from the fascist Portuguese colonialist. He was dialectical through and through in his analysis, but with a keen and sharp understanding that extends far beyond the materialism that has dogmatically plagued the Western Left. 

He moved away from the dominant Marxist approach of deterministic historical narrative to an objective analysis in tracking the downward flow of history in his land. In this he surpassed many of his contemporaries and gave young Africans and Third World revolutionaries and activists a clear theoretical grounding, and his life became a way of being that, ’til kingdom come, a source of emulation and a lesson to aspire to.

Here is a man educated as an agronomist in Portugal and meant to be from the petite bourgeois of his land in assisting the colonialist in oppressing his people, but went ahead and defied that to create a strong revolutionary organisation that would eventually overthrow the colonial regime. Abandoned and deemed mad for such an undertaking by many of his friends, he didn’t falter nor did he throw it away in fear or despair. Instead, he, with six people who saw and believed in his dream — after a scientific analysis of the colonial situation—  started the Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). This party was to become the great force against Portuguese colonialism, not only in Guinea-Bissau, but all Portuguese-dominated countries. Studying and understanding the life and struggle of Cabral is important for realising a few central things that made him who he was in the context of his time and how he became a bearer of timely and timeless truths, ’til the defeat of capitalism-imperialism.

Cabral was very much grounded in reality — a friend of gravity

First, Cabral wasn’t a haphazard, hasty man. He was very much grounded in reality — a friend of gravity. When he came back from his studies in Lisbon, he became one of only 14 people in his land to ever receive higher education. But he didn’t use this to become an oppressor nor to scale the ranks within the comprador class; instead he used it to deeply understand his land, and then organise for resistance. In a study today known as “Man and his Land”, he conducted a whole agricultural study of Guinea, getting a topical feel and first hand knowledge of the land, farming, soil, and the peasantry and their conditions. For a man who will come to launch a People’s War with his comrades, this was to become indispensable knowledge.


“The colonists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so. They made us leave history, our history, to follow them, right at the back, to follow the progress of their history.” Photo: ANP

 He knew very well what it was he was dealing with through these studies, and for the rest of his life as a revolutionary, this sense of mastering the objective reality informed his theory and practice. He was precise and acute in observation of the material conditions, which is why a cursory reading of his talks to his comrades will reveal keen observations he made, even in the most mundane of things. Today we see how the Left and progressive forces continues to be defeated even with the abundance of means, even with the multitudes who are now waking up to the wreckage of capital. Cabral, as a practical and visionary man, had little means at his disposal but still rallied a nation. He built a force that became the highest point of reference for anti colonial war in West Africa. And as you read of all these great feats, remember that he rallied a nation that was 99% illiterate. A nation that had less than 15 hospitals. A nation whose majority are peasants in far-flung villages with no access to any of life’s basic amenities in the age of technological and scientific advancement. But with eyes to the future and mind to the ground, Cabral and his comrades built an advanced scientific party that eventually won. Learn from a brother like Cabral, who knew and wasn’t afraid.

Second lesson: Cabral understood the importance of showing the people that liberation means the advancement of their material condition. Under his leadership and guidance, the PAIGC would build schools and clinics in every liberated territory. Every area that was liberated from the coloniser was to see the material benefits of liberation. He and his comrades didn’t go around selling dreams to the masses of the people. They showed them what was possible when they fought for their self determination and liberation. Of course, they weren’t the most advanced schools or clinics, but for a people who have never had a doctor or a nurse attend to them their whole lives, nor were ever able to read or write, this was great glory and a promise of their eventual victory against poverty, injustice and ignorance. That’s what must be done today. We must be with the masses materially. 

We must be with the masses materially

Building means where there are no means. We spend thousands on conferences and meetings and base-building, but the people in the communities don’t have proper healthcare nor education. We read Marx and Rodney amongst ourselves, but don’t ever dedicate time to teach the children their tens and units. We must today win the masses by building the world we want to see in the future, with them, in small but steadfast and consistent steps. Each comrade operating from the Third World must be able to tutor the kids for free by dedicating time. The doctors and nurses amongst us must be able to give free time to the hospitals that have little to no doctors or nurses. We must, in the spirit of Cabral and the Black Panthers, feed the neighbourhood. We can’t be all talk and no practice. The masses know already, but then what? Are we gonna be like the bourgeois politicians who come and promise our people heaven and earth just for votes and never do anything? We must show the possibility of new worlds through our very lives.

Wherever Black and African people existed, Rodney considered his province. Photo credit: Walter Rodney Foundation

Third lesson: Cabral believed in solidarity. He spoke, lived, and acted as an African patriot. He constantly reminded his comrades that Africa’s liberation is an intergalactic part of their struggle in the remote corners of Guinea and Cape Verde. He was instrumental in creating a United front for the struggle of Mozambique that ended up in the creation of Frelimo. He again, under the pretext of going to do agronomist work in Angola, went there and rallied the people – and that became instrumental in the formation of the MPLA, which headed the anti-colonial struggle of Angola. Again, he worked hard for the establishment and continuity of a confederation of the organisations struggling against Portuguese colonialism in Africa.

 But Cabral didn’t stop there. He built with all of the Third World, and we see the apotheosis of that in that great talk he gave in Cuba at the Tri-continental Summit Against Imperialism called “The Weapon of Theory.” But his solidarity was fiercely reality-based. It wasn’t a romanticisation of others, but one that honours, reflects, and extends struggle. That should be our struggle for solidarity today. An internationalism that isn’t rooted in colonial stereotypes nor the worship of might. For today we see much of the Western left in solidarity with China, when China continues to wreak havoc in these African lands of ours. No, we stand in solidarity with those who recognise our humanity and our right to a life of dignity amongst the Chinese masses, but not their government that has shown no remorse to the long-suffering masses of Africa. This was the reason why Cabral kept reminding his comrades that their fight isn’t against the people of Portugal, but against the colonialist, an important distinction that is hard to understand without ideological clarity.

Cabral kept reminding his comrades that this struggle was never about him, but about the people

Cabral was like an inexhaustible well in the realm of theory and practice. It would be well beyond the working of this essay to try to extract lessons from this righteous son of Africa. But one last thing before we pull the curtains is the leadership style of this brother. Till the end of his days, he kept reminding his comrades that this struggle was never about him, but about the people. That they must forever do the struggle for the happiness of the masses and their progress, and by extension, the progress and happiness of all of humankind. He never claimed a special position within the realm of things, but this didn’t make him a docile leader. He was righteous and highly disciplined, never claiming easy victories nor lying to his people. In the end, here is a man who by all means and intents could have lived a smooth and quiet life, but instead plunged himself in the great struggle for the liberation of his people, and for this, he paid with his life on one January evening of 1973. Until victory, he will be remembered as one of us who loved the people  and they loved him back. With that he achieved immortality and elevated himself, in righteous mention and elder-hood, atop the peak of the African Nation that will be, and the Third World that will be liberated. 

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