It is January 20th again and time to remember Amilcar Cabral, the guerrilla intellectual superintending the struggle for independence for Guinea and Cape Verde. He was machined to death by a fellow traveler in the fight against Portuguese colonialism January 20th, 1973.
That is 48 years ago, a long time for him to have been forgotten. Why has that not happened? The evidence that he is still fondly being remembered abound. Hitherto, museums have sprang up in his name in New York, Lisbon and back home. Directors have been at work on documentaries on his politics and the UNESCO once came up with renovating of a part of his homestead. Lectures are regularly held to mark one aspect of his life or another. And these go on across the world although more of it has been in the Western world.
Perhaps, one point of consensus might be the one that it is the elimination of almost all members of that specie of African leaders that explains why Africa is still what it is. Intelligent, imaginative and bold, they arrived on the scene with much clearer roadmaps. They were original roadmaps not dictated by some young chaps whose only qualification is that they went to established Western universities and have been recruited to think for the IMF and the World Bank.
Cabral, in particular, arrived on the scene with a strategy that privileged culture as the starting point, interrogating every received wisdom in doing so, irrespective of where they come from. He was thus more dangerous because culture is where freedom comes from. Culture was the most subtle instrument around which epistemic violence was built to deny the African in History. To restore culture was to easily undo the colonial inferiorisation of the African. He was a marked man, the same treatment that was designed for others before him or with him.
In what readers describe as a most memorable piece on the strategy of eliminating the African leaders with a mind, Victoria Brittain listed six African independence leaders who were assassinated by their ex-colonial rulers, including Patrice Lumumba of Congo between 1961 and 1973. In the January 17th, 2011 piece in The Guardian, she wrote as follows:
Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of newly independent Congo, was the second of five leaders of independence movements in African countries to be assassinated in the 1960s by their former colonial masters, or their agents. A sixth, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, was ousted in a western-backed coup in 1966, and a seventh, Amilcar Cabral, leader of the west African liberation movement against Portugal of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde or PAIGC) in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, was assassinated in 1973.
Lumumba’s death in 1961 followed on from that of the opposition leader of Cameroon, Felix Moumie, poisoned in 1960. Sylvanus Olympio, leader of Togo was killed in 1963. Mehdi Ben Barka, leader of the Moroccan opposition movement was kidnapped in France in 1965 and his body never found. Eduardo Mondlane, leader of Mozambique’s Frelimo, fighting for independence from the Portuguese, died from a parcel bomb in 1969.
But, Brittain was yet to deliver the clincher. She did in the portion of her piece which said “The loss 50 years ago of this group of leaders, who all knew each other, and had a common political project based on national dignity, crippled each of their countries, and the African continent. The effects are still evident today”.
Brittain chose her words so well that her piece is still worth quoting more, perhaps at the risk of infracting on the protocol on quoting: Ben Barka and Cabral were revolutionary theoreticians – as significant as Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. Their influence reverberated far beyond their own continent. At the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, organised by Ben Barka before his death, Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s closing speech referred to “one of the most lucid and brilliant leaders in Africa, Comrade Amílcar Cabral, who instilled in us tremendous confidence in the future and the success of his struggle for liberation.”
The Third World Movement, challenging the economic and political world dominance of the colonial powers, the US, and the neocolonial leaders favoured by the west, would have two short decades of ambition and optimism despite the long shadow of its great leaders’ deaths.
Today, it is impossible to touch down at the (far from modernised) airport of Lubumbashi in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo – in 1961 known as Elizabethville, in Congo (then renamed Zaire) – without a shiver of recollection of the haunting photograph taken of Lumumba there shortly before his assassination, and after beatings, torture and a long, long flight in custody across the vast country which had so loved him. This particular failure of the United Nations to protect one man and his two colleagues was every bit as significant as that in Srebrenica in 1995, when 8,000 men and boys were killed.
Lumumba’s own words, written to his wife just four months after the exhilaration of independence day in the capital Kinshasa are a reminder of who he was and why he meant so much to so many people then, and still does today.
“Dead, living, free, or in prison on the orders of the colonialists, it is not I who counts. It is the Congo, it is our people for whom independence has been transformed into a cage where we are regarded from the outside… History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington, or the United Nations will teach, but that which they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets… a history of glory and dignity”.
It is an unbeatable piece that only Lady Brittain could have written. However, what Brittain and other radical writers have not paid sufficient attention must be the question why these early African leaders were, with the exception of Mugabe, dispatched to the great beyond by traitors. The overthrow of Lumumba was organised by his own appointee, Mobutu. Nkrumah was overthrown by his own appointees. Thomas Sankara was overthrown by his fellow traveler.
How could it have happened to Cabral shortly after he had been talking on the theme of “the cancer of betrayal” at Nkrumah’s memorial? (Portuguese) colonialism was so systematic? But it was not that systematic against Castro although it was against Allende in Chile who was not in the mould of Castro, having come to power through the electoral route.
The second item missing from the reflections on that generation of African leaders must be why there would be a thesis such as “African Socialism: The theory and practice of Kwame Nkrumah” in say, the Australian National University, Canberra but hardly such stuff nowadays in many African universities where Entrepreneurial Studies or Marketing, for instances, might enjoy higher ranking in the budget than African Political Thought? Europeans rather than Africans are studying African self-understanding as articulated by leading African theoreticians. African Studies, for instance, is more developed in the United States than anywhere on the African continent.
This cannot just be about relatively wealthier American universities than African universities. It must be more about priorities. And there might lie the real tragedy – that Africa is not that strong about knowing itself and has not developed the capacity for unending self-engagement that can produce the knowledge to underpin the African moment in History. That moment can never be realised on the basis of lamentations about the evils of colonialism. That’s not enough. Other people were also colonised, perhaps not as horribly as the Africans but colonised all the same.
History is not always about what happened but more about how what happened is narrated. Lack of capacity for narrativisation of History is the gap in the African struggle for liberation. In the absence of the ‘narrative turn’ in History studies, the jumping up and down in Nigeria, for example, because History has been restored to the curriculum will amount to nothing in the end. Narrative History is the new form of guerilla warfare!
May the spirit of Cabral speak to Africa!