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There can be no doubt that Amilcar Cabral is the most original political and revolutionary thinker Africa has produced in modern times. What is often overlooked and less well known is that Cabral was

an innovative and important military thinker within the context of Africa and the Third World. The purpose of this essay is to examine and extract through Cabral's writings and related scholarship his key politico-military strategies which enabled him to lead the African Independence Party for the liberation of Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands (PAIGC) to victory over the Portuguese colonialists. It is the contention of this study that a successful socialist revolution is unlikely to take place anywhere in Africa without African revolutionaries learning some of the political and military lessons of Amilcar Cabral.

When one realizes the enormous odds against a successful anti-colonial insurgency in Guinea Bissau during the early 1960's the implications for future socialist insurgencies in Africa are positive. Amilcar Cabral led a tiny African coastal enclave of 600,000 people - 99 percent. illiterate with only fourteen university graduates in the entire country, about two-fifths the size of Portugal - against a modern Portuguese military force considerably larger proportionately than the American expeditionary force in Vietnam during the late 1960's. In addition, Portugal had substantial support throughout most of the war (1962-1974) from its NATO allies. NATO was at that time and still is the most powerful military alliance in the world. The PAIGC could not hope, initially, to match materially the resources of the colonial armed forces. But according to Cabral, 'victory in a national liberation struggle is the result of human forces and only secondly of material resources'. Victory would depend first and foremost upon the determination of the people of Guinea and Cape Verde to throw off the colonial yoke.'

Three years after its founding in 1956, the PAIGC organized a strike by dockworkers in Bissau, the capital city. This strike led to the massacre of 50 dockworkers at Pidgiguiti on August 3, 1959. After the massacre, Cabral and his associates decided that the Guineans could not hope to gain independence from the Portuguese through peaceful means. The PAIGC left a small clandestine organization in Bissau and other towns and departed for the countryside to politicize the peasants. For Cabral and his comrades realized that the peasants would have to undergo political mobilization before armed struggle could be conducted successfully.

By political mobilization Cabral meant that the peasantry had to be organized effectively as participants in the many ways necessary to facilitate the national liberation struggle against the Portuguese colonialists. Fortunately, Cabral was uniquely qualified to lead the political mobilization effort among the peasantry in Guinea Bissau. Cabral was a trained agronomist. And in this capacity in 1954, he conducted a countrywide agricultural census under the auspices of the Portuguese colonial regime. This project enabled him to visit all the ethnic groups in every section of the colony. Cabral was able to learn, analyze and assess the various economic systems, customs and traditions of the many different ethnic groups within Guinea Bissau. He was undoubtedly the most knowledgeable person about the colony at the beginning of the armed struggle in 1962. His knowledge gave him a unique advantage in orchestrating the colonial revolution because he understood the realities of Guinea society. Cabral wisely stated, "It is impossible to establish effective armed struggle ... unless we really know our reality" and "start out from our reality to wage the struggle."

Always the realist, he recognized it would take years to sufficiently explain the realities and need for revolution to a reluctant and skeptical peasantry. True enough, the peasants were the main force in the colony - 'a great physical force' - but in 1959 not yet a revolutionary force. In 1960 when Cabral began training cadres (revolutionary political workers) in Conakry to go into Guinea Bissau to politicize and mobilize the peasants he gave the following astute advice:
Remember always that the people do not fight for ideas, for things that only exist in the heads of individuals. The people fight and they accept the necessary sacrifices. But they do it in order to gain material advantages, to live in peace and to improve their lives, to experience progress, and to be able to guarantee a future to their children.
Cabral would rehearse the cadres sometimes as much as 'several times' in the proper way to contact the elders (homens grandes) in the villages. Even the arguments to use with the elders were selected during these simulated exercises. According to the PAIGC's political worker, Antonio Bana:
Before going into a village to meet the elder, we asked for information about him. You had to be very careful. You found out about his everyday life, his standing in the village, his relations with the Portuguese...

The political mobilization process involved hundreds of meetings and discussions with the village elders and peasants.

Cabral had the cadres facilitate discussions on all matters relevant to the national liberation struggle with the villagers. This was the preparatory work necessary to mobilize the rural population for participation in the armed struggle. Probably the greatest asset Cabral had during this period was patience. For he realized that painstaking patience and preparation were essential elements of a successful revolution. In 1960 Cabral and the PAIGC was 'roundly criticized' by the great African revolutionary theorist Frantz Fanon for not plunging right away into war in Guinea Bissau. Cabral stated his position on the matter as follows: It is better to begin the armed struggle with an apparent delay, but with guarantees of being able to continue, than to start at some premature moment, before we have established all the conditions to ensure its continuity and victory for our people.

Cabral understood the realities of Guinea Bissau better than Fanon and wisely waited until 1962 to begin the war of national liberation. 'On the night of June 30-July 1, 1962, a series of sabotage raids was carried out from bases in Guinea.' In his study of the colonial guerrilla war the revolutionary expert Dr. Gerard Chaliand states that:
In August and September 1962, the fourth conference of Party cadres convened in Conakry and decided to expand the armed struggle at all costs. So it came about that by January 1963 a broad guerrilla campaign had been launched in the southern half of the country.

According to Dr. Jock McColloch, Cabral used 'a centrifugal strategy, the guerrillas moved from the middle towards the periphery as the struggle gathered momentum'. This strategy was a major innovation which had the benefit of catching the Portuguese completely unaware. Since the initial sabotage raids came from bases in the Republic of Guinea the Portuguese obviously felt the guerrillas would operate out of that nation or Senegal which also seemed an attractive sanctuary for the insurgents.

To Cabral all military activities and actions were to further the political objectives of the war which were the liberation of Guinea Bissau and the building of a socialist society. Toward this end all members of the armed forces were made members of the party (PAIGC). This was an innovation atypical of socialist revolutions outside Africa.

Early on in the military conflict with the Portuguese colonialists some PAIGC commanders degenerated into warlordism, using their positions for personal aggrandizement. At the Cassaca Congress in 1964 those PAIGC cadres found guilty of abusing their authority were banished, incarcerated, or eliminated - depending on the gravity of their crimes. The actions taken at the Cassaca Congress enabled Cabral to establish the supremacy of the party over the military. The lines of authority were firmly organized from Cabral and the executive leadership down to the combatants in the field. Cabral asserted that "every combatant must have {a} twofold discipline: he must have the discipline of a conscientious militant of our party and the military discipline of a member of our armed forces."

The fact that the political struggle was paramount over the military struggle was never allowed to be forgotten by anyone in the liberation movement. The eminent British historian Basil Davidson best summarized how this was done when he said: Political commissars were found to be indispensable, and were appointed alongside commanders at every level of organization. The need for them was both tactical and strategic. It was tactical because successful units in a liberation war had to be highly democratic units. Such units were composed of volunteers, never conscripts .., whose motives were primarily political and whose morale and effectiveness depended, invariably, on ... well-conducted discussion.

In addition the commissars looked after the welfare of the armed militants and secured food supplies. Cabral innovatively had the commissars oversee the cultivation of fields by the combatants during lulls in fighting activities. Also, whenever possible, the guerrillas were expected to help the peasants, under the watchful eye of the commissar, cultivate and harvest crops. Cabral had the commissars stressed the fact that guerrillas were servants of the people. Seizing and always maintaining the initiative was continually preached to the guerrillas by Cabral. It was what Davidson has characterized as the "strategic initiative" - "the power to impose on one's opponent the key decisions which dictate the ways in which the contest takes shape, develops over time, and moves from one phase to the next." As the guerrillas made progress in liberating land and acquiring new, more sophisticated, and lethal weapons, Cabral and the party leadership would innovatively transform the military and political structures to take advantage of the new realities and better prepare for the next phase of the struggle.
At every phase of the struggle the liberation forces could not maintain the initiative without good intelligence on the strength and activities of the Portuguese armed forces. One of Cabral's directives explained the need for good intelligence: Avoid going into any action blindfold, without knowing the enemy strength. Try to find out, both about the barracks and about the area in general, what is the mood of the enemy forces, their morale, their capability, their will to fight ... know as much as you can about the weapons the enemy possesses, their means of transport, their fuel stores, where they obtain their drinking water, etc. Each responsible worker must remember that acting against an unknown enemy is like going into a dark room, full of obstacles, but without being able to turn on a light.

Likewise, it was important according to Cabral for the liberation forces to have precise knowledge of their own strength. That is, what were their capabilities in a given military situation vis a vis their manpower and weaponry. The commanders were to know the number of men available in a unit and their individual abilities and capacities to fight in a combat situation. Commanders were to make daily "inventory" of their manpower and weaponry. The party leader admonished the armed militants to "never do less than we can and should do, but never attempt to do something which we are not yet really on a condition to do."

Cabral's concept of a clean yet total war was essentially the way the colonial revolution in Guinea Bissau was conducted. The war was clean in the sense that there was no attempt to target or terrorize civilians either black or white. However, spies or agents of the Portuguese colonialists were dealt with severely. On the other hand Cabral and the PAIGC waged a very thorough war in their effort to destroy anything that could be of assistance or value to the Portuguese. Here is how he describes his concept of total war:
Every responsible worker and every militant of our Party, every element of the population in our land in Guinea and Cape Verde, should be aware that our struggle is not only waged on the political level and on the military level. Our struggle - our resistance - must be waged on all levels of the life of our people. We must destroy everything the enemy can use to continue their domination over our people, but at the same time we must be able to construct everything that is needed to create a new life in our land.

It was essential for the nationalists to create a new and better life for the peasants in the liberated zones. It was, as Cabral understood, a crucial politico-military strategy. For if the PAIGC allowed living conditions to remain the same or deteriorate in the liberated zones, the peasants would see no benefit in continuing the struggle. After all, what were they fighting for, if not a better life? To have the struggle sustain itself and grow it was necessary to improve the life of the peasants, something Portuguese colonialism had never done.

The creation of the Peoples Stores was the most innovative element in this politico-military strategy of solidifying support for the armed struggle. According to Dr. Mustafah Dhada, an expert on the colonial revolution, these Peoples Stores "were retail outlets authorized by the party to exchange agricultural produce and raw materials for consumer goods." Professor Dhada further states that:
The consumer goods sold at people's stores were numerous: batteries, bicycles, blankets, canned milk, cigarettes, clothing, cooking utensils, fish conserves, fish fillets, fishhooks and lines, hoes, hoe blades, knives, margarine, matches, mosquito net cloth, plastic sandals, pots, salt, saucepans, scythes, sewing machines, shoes, soap, sugar, tobacco and torches. The strategic success and importance of the Peoples Stores was recognized by the Portuguese - especially General Spinola the colonial governor of Guinea Bissau when he made "efforts to compete with [the] people's stores by greatly reducing the price of goods in areas which [had] not yet been liberated." "We must successfully counter the competition" asserted Cabral.

Three other innovations were important in creating a better life for the population in the liberated areas:
1) a justice system,
2) a health care system and
3) an education system. The judges were chosen democratically from among the villagers.

This served to provide a fair and equitable peer system of justice which was lacking under the Portuguese colonial system. Remarkably, Cabral was able to attain through international assistance sufficient medicines, equipment, training and personnel to create a satisfactory and efficient network of clinics and hospitals to serve the needs of the armed forces and peasants. One should remember while it was initially possible to get some brave souls to launch the military struggle without adequate medical care - it would have been impossible to get thousands of peasants committed without some medical assistance for the wounded. Merely providing an adequate medical support system did not encourage Cabral to risk high casualties. He constantly exhorted guerrillas to maximize casualties and damage to the enemy while minimizing their own. Painstaking plans were outlined and carefully discussed before an ambush was set or a Portuguese outpost attacked. Even the death of one combatant in such action was considered a grievous loss.
Cabral recognized that no innovation had more long term impact on armed struggle and nation building than the creation of an educational system. For it was through education that the people would be inculcated with the spirit of sacrifice and commitment necessary to join the revolution and armed struggle. Education in the liberated areas or Conakry would prepare the young people for training as doctors and nurses - so that they could lower the infant mortality rate or care for the war wounded. Education would provide the youths with an understanding of their relationship to Portuguese colonialism and western imperialism. The necessary vision and skills for a better future could only come through education.

The crowning jewel of Cabral's politico-military strategy was holding free and democratic elections in the liberated areas of Guinea Bissau pursuant to a unilateral declaration of independence by the nationalists. Although Cabral was assassinated in January 1973 (after the elections, but before the declaration of an independent Guinea Bissau in September 1973), his visionary and innovative strategy was a success. Upon the declaration of independence by the national assembly "almost one hundred countries" recognized a sovereign and independent Guinea Bissau. This recognition of the PAIGC government had the potent impact of demoralizing the Portuguese military forces, thus helping to hasten the overthrow of the fascist Portuguese regime by its armed forces.

While only some key elements of Cabral's revolutionary strategy have been presented here, one can get an idea of the systematic and thorough way Cabral conducted the armed struggle in Guinea Bissau. Can African socialists hope to attain success without learning these politico-military lessons? Certainly not! For example, without proper political mobilization of peasants any African socialist insurgency is doomed to failure. African revolutionary socialist movements unable to improve or maintain the standard of living in the areas under their control are unlikely to progress to power. Without developing an educational system alongside the armed struggle, the effort toward a socialist society will flounder or peter out.

One cannot forget that the odds against African socialist insurgencies, in many ways, are even greater now than during Cabral's time, because we are no longer in a bipolar world. With the demise of the Soviet Union the type of military assistance Cabral was able to attain is no longer available to African socialists.
However, even in a unipolar world Cabral's politico-military strategies are relevant. To a certain extent those strategies were applied in southern Africa against imperialist backed forces with considerable success. While the Soviet Union will no longer be a factor in the future for socialist movements in Africa, in the 21st century living and working conditions are likely to deteriorate to the point that they will inspire and greatly facilitate socialist insurgencies against neo-colonial regimes on the continent. This is why one can say Amilcar Cabral is more relevant to Africa's future than to its past.

Author/s: Sylvester Cohen
Issue: Dec, 1998
Sylvester Cohen is an associate professor of History at Florida A&M University. In 1998 he was one of those chosen as FAMU's "Teacher of the Year." In 1977 he received his Doctor of Arts in history from Carnegie-Mellon University.

 

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