Amílcar Lopes da Costa Cabral was born 12 September 1924 in Bafatá, Guinea-Bissau, to Cape Verdean parents, Juvenal Antònio Lopes da Costa Cabral and Iva Pinhel Évora, both from São Tiago, Cape Verde. His father came from a wealthy land-owning family. His mother was a shop owner and worked in a hotel in order to support her family, especially after she separated from Amílcar’s father by 1929.
He enrolled for schooling at Liceu (secondary school) Gil Eanes in the town of Mindelo, Cape Verde, and later at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia, in Lisbon (the capital of Portugal, which was then the colonial power ruling over Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde). As a student in Lisbon, Cabral was involved in student movements who pressured against the ruling dictatorship of Portugal and promoted the cause of independence for the Portuguese colonies in Africa.
In 1952, Cabral returned to Bissau to work for the Agricultural and Forestry Services of Portuguese Guinea. The next year he was commissioned to conduct a government-sanctioned agricultural survey of the colony. After a year of traveling through rural Guinea, Cabral became convinced that independence would be possible only through military engagement.
Due to Cabral’s anti-colonialist activities, in 1955, the Governor of Guinea-Bissau insisted he leave the colony, and Cabral moved to Angola to join the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). On 19 September 1956 during a clandestine visit to Ghana, Cabral, along with his half-brother Luís Cabral, Júlio de Almeira, Fernando Fortes, and Elisée Turpin, founded the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde and Guinea (PAIGC).
Politics and war for independence
In 1960, with permission from President Kwame Nkrumah, Cabral established military training camps in Ghana for PAIGC guerilla forces. Cabral trained his lieutenants through various techniques, including mock conversations to provide them with effective communication skills that would aid their efforts to mobilise Guinean tribal chiefs to support the PAIGC.
Cabral realised the war effort could be sustained only if his troops could be fed and taught to live off the land alongside the larger populace. Being an agronomist, he taught his troops to teach local crop growers better farming techniques, so that they could increase productivity and be able to feed their own family and tribe, as well as the soldiers enlisted in the PAIGC’s military wing. When not fighting, PAIGC soldiers would till and plough the fields alongside the local population. Cabral and PAIGC members emphasised pan-Africanism and the importance of building a rural nationalist movement that could give rise to a stable, independent state. By 1962, PAIGC was involved in guerilla attacks on the Portuguese government. Open war was declared on 23 January 1963.
Cabral led the PAIGC’s guerrilla movement (in Portuguese Guinea) against the Portuguese government, which evolved into one of the most successful wars of independence in modern African history. The goal of the conflict was to attain independence for both Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde. Over the course of the conflict, as the movement captured territory from the Portuguese, Cabral became the de facto leader of a large portion of what became Guinea-Bissau.
Cabral and the PAIGC also set up a trade-and-barter bazaar system that moved around the country and made staple goods available to the countryside at prices lower than that of colonial store owners. During the war, Cabral also set up a roving hospital and triage station to supply medical care to wounded PAIGC soldiers and quality-of-life care to the larger populace, relying on medical supplies garnered from the USSR and Sweden
By 1966 the PAIGC had claimed control of over sixty percent of Guinea-Bissau. After significant military victories in 1972, Cabral began formal preparations for an independent Guinea. On 20 January 1973, however, he was assassinated by PAIGC naval commander Inocêncio Kani and Portuguese agents at the PAIGC headquarters in Conakry.
Cabral’s assassination was part of a broader attempt to establish a PAIGC leadership more conciliatory towards the Portuguese. The assassination took place on 20 January 1973 in Conakry, Guinea. About one hundred officers and guerrilla soldiers of the PAIGC accused of involvement in the conspiracy that resulted in the murder of Cabral and the attempt to seize power in the movement, were summarily executed. The liberation movement continued with PAIGC leadership taking office in October of 1974 after democratic elections delivered PAIGC 90% of the popular vote. Amílcar’s half-brother Luís Cabral became the first president of Guinea-Bissau.
Cabral was assassinated prior to the independence of the Portuguese colonies in Africa, and therefore died before he could see his homelands of Cabo Verde and Guinea Bissau gain independence from Portugal.
Amilcar Cabral was a staunch pan-Africanist who advocated for the severing of all colonial ties from Africa. He was also influenced by Marxist ideas. As an intellectual and activist, he was one of the few African leaders who mastered the art of revolutionary theory and action praxis. Much in the same way Kwame Nkrumah and later Thomas Sankara did. He stressed that revolutionaries must not fight for ideas alone, but for material benefits, improved conditions, and a better future for children. This dynamic is expressed in his speeches and writings where he speaks against Africa’s situation, and also his ability to wage a military war against Portuguese colonialists.
Cabral believed the liberation of Africa goes beyond the attainment for independence. In his speech titled National Liberation and Culture, he critiqued colonialism and neocolonialism hidden under the veil of democracy:
The broad experience of mankind allows us to postulate that it has no practical viability: it is not possible to harmonise the economic and political domination of a people, whatever may be the degree of their social development, with the preservation of their cultural personality. In order to escape this choice – which may be called the dilemma of cultural resistance- imperialist colonial domination has tried to create theories which, in fact, are only gross formulations of racism, and which, in practice, are translated into a permanent state of siege of the indigenous populations on the basis of racist dictatorship (or democracy). This, for example, is the case with the so-called theory of progressive assimilation of native populations, which turns out to be only a more or less violent attempt to deny the culture of the people in question. The utter failure of this theory, implemented and practiced by several colonial powers, including Portugal, is the most obvious proof of its lack of viability, if not of its inhumane character. It attains the highest degree of absurdity in the Portuguese case, where Salazar affirmed that Africa does not exist.”
Even though Cabral died eight months before the Guinea-Bissau saw its independence decreed, he played an integral role in the struggle towards that attainment. Cabral would also miss the chance to witness his brother Luis Cabral become the first president of Guinea-Bissau after changing its name from Portuguese Guinea. However, it is likely that had he not died, the position of president would have been bestowed upon him. His thinking contributed significantly to anti-imperialist, socialist, pan-Africanist and revolutionary nationalist ideologies. Cabral’s thoughts have also been useful in the advancement of post-colonial and black cultural studies. Scholars such as Robert Blackey have meditated on his intellectual contributions to the liberation of Africa.
Patrick Chabal, in ‘Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War’, sums up Cabral’s legacy succinctly: “In less than twenty years of active political life, Cabral led Guinea-Bissau’s nationalists to the most complete political and military success ever achieved by an African political movement against a colonial power. At the time of his death in 1973, months before Guinea-Bissau became independent, his influence extended well beyond the Lusophone world and Africa. Friends and foes alike admired his political acumen and skills and saw in him a potential leader of the non-aligned movement. His writings have shown him to be a sophisticated analyst of the social, economic and political factors which have affected and continue to affect the developing world.”
The Journal of Modern African Studies