African History without Africans

Basil Davidson

  • The Lusiads by Luí Vaz de Camões, translated by Landeg White
    Oxford, 258 pp, £6.99, October 1997, ISBN 0 19 283191 7
  • Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War, 1961-1974 by John Cann
    Greenwood, 216 pp, US $59.95, February 1998, ISBN 0 313 30189 1
  • The Decolonisation of Portuguese Africa by Norrie MacQueen
    Longman, 280 pp, £15.99, February 1998, ISBN 0 582 25993 2
  • African Guerrillas edited by Christopher Clapham
    James Currey, 208 pp, £40.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 85255 815 5

In Canto Four of Camões’s 16th-century epic, as Vasco da Gama and the men of his fleet prepare to embark on their conquest of the Golden East, ‘an old man of venerable appearance’ steps down to the quayside of Belem. Solemnly, if fruitlessly, he warns against their enterprise of imperialist piracy:

– O pride of power! O futile lust
For that vanity known as fame!
That hollow conceit which puffs itself up
And which popular cant calls honour!
What punishment, what poetic justice,
You exact on souls that pursue you!
To what deaths, what miseries you condemn
Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them! ...
To what new catastrophes do you plan
To drag this kingdom and these people?
What perils, what deaths have you in store,
Under what magniloquent title?
What visions of kingdoms and gold-mines
Will you guide them to infallibly?
What fame do you promise them? What stories?
What conquests and processions? What glories?

The answers were to be grim and many. Now, in our happily inglorious days, we have them again, in Landeg White’s new English version of Os Lusíadas. This is admirably done, being neither rumbustious nor boastful but shrewdly suited to the spirit of a modern readership. Above all, perhaps, it comes most appropriately for the winding up of Portugal’s empire, five hundred years after da Gama’s departure and four hundred since The Lusiads were first published. The formal ending of that far-flung empire will be marked in December 1999 with the restoration to China of the port of Macau.

In Africa, where the Lusophone territories won their independence in 1975, reasons for rejoicing were much reduced by the grim aftermath of Portugal’s departure in Angola, the largest and, in many ways, the most important of her African possessions. Across much of the country, chaos and misery followed the outbreak of a disastrous civil war encouraged and promoted in large part by the policies and interventions of the United States at the time of Reagan and his associates. The story remains both complex and contradictory; but calculations of US advantage deriving from the Cold War have been regularly and repeatedly at the heart of the Angolan catastrophe. Here the concept of a national liberation has simply broken down: a national government in name functions by reliance on offshore oil resources while a breakaway rebellion led by the always destructive Jonas Savimbi, in largely up-country Ovimbundu areas, continues to finance itself through the sale of diamonds. Setting all this to rights must accordingly call for another, no doubt painful readjustment of loyalties, and of this there is at present little or no sign. Meanwhile, all thought of peace and development on a national scale will remain beyond reach. The tragedy is real and deepening.

The Portuguese in Portugal can scarcely be held responsible for this grim dénouement. Having ended their one great imperialist adventure they have indulged in no hankering for another. It remains the case, of course, that a great deal of rubbish has been written, and is still being written, about the wisdom and triumph of the imperialist leaders and dictators of Portugal; and a new celebration by John Cann demonstrates this strange revival. But the manner of the winding-up of the Portuguese African empire, as its records prove, was in fact a triumph for anti-imperialist good sense. Whether it will be remembered as such outside (or even inside) Portugal is quite another thing and Cann’s argument confirms that we shall do well to recover the actual record before other ‘Lisbon revisionists’ get into their stride. Cann claims that the Portuguese armies under the fascist general staff bequeathed by Salazar were victorious in their long bush war against the African nationalists of Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), Angola and Mozambique, but were eventually betrayed at home by a regime that had lost its stomach for repression. The Portuguese withdrawal of 1974-75 was in Cann’s view a shameful democratic defeat, and any attempt to show the contrary must be seen as a subversive fiction.

The absurdity of this latter-day revisionism is clear from extensive documentation available from many different sources, and Cann will have to abandon his practice of consulting only those who agree with his a priori thesis. In The Decolonisation of Portuguese Africa, Norrie MacQueen gives a more dependable account of the end of the Portuguese empire, seeing this great drama as a many-sided and complex affair. Yet if his version of what happened in the tumultuous years 1961-75 is careful and conscientious so far as the Lisbon records (of one kind or another) are concerned, he remains almost as blind as Cann whenever the other side of the story, the African side, is in question. The African records, it is true, come less easily to hand, and are always less copious, but they are available. The briefest list of sources written on the African side by those who led or directly observed these wars will include Unity and Struggle by Amilcar Cabral (1980), Un Amplo Movimento (1997), a range of early papers and letters concerning Angola, collected by Lucio and Ruth Lara, and The Struggle for Mozambique (1969) by Eduardo Mondlane. Important as direct testimony is my own memoir of the years 1960-80, published in 1969 as The Liberation of Guinea and republished in a somewhat extended version, No Fist is Big Enough to Hide the Sky, in 1981. There is also much good sociological commentary, most notably Lars Rudebeck’s Guinea-Bissau: A Study of Political Mobilisation (1974) and Guinea-Bissau: From Liberation Struggle to Independent Statehood (1987) by Carlos Lopes. As these writings tell the story from an obviously anti-imperialist standpoint, Cann barely bothers to mention them, and even MacQueen, although for better prepared and supervised, is apparently ill at ease with non-Portuguese sources.

Reading MacQueen and Cann, I was sadly reminded of some remarks made by Roland Oliver. Looking back in 1997 over his long and influential career of academic and practical innovation in African historiography, Oliver felt obliged to note that ‘Europe seemed to be turning increasingly inwards’ to the general disadvantage of studies about Africa; and there is no doubt that he is right. The consequences of this turning away from African studies, to some extent the result of financial shortages, are painfully obvious. What we are getting, more and more, is reliance on library reading rather than immersion in the field, so that MacQueen can write to his own satisfaction about the long and painful demise of the Portuguese empire without much care for what it all felt like and meant to the people at the sharp end, whether Portuguese or African. In the realm of newspaper journalism, too, a reduction in the range of evidential relevance means that we are introduced by one or other hasty foray to this or that ‘crisis’ with its approved name-labels, such as – most recently – those of Laurent Kabila and his colleagues in Congo. So far as useful explication has been concerned, we are back – alas, without the fun – to Scoop. Poor Kabila was for some twenty years the victim of resolute editorial indifference while he sat out the excruciatingly delayed removal of Mobutu Sese Seko; and nobody (one or two crazy enthusiasts apart) seems ever to have sent him any messages of inquiry, until one day he is found to be quietly making history all on his own. It may turn out to have done him no good, but his case remains a salutary warning to anyone who persists in writing the history of Africa without the Africans.

Any explication of the ending of Lisbon’s colonial wars has to be centred on the coup of 25 April 1974, when well-organised groups of fairly junior officers and a large number of sergeants and other NCOs in Portugal and in Africa decided that the endless wars in which they were engaged must be brought to an end, and declared for ‘decolonisation and democratisation’, the second being considered unobtainable without the first. In the case of Portuguese Guinea, small but crucial as it proved, there was no dissent and no trouble among the troops, who well knew that they had fought hardest and longest and were now determined to conclude hostilities without allowing Portugal to suffer humiliation. This resolve marked the origin of the true revolution that immediately followed: not in Lisbon or any part of Portugal, where the legacy and cultural influence of the ousted regime stayed obtusely unshaken, but among the men of their armies in Africa.

Three months after the coup in Lisbon, on 29 July 1974, the crucial date in all that now unfolded, the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) met in territorial assembly in Guinea (there was no comparable development in Angola or Mozambique) and passed, without protest or dissent, a memorable and decisive resolution which said that ‘the colonised peoples and the people of Portugal are allies. The struggle for national liberation has contributed powerfully to the overthrow of fascism and, in large degree, has lain at the base of our Movement, whose officers have understood the roots of the evils which afflict the society of Portugal.’ Behind these remarkable words stood a marathon of argument, discussion and eventual agreement among the troops concerned, all the more remarkable in that these were scattered, in Guinea, in some 225 garrisons besieged by encircling forces of the territory’s African nationalist movement, the PAIGC.

None of this appears in the narrative accounts by Cann and MacQueen, nor has anyone in Portugal, to my knowledge, recorded these circumstances. The only objection at the time came from Bethencourt Rodrigues, the Governor (and commanding general) in Guinea. The MFA captains and sergeants, finding him ready to persist in the war, put him on a plane for Lisbon and told him not to come back. He was replaced by a colonel called Fabião, who at once denied a fire-eating reputation and agreed to the peace-making decisions of the MFA, who promptly concentrated all garrisons on the capital, Bissau, and evacuated the men by sea. Those troops departed singing. I happened to be there at the time and saw the process at close quarters. That this was an extraordinary and perhaps unique process of peace-making seemed very clear, for the 30,000-odd soldiers of Portugal remained firm in their discipline, ensuring that their officers were able to move about as they wished and suffer no sabotage by the political police (PIDE) of the former dictatorship. Most of PIDE’s agents were by now, in any case, hastening to hide or conceal their past. Colonel Fabião performed the amiable feat of entirely changing his tune, explaining to me during a brief interview at his headquarters that he, too, was going home ‘to help along the revolution’. And there was peace.

The truce arranged by the PAIGC leader Aristides Pereira, who had taken over the nationalist leadership following the murder of Amilcar Cabral by dissidents in neighbouring Conakry, held firm until a formal peace could be declared a little later. Cabral’s replacement, his brother Luís, arrived meanwhile from the bush. ‘You have seen,’ he said to me, ‘that we have fought our war for national independence without hatred for the people of Portugal, and we are ending it now without hatred.’ In the same interview, speaking as Pereira’s deputy, he said: ‘we believe we have a great responsibility to end this struggle’ – begun 14 years earlier – ‘in an orderly and humane way: not only for our own country’s sake, but also as a useful precedent in helping the Portuguese to follow suit in Angola and Mozambique.’ None of this finds echoes in the pages of Cann or MacQueen, yet it is crucial. For what the dénouement in Guinea showed beyond any doubt was the unfolding of a triumph for the Portuguese on the ground as well as for the Africans, such as could only be revealed by collecting evidence on the spot or, failing that, soon afterwards. Neither Cann nor MacQueen could do this, being otherwise occupied, but they could if they wished have studied the published records, the most important of which were easily available at the time of their research. It is rather as though these historians were writing in times when Africa, as in the 19th century, remained a mysterious drama beyond the range of any normal experience or inquiry.

And yet the evidence is such as to move a heart of stone. Understanding this Africa required a rare degree of empathy; and if you venture on writing about wars, no matter whose ‘side’ you may privately prefer, such empathy is not dispensable. The Portuguese troops who fought and survived the 14-year war, perhaps especially in the very tough case of Guinea, had to endure bitter deprivations over long periods, and their casualties, as the official figures confirm, were not low. They were, as I said, by no means a defeated army and when in 1974 they decided to take matters into their own hands, they did so without malice towards their African enemies. Cann and MacQueen seem unaware of this, just as they seem unaware of the yawning mental and moral gap between the young Portuguese officers and their men, on the one hand, and the extremism of their fascist generals and political spokesmen, on the other. The making of peace in Guinea-Bissau and Portugal’s other African possessions was a remarkable moment in European history – in Iberian terms, a unique moment – and perhaps one had to be there at the time to measure the depth of its resonance.

On the African side of these withdrawals, the cultural revolution involved in making this war for independence, and of concluding it with such success, was extremely demanding. The young Africans who achieved that success had to measure up to a very testing challenge. It was always difficult and sometimes too difficult for those who participated. Sometimes they collapsed into violent confusion and self-contradiction. But in the PAIGC and its companion movements in Angola and Mozambique lapses were exceptional. Those who persisted had to have driven themselves through formidable barriers of discouragement, insisting on disciplined tactics at the expense of ingrained beliefs in magic and divination, on weapons-training and hardheaded planning at the expense of superstitious guesswork, and yet manage to stay afloat in unfamiliar and dangerous waters – all this while surviving in the field against a Portuguese enemy who was always able to count on material support from Nato. The soldiers of the PAIGC and their companions had comparatively meagre resources with which to offset the prospect of defeat. These wars imposed a constant sense of danger, material deprivation, acute loneliness and, from time to time, fearful onsets of despair. The strain and weariness of all this, along with hunger and grinding uncertainty as to what the coming hours might bring, became a drag on the limbs and a weight on the mind. The young men who could survive all this, and continue to survive it, were those who won the war. Meanwhile they lived as the hunters or the hunted, moving in the bush with the skills of the wild animals they grew to understand so well: sympathising even with the snakes, braving old beliefs and hallowed taboos while fending off the demoralising rumours and intrigues that can flourish at such times of intense strain.

One cannot decently expect academic tourists to get very far into such remote matters, least of all when they do not care to travel off the beaten track. Africans have written rather little for want of the habits of literacy, although the exceptions in the case of the Portuguese wars are ones which MacQueen might well have noticed. Where there has been literacy among combatants, as in the Algerian war of independence – or simply oral testimony – relevant writing and recording of Africa’s many guerrilla wars has been helpful. There is, for example, the FLN commander Abdel Kadir Laribi’s memoir of the ferocious conditions imposed during French assaults across the Colo ‘peninsula’ of Philippeville – a memoir that loses nothing for its having been set down in Serbo-Croat. Laribi recalled, for Alzir do Nezavisnosti (1967), Zdravko Pecar’s unique book on the Algerian war, that ‘towards the end’ of the French hunt for Algerian partisans,

we had nothing to eat, and so we followed French columns and gathered the waste food they threw away. But then they realised what we were doing, and buried their waste food. For us there was nothing left save to eat grass, but then they drove us into places where there was no grass. And then they began to burn down whole forests, leaving us only scattered hilltops. And finally they burned those too, surrounding them and shooting to kill everything that tried to save itself, whether animals or human beings.

Pecar’s very competent but rare account greatly deserves translation into English, being the counterpart, on the Algerian side, of Alastair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace. Pecar had been a partisan in the Yugoslav war of liberation, and well knew what he was writing about.

I had watched Portugal’s armies in Guinea depart in peace during that long summer of 1974, and in due course the moment came for me to go home. That could be safely done by way of the French airline connecting Conakry with Paris, but it meant going back through the bush from Bissau. ‘No,’ my friends in the PAIGC advised, ‘go by Cape Verde and Lisbon, much quicker and less bother.’ This was undeniable, but would the Portuguese police and other such hostile authorities let me in, or indeed out again? ‘No problem: everything’s changed.’ So I sat in that TAP plane and wondered if this time I wasn’t pushing my luck too far. But I soon learned better. Confirming an onward flight to Heathrow, I found a Lisbon ticket clerk suddenly wreathed in smiles. ‘I know about you,’ he said, ‘we’ve read your articles. Now you want to go to London? I’ll show you, I’ll carry your bag.’ Which he did, striding across the passenger area and shouting to his colleagues with a joyful excitement. And that was how I came to know that the anti-colonial revolution in Africa had come to Portugal as well.

The PAIGC of Amilcar Cabral’s teaching and formation had grown into a highly disciplined and effective army which, for the most part onward from about 1966, had ceased to deserve the limiting term of ‘guerrilla army’. But since then there has followed, elsewhere in Africa, a steadily expanding eruption of armed revolts and upsets, seldom disciplined and by no means always effective, which, as discussed in Christopher Clapham’s new collection, can be handily gathered under the heading ‘African guerrillas’. This term does no justice to one or two of the more impressive of these movements of revolt, and is gravely misleading in the case of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, and, perhaps, of one or two other forces now operating in southern Sudan. But Clapham is an old hand in these matters, and his collection takes good account of such reservations. Among other crucial points, he emphasises the necessary condition of writing about ‘guerrilla movements’ and their kind, a condition that enthusiastic ‘guerrilla groupies’ in Western Europe and America, as he rather snottily calls them, have generally ignored: to wit, that ‘insurgency is exceptionally difficult to study from a distance’ and (I would add), when so studied, generally ends in pseudo-leftist fantasy or worse. There is nothing of this in Clapham’s offering: quite to the contrary, all 11 cases are examined by well-qualified observers who have studied their subjects at close range, in the field. With works of this kind, we are back once more to the exacting level of observation and explication which gave African studies, in the wake of the ‘old sociologists’ of half a century ago, and more, their claim to lasting validity.