As the struggles for human and environmental rights rage across the world, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) considered it important to create a platform called Conversations, for learning and sharing ideas from the struggles of iconic leaders (living or past), especially those whose lives have strong lessons for ecological emancipation. The first edition which focused on Ken Saro-Wiwa held in 2019.

The second episode held on August 13, 2020, HOMEF was titled Amilcar Cabral: From Agronomist to Liberator and the discussant was Firoze Manji, a pan-Africanist and publisher of Daraja Press. This episode focused on the life and times of Amical Cabral and highlighted how we can use our professions and competences as tools for liberation. 

The Conversation was facilitated by Nnimmo Bassey, the Director of HOMEF who raised questions that elicited a review of Amilcar Cabral’s life, his experiences and struggles. They were then examined in the light of current struggles. 

To open the conversation, Nnimmo Bassey described Amilcar Cabral as an agronomist who became “singularly important to the struggle of independence in Africa.” He added that Cabral’s agricultural expertise was very instrumental in modelling his political practice. What can be learnt from this is that, “no matter what your profession is, whatever labels you attach to your names- the objective conditions around you and the skills you have can be utilized to change the situation on the continent”.

Firoze Manji revealed that the revolutionary, Cabral believed that “the way forward for freedom does not come from allowing the elite decide what the solution is.” He added that Cabral was committed to the understanding that people are capable of thinking, of theorizing and of giving voice to their experiences. Manji informed that Cabral was popularly known for the expression “Tell No Lies, Claim No Easy Victories” and that he was absolutely clear that people must be respected and involved in the struggle for it to succeed.

To facilitate a narrative on Cabral’s shift from agronomist to liberator, Bassey iterated two central ideas that Cabral pushed. The first being the need for ‘re-entry of history’ and the second, being the need to make farmers central in the food production process. This he said is against the imported, colonialist agricultural model which disregards the peasants and supplies the needs of the imperialists instead of those of the African people. To meet the second need, Bassey informed that Cabral spent time providing agricultural training for the farmers and militants, both before and during the liberation struggle. 

Throwing more light on the above, Firoze Manji stated that Cabral began examining and studying what the situation of Guinea-Bissau’s agriculture and was able to make significant agricultural policy changes during the colonial administration. This moved the colonial administration to put him in charge of an extensive centre of agricultural production. Cabral seized the opportunity to understand the farmers and learned how to listen to their concerns. 

Part of the ideas emphasized in the Conversation was Cabral’s belief in the ‘re-conversion of minds, a mindset indispensable for true integration of the people into the liberation movement’. To achieve this, Cabral used the tactic of having daily contact with the masses. According to Firoze, he referred to this exercise as “a communion of sacrifice necessary for the struggle for emancipation.”

Cabral did not believe that all the masses would buy his ideas. He indeed had come to the conclusion that if he had won over 25% of the population, he was well on his way to winning the whole. His reasoning was that the people would eventually change their views as they saw in practice what was happening in liberated zones. Cabral advanced the idea of a distinction between the concepts of the people and the population. The people comprising those committed to or engaged in overthrowing colonialism and the population covering “everyone who lives there”.

Another idea discussed was Cabral’s understanding of culture as the expression of national liberation. This also explains the process by which culture grows- emphasizing the understanding that culture is never fixed. It was emphasized that to fight for national culture means to fight for the liberation of the nation. In Cabral’s words, “National liberation is the phenomenon in which a socio-economic whole rejects the denial of the historical process”. This entails a process where a people reclaim their historical identity. This explains Cabral’s idea of the need for a ‘re-entry of history’ possible, partly by making efforts to reconnect an emergent culture to the historical process that precedes it – the history that was lost to colonialism.

Manji explained Cabral’s clear perception of the way history is used to consolidate the subjugation of a people- “To dominate a people, one has to first destroy, then rewrite their history.” This, he said was why a return to history after independence should not have been bargained in Africa. Instead of reconnecting to her history, Africa chose to embrace that which the colonialist left by allowing their recruits to occupy and take on the same power structures. This led to the maintenance of the same strategies used by the colonialists- violence and money – to ensure that the new occupants’ interests were secured. 

Through Cabral’s political education, he was able to show how ecological degradation affects social and political conditions in a country. Cabral understood that humans are part of nature. He saw the negative impact of the colonialist-dominated agricultural sector on the environment- as a true agronomist is one who understands the revolutionary nature of his/her profession. 

To be liberators, there is need to understand that everyone can become an intellectual. There is also a need to build our capacity to listen to and learn from people’s experiences. This eradicates the habit of regurgitating dogma and instils the culture of making our experiences concrete and responding to the objective conditions of the people. 

Amilcar Cabral was an internationalist. Besides being key in the formation of African Party of Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde Islands (PAIGC) in 1956, he was also a key player in the formation of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in 1956 and; Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO)

His life and ideas had strong correlations with those of Frantz Fanon and Walter Rodney, both of whom were clear liberation struggle thinkers and practitioners.

Bassey explained that this connects to HOMEF’s belief and experience in her community dialogues with fishers, farmers and students; stating that as activists, the best approach to advocacy is to find time to sit down with the grassroots, engage with and learn from them. He maintained that a lot of knowledge is available at the grassroots which are not taken into account in policy formulations.

On responding to a question on how environmental groups like HOMEF can get Africa out of a state of being a plunder zone, Manji responded that the first transition out of the situation would be the understanding of the fundamentality of power in the struggle. Thus, rather than focusing so much on seeking policy change or getting multinationals to be nicer, “activists should be creating the conditions of power.” This would involve moves to control our destiny, for example, keeping the coal in the hole and the oil in the soil– as HOMEF and Oilwatch have been advocating.

The issue of betrayal also came up in the Conversation as Amilcar Cabral was killed by his comrades. The consequence of his killing was the dismantling of the favourable revolutionary structures put in place by Cabral that would have taken root in Guinea Bissau and possibly spread to other parts of Africa. This revealed that in any given group, there will always be people with agenda different from the leaders. The betrayal of Cabral has echoes in many other betrayals on the continent, including that of Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso who was equally slain by comrades. The point to note, according to Manji, is that not all those who support the struggle would end up supporting the revolution.

Amilcar Cabral was born on the 12th of September 1924 in Bafata, a small town in central Guinea-Bissau. He qualified as an Agricultural Engineer in Lisbon in 1950. A leader to the end, when a colleague fired a fatal shot that took his life on 20th January 1973 in Conakry, his last words were an admonition that- that was no way for comrades to settle a disagreement.

The Conversation can be viewed at this link:

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