Interview: How Guinea-Bissau’s anti-colonial struggle influenced the Carnation Revolution

25 April 2024

Mamadu during our inter­view in Febru­ary 2023.

Born in the mid-1950s, Mamadu1 grew up in Guinea-Bissau’s coas­tal region of Tombali under the long shadow of Portu­guese colo­nia­lism. As a child, he witnessed Portu­guese raids on his family’s village and the armed resis­tance of the Part­ido Afri­cano para a Inde­pen­dên­cia da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), a Marxist-inspi­red libe­ra­tion front foun­ded by Amíl­car Cabral and his comra­des in 1956. In the 1960s, Mamadu recei­ved an educa­tion through the school system set up by the PAIGC in the areas it had libe­ra­ted. There, he first came into cont­act with the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (DDR), for the mathe­ma­tics text­books used by the PAIGC had been produ­ced in coope­ra­tion with socia­list East Germany. At the age of 16, Mamadu then travel­led with seve­ral school­ma­tes to the DDR, where he studied agri­cul­tu­ral mecha­nics and engineering.


We inter­viewed Mamadu in Febru­ary 2023. In the follo­wing, we share excerpts from our conver­sa­tion in which he talks about the history of Guinea-Bissau, the effects of slavery and colo­nia­lism on his society, and how the natio­nal libe­ra­tion struggle in the colo­nies was inter­con­nec­ted with the Carna­tion Revo­lu­tion in April 1974.

What led to the colonial subjugation of Guinea-Bissau?

The region that is today the state of Guinea-Bissau had been inha­bi­ted by the local peop­les for almost 3,000 years. But this history is hardly ever found in the textbooks.

From 1441, the first Portu­guese adven­tu­r­ers — not “explo­rers” — arri­ved in the region and estab­lished cont­act with the indi­ge­nous popu­la­tion. From around 1450, present-day Guinea-Bissau was one of the first places where the Portu­guese built their trading bases. In the begin­ning, Portu­gal was actually the sole ruler of the entire Guinean west coast. The French arri­ved later and began compe­ting with the English and Dutch for the land. After the Berlin Confe­rence of 1884/85, France and Portu­gal signed a treaty divi­ding up the terri­tory. A large part of West Africa went to France, while Portu­gal remained firmly instal­led in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.

From 1895 to 1936, there were major armed conflicts. Guinea-Bissau has 21 diffe­rent peop­les or ethnic groups — I don’t use the word “tribes” — and the largest 5 or 6 ethnic groups put up resis­tance. France and Portu­gal played the ethnic groups off against each other and were thus able to subju­gate the people more easily. From 1936, Portu­gal took control of the coun­try and was able to extend its colo­nial rule over the entire coun­try. From the begin­ning, the Portu­guese brought Cape Verde and the current terri­tory of Guinea-Bissau under one administration.

How did this European domination influence the development of Guinea-Bissau?

Trans­at­lan­tic slavery intro­du­ced a signi­fi­cantly new dyna­mic that derai­led the ’normal’ rhythm of deve­lo­p­ment in our society.

It is true that the Euro­peans found a pre-exis­ting slave system in Africa. But it was in no way compa­ra­ble to the trans­at­lan­tic slave system. In the Afri­can empires, capti­ves from war were to work for their captors. The capti­ves were subor­di­na­ted and put to diffe­rent tasks, but they were not deper­so­na­li­zed. They were traded, but they remained within their geogra­phi­cal terri­tory — they circu­la­ted here. And this system only affec­ted working-age individuals.

Trans­at­lan­tic slavery, on the other hand, led to the blee­ding of Africa. The work­force was expor­ted en masse, and this led to social regres­sion: know­ledge was not passed down, tech­no­logy was not deve­lo­ped further, labour power was miss­ing ever­y­where, and social struc­tures were dismant­led. In the end, the malde­ve­lo­p­ment caused by the Euro­pean slave trade was so great that the effects can still be seen today. This is too often not taken into account in the analy­sis. It wasn’t just direct colo­nia­lism that harmed us.

It was a huge disas­ter. The hege­mo­nic encoun­ter between Europe and Africa led to domi­na­tion and explo­ita­tion instead of coope­ra­tion and collaboration.

How did the African Independence Party of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) come about?

It is precis­ely in this context of colo­nial divi­sion and oppres­sion that the PAIGC emer­ged. The agri­cul­tu­ral engi­neer Amíl­car Cabral foun­ded the party on 19 Septem­ber 1956 with two other comra­des. Inte­res­t­ingly, Cabral’s parents had been teachers of Cape Verdean descent. They were sent as teachers to Guinea-Bissau, not even to the capi­tal, but to the inte­rior of the coun­try, where Cabral was born on 12 Septem­ber 1924. A note­wor­thy aspect of the party was that from the begin­ning it campai­gned for – as it is called – “Afri­can inde­pen­dence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde”. Pan-Afri­ca­nism was built into it from the begin­ning, but not as an abstract Pan-Afri­ca­nism without terri­tory. There was a concrete refe­rence to Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde as the regi­ons in which this struggle was to be taken up. I too am a product of this process.

A DDR soli­da­rity stamp with the PAIGC’s libe­ra­tion struggle, 1978. 

What is your personal background? How did you come to the DDR?

I am from the south of Guinea-Bissau, from a rela­tively large village by Guinean stan­dards. I was born in 1955 and first came into cont­act with Portu­guese soldiers in 1962. They had surroun­ded us and there was a lot of commo­tion. For us child­ren it was like a happy day, we ran out curiously to the cars and soldiers. But it was bad. There were many arrests in the neigh­bor­ing village; an uncle of mine was also arres­ted and taken to the concen­tra­tion camp in Tite near Bissau, as I later found out.

This first cont­act with the soldiers had a huge impact on my life. Our village was caught in the cross­fire: on the one hand there was a Portu­guese barracks barely 2 kilo­me­ters away from us, on the other hand, PAIGC figh­ters were camped about four kilo­me­ters in the other direc­tion, and they largely control­led our village. The Portu­guese patrols kept coming and there were real batt­les around the village. After­wards we had to evacuate.

In 1969, I ente­red the school system set up by the PAIGC in the libe­ra­ted areas. The best students were selec­ted there and sent to boar­ding school. First to a boar­ding school in the libe­ra­ted areas and then to Cona­kry, the capi­tal of Guinea. This boar­ding school opera­ted as a pilot project where the PAIGC tried out new didac­tic and pedago­gi­cal concepts. This is where I first came into cont­act with East Germany, because the GDR was the coun­try that produ­ced school mate­ri­als for the PAIGC’s mathe­ma­tics lessons in the libe­ra­ted zones. The hando­ver of the first educa­tio­nal mate­ri­als was held at the GDR embassy in Cona­kry. A pioneer group was selec­ted to offi­ci­ally receive it. I was in the group and had the privi­lege of spea­king there — I had never drea­med of that!

I was 14 years old at the time and stayed at this boar­ding school for two and a half years. There was a large offer of study scho­lar­ships from socia­list count­ries, and I recei­ved a trai­ning place in the GDR. So, I travel­led to East Germany when I was 16 years old. There I trai­ned to become a trac­tor and agri­cul­tu­ral mechanic.

The socia­list count­ries — the GDR, Czechos­lo­va­kia, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and so on – provi­ded direct support for our libe­ra­tion struggle. We knew these states were our real friends. The end of the socia­list camp almost over­whel­med me back then. I was devas­ta­ted – really distraught! Because we knew that without the help of the socia­list camp in the anti-impe­ria­list struggle, there would still be apart­heid in South Africa today! There would still be Portu­guese colo­nia­lism in Guinea-Bissau, fully backed by the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany [West Germany] and others. No doubt about it.

A student at a PAIGC semi-boar­ding primary school in the Sárà region reviews the mathe­ma­tics text­book for grade one, produ­ced for the Mozam­bi­que Libe­ra­tion Front (FRELIMO) by the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (DDR), 1974. Source: Roel Coutinho, Guinea-Bissau and Sene­gal Photo­graphs (1973–1974).

You were in the DDR when Guinea-Bissau’s independence was declared. How did you and the other students stay in touch with the PAIGC?

We were always in constant cont­act with Guinea-Bissau when we were in the DDR. At that time, our party foun­ded a youth and student orga­niza­tion. We held monthly meetings in which we would orga­nize and deve­lop our acti­vi­ties and pay our contributions.

In Novem­ber 1972, Amíl­car Cabral made an offi­cial visit to the DDR. He sat with our student contin­gent for a whole day and discus­sed with us. He prepared us for Guinea-Bissau’s upco­ming decla­ra­tion of inde­pen­dence. That was in Novem­ber, and he was murde­red in Janu­ary. This came as a total shock for all of us. At that time, all students sent a joint state­ment to the party saying that we wanted to go back to fight at the front for the libe­ra­tion struggle. But we were then told that our mission was to study, so that we could come home with a profes­sion — that was also a big shock.

But it had been seared into our heads: 1973. Cabral had declared it in his New Year’s commu­ni­qué: In 1973, we will declare our natio­nal inde­pen­dence. And so, 1973 became the most exci­ting year here — will it work or not? Instead of getting the usual bad news – that the Portu­guese were advan­cing and so on – we bean to receive opti­mi­stic updates from March onward: Portu­guese garri­sons were being over­run by PAIGC figh­ters, planes were being shot down again, and so on. And then came our unila­te­ral decla­ra­tion of inde­pen­dence. We cele­bra­ted in East Germany. The DDR’s Afro-Asian Soli­da­rity Commit­tee called on us to hold joint events. We invi­ted students from other count­ries – that was a great expe­ri­ence. And it was shortly after the 10th World Festi­val of Youth and Students in Berlin. 1973 was the craziest year! We are all cele­bra­ting at the Festi­val in Berlin and Inti-Illi­mani, the Octo­ber Club and ever­yone was singing at the end of the day. And I was there!

After Guinea-Bissau’s decla­ra­tion of inde­pen­dence, the inter­na­tio­nal stage became very important. At that point, the Portu­guese mili­tary was on the defen­sive. And now it got exci­ting: Will the inter­na­tio­nal commu­nity reco­gnize our inde­pen­dence or not? By Decem­ber of that year, we had the abso­lute majo­rity of UN count­ries behind us. So, we knew that Portu­gal was now beaten inter­na­tio­nally – mili­tary, poli­ti­cal and diplo­ma­tic. When we heard that a coup had taken place in Portu­gal, we knew it was done. This is our victory. And we cele­bra­ted the coup as our victory.

When I finis­hed voca­tio­nal school in 1974, I was suppo­sed to go back home, but because of my good results I was recom­men­ded for engi­nee­ring school. The party appro­ved this and so I stayed in the DDR until 1988.

PAIGC mili­tant comba­tants use their rest­ing time to learn to read and write. Source: Roel Coutinho, Guinea-Bissau and Sene­gal Photo­graphs (1973–1974).

How was the liberation struggle in the Portuguese colonies connected to the Carnation Revolution?

It was said to be the first time in modern history that pres­sure from the South was able to bring about the over­throw of a regime in the North. For us it was clear to us: the foun­ding of the PAIGC in 1956 and the start of the armed libe­ra­tion struggle in 1963 would defi­ni­tely help to bring down the fascist regime in Portugal.

I later lear­ned that the Socia­list and Commu­nist parties in Portu­gal were very much discus­sing with the libe­ra­tion move­ments how joint coope­ra­tion should be orga­ni­zed. Amíl­car Cabral made it clear that they must now join our struggle for inde­pen­dence, instead of our people who were curr­ently study­ing in Portu­gal all joining the Socia­list and Commu­nist parties – some members of our party were also members of the Commu­nist Party of Portu­gal. The reaso­ning was that if the fascist system in Portu­gal falls, then the Portu­guese colo­nies will not auto­ma­ti­cally fall with it. But, if the Portu­guese colo­nies defeat this colo­nial system, the fascist govern­ment, which had alre­ady exis­ted for 40 years at that point, will auto­ma­ti­cally collapse.

In his writings, Cabral empha­si­zed: We are fight­ing against one and the same enemy. We have to be very conscious of this. What the PAIGC is doing in Guinea-Bissau is just part of the same fight you are curr­ently fight­ing — in Portu­gal, in the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany and else­where. It is your duty, as a trade unio­nist in the North, to support the strug­gles in the South. This is not charity, as is often portrayed these days, but rather an obli­ga­tion. In Guinea-Bissau, many of us died from Portu­guese napalm bombs, but every time we repul­sed the colo­nial army, it was also a victory for you in the North. Through our daily fight in the South, we in fact support your fight. Unfort­u­na­tely, this under­stan­ding has largely been lost today.

In the follo­wing excerpt from our inter­view with Mamadu, he recalls the clima­c­tic years of 1972 and 1973, when Cabral visi­ted the DDR and Guinea-Bissau issued its decla­ra­tion of independence.