Exactly 50 years ago today, Portugal’s colonial project in Africa unraveled, bringing to a close the age of overt European imperialism on the continent. In the decades after World War II, dozens of newly independent nations arose in the African territories previously colonized by Britain, France, and Belgium. By the end of the 1960s, among Europe’s imperial powers, just one holdout had remained: Portugal, which had also been the first European nation to acquire African territory with the 1415 conquest of Ceuta, on the North African coast. 

The persistence of the Portuguese Empire into the 1970s was surprising in some respects, given that the Iberian nation was (and remains) among the poorest in the West. But Portugal’s relative backwardness also made it, for a time, better able to resist the pressures that led other countries to grant independence to their colonies.

In the end, what forced the last empire’s dissolution was internal tumult. On April 25, 1974, the Carnation Revolution toppled the conservative corporatist dictatorship established by António de Oliveira Salazar four decades earlier. In the wake of this coup, led by left-leaning lower-ranking military officers, the years-long independence struggle came to an end, as Portugal’s new leadership negotiated a withdrawal from its African colonies. But as we mark the 50th anniversary of this turning point, the dreams of the generation that sought and achieved independence remain unfulfilled.       

The struggle for independence in the former Portuguese colonies occurred in the context of the postwar global order. The emergence of international organizations, especially the founding of the United Nations, gave formerly colonized nations a voice in world affairs, altering the perception of colonialism in the West and lending momentum to anti-colonial movements. But as other countries began to give up their colonies, Salazar’s government was determined to maintain control over its overseas possessions for economic as well as ideological reasons. For a small nation at the margins of Europe, national pride as well as a measure of economic self-sufficiency depended on holding onto the empire.

For centuries, the economy of Portugal’s African realm was based on the slave trade. With the 1822 independence of Brazil and the abolition of slavery across the Western Hemisphere, the African colonies were left semi-abandoned and largely unexploited for a time. But in the late 19th century, competition from other European powers in the “scramble for Africa” prompted Portugal to expand and fortify its territorial claims. By 1932, when Salazar came to power, the proliferation of anti-colonial ideas, both liberal and socialist, posed a new threat. In response, Salazar attempted to link the African periphery more closely to the metropole and recommitted the country to its “civilizing mission” of spreading Christianity to subject peoples.  

As anti-colonial movements surged in the middle of the 20th century, Portugal began to rely on a different legitimation strategy for maintaining its imperial holdings. In the early 1950s, Salazar’s regime officially embraced the ideology of “lusotropicalism” developed by the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, who argued that Portugal was a comparatively benign imperial power that had fostered multicultural and multiracial coexistence. Claims of a “civilizing mission” were abandoned in favor of a “pluricontinental” national identity. Around the same time, all African territories were declared overseas provinces of Portugal, with nominally equal status to the mainland.    

These efforts notwithstanding, Portugal’s African colonies were swept up in the same dynamics that overtook the Third World in the second half of the 20th century. The PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) was created by the renowned independence leader Amílcar Cabral in direct response to the 1955 Bandung Conference, at which representatives of 29 nations sought to build alliances across the Third World. Beginning in the early 1960s, Cabral spearheaded a unified struggle for the emancipation of two countries, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Meanwhile in Angola, the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) took up the armed struggle against Portuguese rule in 1961, and in Mozambique, several independence groups joined together to form the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in 1962, after the meeting of the CONCP (Conference of Nationalist Organizations of Portuguese Colonies) held in Tanzania.

These movements, along with the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (MLSTP), were Marxist-Leninist in orientation. As an extension of the broader Cold War contest, they ended up in conflict with other pro-independence factions aligned with the capitalist West, notably the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which fought separately for Angolan independence. After the Carnation Revolution, an initial transitional government in Angola included representatives of the different factions, but this quickly broke down, as the US-supported UNITA allied with South Africa and Zaire against the Soviet-backed MPLA; the ensuing civil war would last more than two decades. A similar sequence of events unfolded in Mozambique, where the Soviet-backed FRELIMO installed a socialist one-party state that was violently opposed by US- and South African-allied rebels.

As the Cold War came to an end, these conflicts subsided. But the end of this acute period of neo-imperial interference didn’t change the fact that a lack of democracy, the use of force, and political intolerance remain deeply entrenched in a group of nations that suffer the effects not only of colonization, but colonization by a poor and marginal European country. (A partial exception here is Cape Verde, which has been ranked Africa’s most democratic nation and is the wealthiest of the former Portuguese colonies in terms of GDP per capita.)

“Africans live in a world that is still colonial in fact, if not in name.”

During the independence struggles and subsequent civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, a Marxist vision of national liberation competed for influence with modes of cultural nationalism more amenable to the West. Today, regardless of which ideological faction prevailed in each country, genuine political and economic independence remains elusive. The former colonies remain indelibly molded by colonial power. The entire penal code of Mozambique, for instance, is a copy of the Portuguese penal code. The official language of all Portugal’s former colonies is Portuguese, and there are no viable movements to elevate the status of African languages. 

In addition to its continued cultural and economic dependency on Western nations and institutions, Africa is now increasingly important to the geostrategic aims of other rising world powers, notably China and Russia. In the best case, this jostling for influence may give African nations more options, but in the worst case, it indicates a new “scramble for Africa” is underway, in which predatory foreign powers are once again fighting over the spoils from the continent’s vast natural resources. Regardless, half a century after Portugal gave up its last colonies, Africans live in a world that is still colonial in fact, if not in name. The rising generations will have to determine the course of a new struggle for independence. 

Translated from the Portuguese by Geoff Shullenberger.

Pedrito Cambrão is a professor of sociology at UniZambeze in Beira, Mozambique.

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