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Guinea-Bissau War of Independence

The rivers of Guinea and the islands of Cape Verde were among the first areas in Africa explored by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Portugal claimed Portuguese Guinea in 1446, but few trading posts were established before 1600. In 1630, a "captaincy-general" of Portuguese Guinea was established to administer the territory. With the cooperation of some local tribes, the Portuguese entered the slave trade and exported large numbers of Africans to the Western Hemisphere via the Cape Verde Islands. Cacheu became one of the major slave centers, and a small fort still stands in the town. The slave trade declined in the 19th century, and Bissau, originally founded as a military and slave-trading center in 1765, grew to become the major commercial center.

Portuguese conquest and consolidation of the interior did not begin until the latter half of the 19th century. Portugal lost part of Guinea to French West Africa, including the center of earlier Portuguese commercial interest, the Casamance River region. A dispute with Great Britain over the island of Bolama was settled in Portugal's favor with the involvement of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. The frontier between French Guinea and Portuguese Guinea was based on an 1886 convention between France and Portugal; demarcation was completed in 1905. For most of the distance this boundary follows arbitrarily established straight-line segments or the midpoint of rivers.

Before World War I, Portuguese forces, with some assistance from the Muslim population, subdued animist tribes and eventually established the territory's borders. The interior of Portuguese Guinea was brought under control after more than 30 years of fighting; final subjugation of the Bijagos Islands did not occur until 1936. The administrative capital was moved from Bolama to Bissau in 1941, and in 1952, by constitutional amendment, the colony of Portuguese Guinea became an overseas province of Portugal.

In 1956 a group of Cape Verdeans, led by Amilcar Cabral, and a group from neighboring Guinea-Bissau, organized the clandestine African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) demanding improvements in economic, social, and political conditions in Cape Verde and Portuguese Guinea. Their goal was negotiating independence for Portuguese Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands from their Portuguese colonizers.

When the negotiations failed, the PAIGC worked to gain the support of the Guinean villagers. The PAIGC moved its headquarters to Conakry, Guinea, in 1960 and started an armed rebellion against the Portuguese in 1961. In 1962 guerrilla bands began attacking Portuguese army posts and police stations. Despite the presence of Portuguese troops, which grew to more than 35,000, the PAIGC steadily expanded its influence until, by 1968, it controlled most of the country. With the guerrillas entrenched in the jungles, the Portuguese government responded by deploying warplanes and increased troop numbers (eventually growing to about 35,000) and began to bomb and raid guerrilla hide-outs.

Guinea very actively supported the nationalist forces attempting to end Portuguese colonial rule in adjacent Portuguese Guinea, from their first appearance in the early 1960s. PAIGC had maintained its headquarters in Conakry and its rear area bases in Guinea close to the border with the Portuguese colony. PAIGC leader Amilcar Cabral's residence in Conakry was close to that of President Touré, and the two leaders espoused a similar ideology on domestic and international affairs.

Guinea's support of the PAIGC was entirely in consonance with its anti-colonialist ideology and was carried out despite significant risk. Raids into Guinea by Portuguese forces and aircraft had been frequent, although generally confined to the border areas. Even so, the cost to Guinea of its support for the PAIGC had been high even before the havoc caused by the attack on Conakry in November 1970. Guinean support for the PAIGC continued, nevertheless, reflecting the insistence of the country's leaders on putting some political and ideological objectives before economic considerations.

The arrival in Portuguese Guinea of the charismatic and effective General António Sebastião Ribeiro de Spínola in 1968 brought re-settlement operations in the form of aldeamentos to the forefront. During re-consolidation of his forces, he closed a number of previously-established camps beyond the range of adequate military support, which led to PAIGC claims that the withdrawal proved his "fortified hamlet" system was failing. Despite the risks and expense, Spinola halted the closures just to counter the PAIGC propaganda.

Spinola used the aldearnenios as the basis for an intense civic-action effort -- his "hearts and minds" campaign -- that clearly alarmed and worried the PAIGC leadership. Amilcar Cabral, the PAIGC Secretary-General and chief, railed at his subordinates: "Some three days ago three schools were opened in Bissora. Spinola was there ... in the midst of our people... a grenade would kill Spinola or would stop him from calmly walking about ...." Before the war ended, 150,000 indigenas -- 30% of the total population of Portuguese Guinea -- had been resettled.

As PAIGC began to gain more control over the country they established civilian rule and held elections for a National Assembly. Portuguese forces and civilians increasingly were confined to their garrisons and larger towns. By 1972, the PAIGC controlled much of Portuguese Guinea despite the presence of the Portuguese troops, but did not disrupt Portuguese control in Cape Verde. By 1973 the PAIGC gained control of roughly two-thirds of Portuguese Guinea.

Much of the PAIGC's success could be attributed to Sekou Toure, who gave Cabral a virtually free hand in operating from Guinea. Cabral was able to keep his political distance from Toure, who was a doctrinaire radical. Toure was known to have urged an increase in military activity against the Portuguese. Under Cabral's direction, the PAIGC developed into the most successful insurgent force facing the Portuguese. Cabral depended heavily on Soviet and Cuban military assistance, but remained politically moderate, and had been receiving increasing economic and political assistance from the Scandinavian countries and a number of international philanthropic organizations.

The assassination 20 January 1973 in Conakry, Guinea, of Amilcar Cabral, Secretary General of the African Party for the Independence of Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), temporarily set back the African insurgency in Portuguese Guinea. Innocente Camil, the guerrilla naval commander, reportedly confessed to the crime after his effort to escape in a PAIGC patrol boat was thwarted with the help of a Soviet destroyer. While there was no immediate evidence linking the Portuguese Government directly to the assassination, Lisbon's complicity could not be ruled out.

The assailants' motives remained unclear. Most signs initially pointed to a feud between mulattos from the Cape Verde Islands and mainland Africans, but there were also signs of Portuguese involvement. The PAIGC was known to have had internal stresses. There had been indications for a number of years of friction between the predominantly mulatto leadership and the largely black cadre. Cabral also faced serious though sporadic opposition from his military commanders, who chafed under his curbs on military activity in Portuguese Guinea and the continuing subordination of military to political aims. But this infighting never seemed to get beyond control until, just before the assassination, a bitter dispute reportedly erupted between black mainlanders supporting Cabral, a Cape Verdean, and mulattos opposed to him.

The Portuguese called Cabral's murder "a grave and condemnable act" and denied complicity in it. Cabral's assailants, who also kidnapped several other top PAIGC leaders, confessed in recorded depositions that they were working for the Portuguese. According to their elaborate story, Lisbon was to grant independence to a black government in Guinea Bissau on condition that the dissidents kill Cabral and disrupt the PAIGC.

Given Guinean President Toure's anti-Portuguese feelings and his penchant for showcase trials, the evidential value of the confessions is problematical. Even so, Portuguese complicity could not be ruled out on the basis of what was initially known. The attempted escape of the assassins by sea in the direction of Portuguese Guinea suggested that the Portuguese may have been involved, but in itself was not conclusive. The Portuguese assertion that they might better deal with Cabral, whom they know well, than with an unknown and presumably less moderate leader, had some substance, but there was little evidence that they had ever acted on this belief.

The PAIGC's introduction of SA-7 missiles and the downing, in quick succession, of several Portuguese Air Force planes in the Spring of 1973 was followed by a period of gloom in Lisbon. At that time, rumors of plans to throw in the towel were rife in Lisbon; it was widely believed that the use of missiles would end or severely curb air reconnaissance and support of ground operations by the Portuguese, thus giving the PAIGC a much freer hand. New tactics by the Portuguese Air Force reportedly reduced the risk from missiles, however, and, together with reported poor judgment on the part of PAIGC gunners, blunted the effectiveness of the weapon.

Much more important, however, in eroding the psychological advantage which the missiles gave the PAIGC was the success of the Portuguese in destroying a major PAIGC base camp in Senegal. In that operation, the Portuguese forces, consisting of black commandos, reportedly killed 165 PAIGC soldiers and captured or destroyed more ordnance (including the destruction of 13 missiles) than in all of 1972. There was no protest from Senegal over this incident. As a result, the PAIGC could not be certain that any of its many base camps in Senegal are immune from attack. It was expected that the PAIGC would devote more of its manpower and firepower to the protection of these facilities, thus reducing its strength within Portuguese Guinea. Possibly for that reason, military activity in Guinea slackened appreciably in the summer of 1973.

By September 1973 insistent reports that the PAIGC would soon declare Portuguese Guinea independent, coupled with the costly loss of aircraft in that territory, began to convince some Portuguese leaders that it was time to seek a political solution or, at a minimum, build a third option which could be used for an honorable exit if things got worse.

The Portuguese gave the Guinean People's Congress at least apparent political power and provided that 90 percent of Congress participants be selected by universal adult suffrage. The People's Congresses are African affairs: whites and mulattoes did not take part. The evolution of Guinea's annual People's Congress into something akin to a provincial legislature appears to be a major step in turning political decision-making over to the territory's inhabitants.

There were also signs that the PAIGC itself might be interested in reaching a political agreement with Portugal, and it was reliably reported that the PAIGC had been in contact with the Portuguese Government in the past and was involved in talks with Portuguese representatives in Paris.

The PAIGC National Assembly met at Boe in the southeastern region and declared the independence of Guinea-Bissau on September 24, 1973 at a gathering of guerrilla freedom-fighters held at Madina do Boe, near the Portuguese territory's southeastern border with Guinea. The rebels had been threatening to take this step for the past two years. According to communiques released in Conakry and Dakar, the President of Guinea Bissau's "Council of State" was Luis Cabral, brother of recently assassinated insurgent leader Amilcar Cabral. Under its new constitution, the "government" was headed by Francisco "Chico" Mendes, who had been variously referred to as "Prime Minister," "Chief Commissar," and "President of the People's National Assembly." Aristides Pereira, who was elected to replace Amilcar Cabral as head of the insurgents, had no position in the new government but remained Secretary-General of the guerrilla group PAIGC, which constituted the new government's power base.

As of 04 October 1973, the new Republic of Guinea Bissau had been recognized by 38 nations, including the Soviet Union, the PRC, Romania, Yugoslavia, and a score of African states. In due course, most "nonaligned" nations, and perhaps one or two in Western Europe as well, are expected to extend diplomatic recognition.

Thirty thousand Portuguese troops confronted 8,000 guerrillas in Portuguese Guinea. Most of the sporadic fighting there took place near the territory's borders with Senegal and Guinea. The PAIGC controlled roughly one-third of Portuguese Guinea along these frontiers. Despite the death of Amilcar Cabral, the military initiative had been shifting toward the rebels. In part, this was due to the PAIGC's use of Russian-made, ground-to-air missiles with which the insurgents had knocked down seven Portuguese military aircraft as of August 1973. The successful use of these missiles may have been a factor in giving the PAIGC confidence that it could commit itself to declaring independence. Another reason for the step may have been to boost guerrilla confidence and morale, and gain a measure of international prestige, after the blow of Amilcar Cabral's murder.

The Governor of Guinea, the dynamic General Spinola, was replaced in 1973 by a General with extensive experience in Angola. During the previous five years Gen. Spinola had won over many of the people through his community development programs, etc. But the 1973 Arab oil boycotts and price increases greatly depleted Portugal's strained financial reserves. Furthermore, the colonial wars were going poorly, at least in Guinea-Bissau. It was widely believed throughout the military that the African wars could not be won, as testified by General de Spinola, the Army's commander in Guinea-Bissau.

Portugal's most decorated war hero, Spinola authored a book that dared to say that a military solution to the problem of insurgency in the African territories was impossible and that a political solution must be found. The book created a sensation when it appeared in February 1974. It led to a small but abortive "march on Lisbon" in March, and left the country gripped in coup fever ever since.

The virtually bloodless coup on 25 April 1974 that toppled the Portuguese government of President Thomaz and Prime Minister Caetano was triggered by Lisbon's African policies and the divisions within the military to which they gave rise. Superbly organized and well-led, the insurrectionists took the government by surprise. The leaders of the rebellion, who called themselves the "Armed forces movement," were virtually unknown. They were middle-level officers devoted to General Antonio de Spinola. After broadcasting an initial proclamation that called for both a liberalization of Portugal's colonial policies and a restoration of domestic liberties, the rebel junta promptly called on General Spinola to head their movement. A seven-man junta headed by General Antonio de Spinola assumed leadership in Portugal.

After fighting PAIGC insurgents for more than a decade, Portugal granted independence to Portuguese Guinea— now Guinea-Bissau — on 10 September 1974. The United States recognized the new nation that day. Luis Cabral, Amilcar Cabral's half-brother, became president of Guinea-Bissau. The last Portuguese forces withdrew from Guinea-Bissau in late 1974, after the PAIGC had already assumed control of the newly independent country.

The PAIGC leadership that succeeded Cabral remained in debt to Guinea, and the two countries remained very close in 1975. The nature of their relationship was changing, however, as the Guinea-Bissau government gradually moved from Conakry to establish itself in the newly independent state.

In late 1980, the government of Guinea-Bissau was overthrown in a relatively bloodless coup led by Prime Minister and former armed forces commander Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira. There were alleged coup plots against the Vieira government in 1983, 1985, and 1993. President Vieira was ousted by a military junta in May 1999, but returned to office in an election in August 2005. By 2009 a cycle of kidnappings and violence, possibly driven by Guinea-Bissau's role in the West African regional drug trade, produced further disintegration, including the killings of the nation's most senior leaders, including Vieira. Guinea-Bissau in recent years has become a major transit point for cocaine, which is smuggled across the mid-Atlantic from Latin America to West Africa en route to Europe.

Guinea-Bissau is among the world's least developed nations and depends mainly on agriculture and fishing. Guinea-Bissau exports some fish and seafood, although most fishing in Guinea-Bissau's waters is presently not done by Bissau-Guineans and no fish or seafood is processed in Guinea-Bissau for export. License fees for fishing provide the government with some revenue. The country's most important product is cashews. The global financial crisis in 2009 resulted in lower prices for cashews, the major cash crop.

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Page last modified: 07-05-2017 19:08:05 ZULU