The Return of Cabo Verde’s African Question | by Abel Djassi Amado

“Given Portugal’s destructive history in Cabo Verde, and the continuing mistreatment of Cabo Verdeans in Portugal, why then does the Cabo Verdean political and social elite continue to cow-tow to their former European masters?”

Portuguese caravels sailing back into Lisbon. Caravels were developed by the Portuguese in the 15th Century for their explorations of Africa.

A few months ago in April, Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, made an official five-day visit to Cabo Verde. The presidential delegation included the Portuguese minister of foreign relations and six current members of Portugal’s Parliament. The entourage visited three islands: Santiago, the current seat of political power in Cabo Verde, São Vicente, and Fogo. The president’s agenda, which included a speech to Cabo Verde’s National Assembly, a visit to the Fogo Volcano – which erupted three years ago – and an exercise in public diplomacy, was essentially a magnificent deployment of Portuguese soft power.

This recent exercise in Portugal’s soft power was poignantly captured in the return of old arguments to Cabo Verde’s public sphere. The idea that Cabo Verde is culturally closer to Europe than it is to Africa is a notion that reached its height in the 1930s, but which continues to inform, and be informed by, misconceptions of Africa. The debate, which has often involved arguments among the political elite that the Cabo Verdean islands could, one day, be integrated as part of the European project, is based on profound post-colonial delusions. It was the flame of these delusions that Portugal’s Rebelo de Sousa sought to fan on his recent visit to Cabo Verde.

For Cabo Verdeans residing in Portugal, the truth is one of social exclusion, police brutality, and racial discrimination.

On April 10, in the National Auditorium, the National Assembly of Cabo Verde convened a solemn session to welcome President Rebelo de Sousa. Before the political elite, Portugal’s president delivered a speech full of praise for both Cabo Verde and its current state of politics. Unsurprisingly, it was well-received by its intended audience, with former Prime Minister Jose Maria Neves hailing it as a “great speech” on his Facebook page.

Evidently, post-colonial elites find it hard to detach psychologically from their former colonisers. This sense of post-colonial filiusism – from the Latin filius, meaning offspring – is the other side of paternalism. It seems in the same way children feel gratified upon receiving parental praise, so Rebelo de Sousa’s visit was, to a certain degree, a massage to the ego of Cabo Verde’s elite.

The situation would be less worrying were it not for the fact that the finery of Rebelo de Sousa’s words were much dislocated from concrete reality. “[Portugal and Cabo Verde] have more than five hundred years of mutual knowledge. This is a very great advantage.” Rebelo de Sousa said; and the past, he continued, “is what makes us what we are today, as peoples and nations.” And yet, the brutality of this past, and the repercussions that continue to be felt throughout the socio-economic and political landscape in Cabo-Verde went unmentioned.

Rebelo de Sousa’s recent visit has only served to give fire to the old, and delusional, colonial tropes that Cabo Verde is better seen as a part of Europe than it is as a part of Africa

Very few public intellectuals, activists, scholars have yet had the courage to criticise Rebelo de Sousa’s recent visit. Regardless of party affiliation, almost the entirety of Cabo Verde’s political class lauded Rebelo de Sousa’s empty words. Not one has yet sought to confront Portugal’s president with what is the sad reality of the Cabo Verdean community living in Portugal.

In his speech, Rebelo de Sousa falsely noted that the Cabo Verdean community in Portugal is “very well integrated [into Portuguese society].” For Cabo Verdeans residing in Portugal, the truth is one of social exclusion, police brutality, and racial discrimination. Given Portugal’s destructive history in Cabo Verde, and the continuing mistreatment of Cabo Verdeans in Portugal, why then does the Cabo Verdean political and social elite continue to cow-tow to their former European masters?

The situation is particularly ironic precisely because national independence and the construction of the post-colonial state in Cabo Verde were possible because of what was viewed as the inherent ‘African-ness’ of Cabo Verdeans. At the time of Cabo Verde’s independence in 1975, the nationalist discourse in the country sought to highlight Cabo Verde’s strong and indissoluble links with the rest of Africa. In fact, it was the promotion of knowledge of these ties with the continent that provided the underlying raison d’être that ultimately legitimised the country’s claims for independence.

The colonial project in Cabo Verde has long ended; but it continues to reside chiefly in the mentalities, ideas, and ideologies, that are present in the everyday life of the post-colony.

Amilcar Cabral, Cabo Verde’s founding father, and the leader of the liberation struggle in the 1960s and 1970s, gave substance and form to the understanding that Cabo Verde represented a case of African regionalism. As a result, it became widely understood that the anti-colonial and post-colonial projects were, and should be, anchored in Africa. From independence until the 1990s, there seemed to be a consensus about this African identity.

It was the third wave of democracy that was sweeping across much of Africa, and elsewhere, throughout the 1990s, which also swept across the Cabo Verdean islands and brought with it the return of the old colonial ideas that had, up till then, been delegitimised by the nationalist projects. The 1990s electoral-democracy project in Cabo Verde was constructed as a repudiation of the previous one-party regime, which, in its turn, had been founded on pan-Africanist nationalism. With electoral-democracy, Cabo Verde moved both symbolically and practically towards Europe. For instance, in 1992, the new regime removed the old pan-African flag that had been the country’s national symbol and replaced it with a flag that resembled that of the European Union.

national independence and the construction of the post-colonial state in Cabo Verde were possible because of what was viewed as the inherent ‘African-ness’ of Cabo Verdeans.

In Cabo Verde, the issue of geographical identity is a long and deep one that is often kept slightly below the radar. Rebelo de Sousa’s recent visit has only served to give fire to the old, and delusional, colonial tropes that Cabo Verde is better seen as a part of Europe than it is as a part of Africa.

Yet again, social and political actors have renewed their attempts to justify and legitimate Cabo Verde’s relative position to the Atlantic world.  Two main discourses have pervaded the cultural and political elite of Cabo Verde since the late colonial era: the adjacent discourse and the nationalist discourse, each of which anchors Cabo Verde in a different civilizational project.

The adjacent discourse is wedded to the old political projects that sought to transform the Cabo Verdean colony into an integral administrative unit of Portugal, in the same way that was applicable to other Atlantic archipelagoes, such as Madeira and Azores. Since the nineteenth century, these two archipelagos have been politically and constitutionally classified as the ilhas adjacentes (adjacent islands); a term that signified their total integration into the Portuguese political and legal order.

While many in the room laughed at the suggestion of Cabo Verde becoming a member of the European Union, this is a recurrent idea in Cabo Verde’s public discourse and imagination.

The colonial period between the 1930s and the mid-1970s constituted the high-point of the adjacent argument in Cabo Verde. The core idea that was given to justify Cabo Verde being seen as a branch of the Portuguese state was the notion that Cabo Verdeans were not really Africans. Given credence in the works of Baltazar Lopes da Silva, an icon of Cabo Verdean literature, who spoke of “the dilution of Africa.” The idea was that African culture had been eliminated from Cabo Verde and that the people of Cabo Verde constituted, in the words of the same writer, an example of a “Romanic experience in the tropics.

In the post-colonial period, the neo-adjacent argument emphasises strengthening the partnership between Portugal and/or Europe, often at the expense of Africa. For the neo-adjacentist, the African continent is a weighty burden that needs to be detached at all costs. In an April 14 Facebook post, Miguel Monteiro, the current secretary of the National Assembly and Secretary General of the MpD, the party that supports the government, citing another Facebook user, rhetorically asked whether Cabo Verde has benefited from its four-decade membership in the regional organization ECOWAS. He cynically asks again: “Ah did you know that the biggest terrorists Boko Haram and Azauade all loyal in the Daesh, enjoy visa-free and can move freely and are entitled to residence [in Cabo Verde] ????”

For those adhering to this overwhelmingly negative view of the rest of Africa, the most appropriate model for development is that of an attachment and closeness to Europe. While speaking at the Congress of the European People’s Party, held in Malta this past March,  Prime Minister Ulisses Correia stated, “I know that it is a sad day for Europe, because the United Kingdom has left, but we enter. We are in.” While many in the room laughed at the suggestion of Cabo Verde becoming a member of the European Union, this is a recurrent idea in Cabo Verde’s public discourse and imagination.

The colonial project in Cabo Verde has long ended; but it continues to reside chiefly in the mentalities, ideas, and ideologies, that are present in the everyday life of the post-colony. In Cabo Verde, the idea that Cabo Verde is Portugal, and even more deludedly, Europe, is as present now as it was in colonial times when it was an idea specifically wielded to undermine the African-ness of its people. If the Portuguese president’s visit has achieved anything at all, it has been to cunningly embolden this delusional and highly divisive view.

Abel Djassi Amado is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons College, Boston. He is a regular contributor to Political Matter.

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