The last of Africa’s Cold War conflicts: Portuguese Guinea and its guerrilla insurgency. By Al Venter. Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2020.
Reviewed by John Johnson
The wars of national liberation which began in Portuguese Africa in 1961 ended in 1974 when Portugal abandoned its overseas provinces after a coup d’état – the so-called Carnation Revolution – had overthrown the corporatist government in Lisbon. The liberation movements had, it seemed, gained victory not through people’s war, but through a political crisis in the metropolitan country. Overshadowed as they were by the war in Indo-China, the conflicts in Portuguese Africa passed almost unnoticed by the wider world whilst they were happening, and today they are remembered only as precursors to the Rhodesian Bush War and the South African Border War.
With this book, Al Venter, one of the few journalists to cover the wars from the Portuguese side, seeks to rescue the conflicts from oblivion. Using a collage of reportage, reminiscence, and reflection, he describes the fighting in the West African enclave of Portuguese Guinea and creates a series of narratives that describe the theatre and the conditions in which the war was conducted. Other narratives introduce the reader to the leading actors – the Portuguese commander, General António de Spínola and the leader of the liberation movement, the PIAGC, Amilcar Cabral – and to lesser characters such as Otelo de Carvalho, one of the stars in the Carnation Revolution, the final act of the tragic end to five centuries of Portuguese rule in Africa.
Whilst the narratives are interesting and well worth reading in their own right, the centrepiece of the book is a perceptive analysis of how the wars in Portuguese Africa fitted into the Soviet Union’s strategy of using friendly African nations as bases for commanding the shipping lanes from the Arabian Peninsula to Western Europe and North America. The fulcrum of this strategy was the Republic of Guinea, which bordered on Portuguese Guinea and was where the Soviet Union had established a naval and aviation base for operations in the Atlantic and as a staging post for air traffic from the European Russia to Cuba.
There had been little fighting between Portuguese troops and the PIAGC until 1963, when without consulting Moscow, the Cubans sent advisers and logisticians to support the PIAGC in offensives that by 1968 had overrun much of the enclave. The Portuguese then launched a series of strategic counterattacks that drove the PIAGC back to the borders of the enclave and threatened to humiliate the Cubans and to destabilise Guinea. Acting on their fundamental principal that a Soviet ally or client should not suffer catastrophic defeat, the Soviets supplied the PIAGC with equipment and matériel on a scale that enabled it to escalate the conflict and recover some of its lost positions.
The ensuing stalemate led to some of the most intense fighting in Africa. PIAGC and the Portuguese transposed operational techniques and tactics that had been refined in the paddy fields of Vietnam to the Guinean bush, while the demands of the conflict drew in every increasing quantities of matériel on both sides. At the same time, the Portuguese Africanised the local forces and made the conflict one between African tribes, while disillusionment set in among Portuguese officers and conscripts conducting force protection duties interspersed with bloody forays against well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led insurgents. That disillusionment ultimately led to the disaffection and discontent that crystallised in the Carnation Revolution, and in the aftermath of the revolution the PIAGC could claim victory in Guinea and wreak vengeance on its opponents or those who had not supported it with sufficient ardour, while the Soviet Union could congratulate itself on having protected a client from disaster and channelled Cuban enthusiasms into productive or at least non-destructive channels. But the real victor was Portugal, which had freed itself from the dead hand of corporatism and which would absorb nearly a million refugees from the overseas provinces and set itself on a path to democracy and prosperity as an integral part of Europe and the Western Alliance.
Whilst Venter has primarily written a study of military history – and students answering ‘compare and contrast’ questions about the Cold War will find it a rich seam of information and examples to support their arguments – the sub-text is that the liberation wars in Portuguese Africa from half a century ago have lessons for military and political strategy and for countering insurgency today. Examples of such lessons are obvious parallels between Soviet strategy in the 1960s and Russian actions in the Syrian Civil War or the analogy between the destabilising impact of Cuban intervention in Guinea and that of the current UN operations in Mali. For Venter, ‘ex Africa semper aliquid novum’ translates not as ‘out of Africa, always something new’ but as ‘out of Africa, always something to learn.’ The lessons from Portuguese Guinea are there, and it is profitable to study them.