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Portugal's revolution paved way for strong African ties

April 24, 2024

On April 25, 1974, the Carnation Revolution marked a turning point for Portugal and its African colonies. Fifty years later, links between the Portuguese-speaking countries are stronger than ever.

Red carnations in front of Portuguese flag surrounded by people
Every year on April 25, Portugal and its former colonies commemorate the Carnation RevolutionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. de Almeida

Led by the left-wing Armed Forces Movement and supported by the vast majority of the population, Carnation Revolution not only brought down Portugal's nearly 50-year dictatorship under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and Marcelo Caetano, but also paved the way for the end of the country's colonial wars in Africa.

Within a few years, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome and Príncipe would celebrate their independence. 

On Thursday, the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution will be officially celebrated in Portugal's capital, Lisbon, in the presence of various heads of state and government, including from Africa's five Lusophone, or Portuguese-speaking, countries. 

Carnation Revolution and Angola's independence

"In Angola, the Carnation Revolution evokes positive feelings," said Nkikinamo Tussamba, a political analyst who was born in the northern province of Zaire 13 years after the revolution.

"The Portuguese Revolution significantly influenced the independence process of our own country," Tussamba said. "Thanks to the Carnation Revolution, the independence of our country could be proclaimed a year and a half later — on November 11, 1975."

With the change of regime, direct negotiations between the Portuguese government and the independence movements in Angola began in earnest, and, in January 1975, Portugal signed independence agreements with the three liberation organizations of Angola — MPLA, UNITA and FNLA — in the southern Portuguese town of Alvor in the Algarve.

Portuguese government officials are seen with Angolan representatives of the MPLA, UNITA and FNLA at the signing of the Alvor Agreement
Portuguese officials sign the Alvor Agreement in 1975 with representatives of Angolan liberation movementsImage: casacomum.org/Arquivo Mário Soares

'An important milestone' in Mozambique

The journalist Fernando Lima told DW that "April 25 was an important milestone," in Mozambique.

"It is indisputable that the Carnation Revolution was decisive in allowing us to sign an independence agreement with Portugal a few months later — in September 1974 — and that our country could become independent a year later," he said.

The son of Portuguese settlers, Lima chose Mozambican citizenship after independence, opting to "remain an African in Africa."

Fernando Cardoso, a professor of international relations and geopolitics at the Autonomous University of Lisbon, had the opposite experience: Cardoso had also grown up in Mozambique during colonial times but moved to Lisbon with his parents shortly after independence.

As an adult, he kept his links to the African continent, traveling to Mozambique, Angola and Cape Verde as a lecturer and as the head of several research projects. 

"The Carnation Revolution undoubtedly accelerated the process of decolonization," Cardoso told DW.

"The independence of the Portuguese colonies would have occurred sooner or later, even without the Carnation Revolution in Portugal," Cardoso said. He added that the United Nations and several countries had exerted enormous diplomatic pressure on Portugal as the "first and last colonial power in Africa."

There was also increased military pressure on Portugal to grant Mozambique its independence: Angola's MPLA, UNITA and FNLA were receiving increasingly large weapons deliveries and military training from the Soviet Unionand other Eastern bloc countries, as well as from China.

This helped fighters of the Mozambican liberation movement FRELIMO advance from the north toward the heart of the country.

Mario Soares and Samora Machel shake hands in the presence of Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda in 1974
In June 1974, Portuguese Foreign Minister Mario Soares met Samora Machel, who became Mozambique's president a year laterImage: casacomum.org/Arquivo Mário Soares

Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe

If the Carnation Revolution had not taken place in Portugal, Sao Tome and Príncipe, as well as the Cape Verde islands, might have remained in the hands of European colonizers for longer.

Even now, island groups such as the Azores remain in Portugal's hands despite the liberation movements that established a foothold there in the 1970s.

This was not quite the case on the ground in Cape Verde and in Sao Tome and Principe. However, Cardoso said, "there were loud voices demanding comprehensive autonomy or even complete independence for the islands," in both archipelagos.

In Cape Verde in particular, the struggle for freedom was seen as an extension of the independence movement of Guinea-Bissau.

Guinea-Bissau set tone for other colonies

At the time of the Carnation Revolution, the process of gaining independence was most advanced in Guinea-Bissau. Militarily, the Portuguese army had long lost control over large parts of the West African colony.

The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) under the leadership of Amilcar Cabral had unilaterally declared independence from Portugal on September 25, 1973 — exactly seven months before the Carnation Revolution.

By the time Portugual's dictatorship — and thus the colonial regime — collapsed, 34 UN member states had already recognized Guinea-Bissau as an independent state.

Carmelita Pires, the former justice minister of Guinea-Bissau, told DW that the independence movement in Guinea-Bissau helped Portugal throw off the shackles of dictatorship. "Through our successful liberation war in Guinea-Bissau," Pires said, "we indirectly supported the demands of the Portuguese population for an end to colonialism and war and for freedom."

"We Guineans do not want to be immodest," Pires said, "but I dare say that we have made a not insignificant contribution to the success of the Carnation Revolution."

Amilcar Cabral is seen surrounded by several PAIGC operatives in Boke, Guinea-Bissau, in 1972
Guinea-Bissau, 1972: The liberation organization PAIGC, under the leadership of Amilcar Cabral (in the foreground), gradually takes control over large parts of the countryImage: casacomum.org/Documentos Amílcar Cabral

Relations in the Lusosphere 'never better than now'

In the first years after independence, relations between the newly emerged independent states of Africa and Portugal were difficult.

The five new countries took ideologically divergent paths from their erstwhile colonial power: While Portugal turned toward Western Europe, the African nations established Marxism-based one-party systems with the help of the Soviet Union.

In the early days, the new African governments repeatedly accused Portugal of harboring representatives of rebel organizations, especially Mozambique's RENAMO and Angola's UNITA, who would fight against the Soviet-aligned regimes in their countries.

But the discord between Portugal and the former colonies did not last for long, Pires said: "After a certain transitional period, we Guineans approached Portugal again. For us, it was always clear that our liberation struggle was directed against the Portuguese colonial system, and by no means against the Portuguese people."

Familial and cultural ties in Lusophone Africa

Pires is a descendant of a Portuguese settler in Guinea-Bissau who married a woman from the Fulani ethnic group. For her, these familial and cultural ties continue to connect the people of Guinea-Bissau to Portugal.

"Many Guineans still bear Portuguese names today," Pires said. "That sets us apart from peoples from other colonial systems, such as Anglophone or Francophone ones."

Portrait of Carmelita Pires, former Minister of Justice of Guinea-Bissau, against a red background
Carmelita Pires, former Minister of Justice of Guinea-Bissau, says her country's ties to Portugal remain strongImage: DW/F. Tchumá

The Mozambican writer Adelino Timoteo, whose latest novel is set during the Carnation Revolution, told DW that "in Mozambique, there have always been close contacts between African, European and even Arab cultures."

"Later, Indians and Chinese from the former Portuguese colonies in Asia also joined in," Timoteo said. "They were all integrated with us. We are still influenced by this legacy of the Portuguese colonial era and therefore are better able today, despite all the wounds of the past, to maintain good relations with Portugal and the Portuguese."

Community of Portuguese Language Countries

It wasn't clear from the outset that the cultural relationship between Portugal and its former colonies would always be painted in such positive colors.

Andre Thomashausen, a professor of international law and constitutional law at the University of South Africa, told DW that, after the Carnation Revolution, "people in Portugal asked anxious questions: What will become of Portugal's relations with Africa?"

"I was in Portugal at the time and advocated the firm belief that the country should play an important and special role in Africa, and that Portugal had the potential to serve as a gateway from Africa to Europe," Thomashausen said.

Portugal went on to establish close links with all the Lusophone countries based on the shared history, culture and language. "All former colonies adopted Portuguese as the official language," Thomashausen said, "and, for many young people as well as businessmen from the former colonies, Portugal today is the most important gateway to Europe."

In fact, Thomashausen said, Lusophony is part of Portugal's "raison d'etat."

In 1996, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries was founded. The CPLP encompasses the nine countries where Portuguese is the official language — from East Timor in Asia to Brazil in South America.

"The CPLP is now more important and functions better than the Francophonie of the French," Thomashausen said. "Portuguese diplomacy has achieved excellent results."

Picture from the CPLP summit in August 2023, held in Sao Tome and Principe
The CPLP was founded in Lisbon in 1996 with nine core member statesImage: Ricardo Stuckert/PR

'Historical and emotional'

Cardoso said Portugal's diplomatic, cultural and economic relations with its former colonies had developed relatively well. "More important than trade exchange for the Portuguese, however, is the historical and emotional dimension," Cardoso said. 

"In Portugal, it is believed that a privileged cultural and political partnership with the Portuguese-speaking countries is indispensable," he said. "That was also the main motivation for the founding of the CPLP in 1996," he added. He said Portugal had also done much to process the negative aspects of its shared history with its former colonies.

This does not mean that all of the governments in the CPLP always see eye-to-eye; the war in Ukraine, for instance, has shown that there are divergent positions.

"The dividing lines on the Ukraine issue run through the Portuguese-speaking countries," Cardoso said. "Some African countries abstained from voting on UN resolutions condemning Russia's aggression, unlike Portugal."

Still, the overall impression half a century later is one of success. "People perform together, record albums together, organize joint parties and concerts or sports events, or publish books on transnational topics together," Cardoso said.

"Fifty years ago, in the turmoil of the Carnation Revolution, I would not have dared to dream that encounters — both in qualitative and quantitative terms — would develop so well."

Ngungunyane, a king against Portuguese occupation

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson