The centrality of culture in the struggle for a new world: Amilcar Cabral and Ken Saro-Wiwa


By Firoze Manji, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin

This is a slightly shortened version of the Keynote address from the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Seminar 15th November 2018


Firoze Manji delivers the keynote address at the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Seminar, 15th November 2018

I want to share some thoughts with you about the commonalities between Amilcar Cabral and Ken Saro-Wiwa, especially in relation to culture and the centrality of culture in the struggle for freedom.

Amilcar Cabral was the founder and leader of the Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde liberation movement, Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). He was a revolutionary, humanist, agronomist, poet, military strategist, and prolific writer on revolutionary theory, culture and liberation. The struggles he led against Portuguese colonialism contributed to the collapse not only of Portugal’s African empire, but also to the Portuguese revolution of 1974/5 and the downfall of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal, events that he was not to witness as he was assassinated in 1973.

Cabral and Saro-Wiwa were separated by two eras, the one involving the struggle for independence in Africa, the other dealing with the consequences of the failures of independence and the rise of neoliberalism. There were continuities between the two eras. “Cabral and Saro-Wiwa sit together in this transformative and unfinished space,” wrote Helen Fallon, “asking questions that remain important in Ireland as in Africa.”

Despite this separation, they had much in common. Both sought self-determination for their people. Both were clear that self-determination, not secession, was what they were fighting for.

Self-determination and secession are often get confused and considered synonymous. Self-determination is about the struggle for justice, dignity and an attempt to establish an inclusive Universalist humanity, whereas secession is by definition an act of exclusion, defining the self through the exclusion of the other.


The tragedy for Saro-Wiwa was that the struggle for self-determination for the Ogoni came in the wake of the Biafran war of secession, the leadership of which Saro-Wiwa was highly critical. The struggle of the Ogoni people for self-determination could easily come to be seen as a continuation of that secessionist movement, despite Saro-Wiwa’s insistence against secession (although he was sometimes ambiguous about the distinction).


While Cabral and Saro-Wiwa were clearly exceptional individuals, it was the movements in which they were involved, and which they helped to create, that the credit must go for organising and for endeavouring to give birth to a new world.


We often characterise such movements as being expressions of resistance. But I think they are more than that. Let me draw on Michelle Alexander’s recent article in the New York Times, We are not the resistance. These movements were not the resistance, on the contrary they sought to establish and give birth to a new world, just as the anti-fracking and environmental movements in Ireland, and the campaigns for “free, safe, legal” abortion following the pro-choice vote in the referendum in May, these are all movements seeking to give birth to a new world. We need to insist that it is the state and the corporations that are the resistance, not those seeking to give birth to a new world. It was the Portuguese colonial regime and the Abacha neocolonial regime in collaboration with Shell that were the resistance to the efforts of the movements that PAIGC and MOSSOP sought to birth.

Giving birth is always an act involving the struggle to overcome the violence of resistance. This is as true of a seedling emerging from the ground as it is for the child being born. Genuine movements for freedom never chose the path of violence, but they almost always face the violence of those that resist the birth of the world they are seeking to deliver. But in some cases, there is no choice but to use military means to defend the gains they have made. The struggle to give birth to Ireland was met with fierce, violent and terrorist resistance by the British state. There was no choice but to endeavor to defend it. But more importantly, it is community organizing, that is the basis of defence. They may have to use arms as one of their tools, but without the organizing, arms are worth nothing.

So, let us agree: The state and corporations, not us, are the resistance.

In Guinea Bissau, PAIGC had created liberated zones that, at the time of Cabral’s assassination, covered some two-thirds of the country. There, completely new structures of popular democracy were established in which peasants were the decision makers. The Portuguese currency was banned, and a system of barter exchange was established in its stead. Women played leading roles in political decision making. And the rekindling of culture and pride in their own histories, languages, stories and music flourished. New health, education and other services were established. They were creating a new world. But they had no choice to ensure the movement had the means to defend the new society that had been built. PAIGC politics was not about promoting violence, but of defending the birth of a new society from the genocidal violence of Portuguese imperialism.

Both Cabral (at the hands of his own comrades, those who were to become the neo-colonial rulers of the future) and Saro-Wiwa (at the hands of the neocolonial Abacha regime) paid the ultimate sacrifice for their audacity to both think and create in their time a new world. This is what distinguishes them from so many others: it was not only having a dream that another world was possible, but also having the courage to create that world in the present. It was that which presented such a threat to those who resist new births.

I make this point because it is in the crucible of the struggle that real culture evolves as a weapon of liberation, a point that, as I will discuss, both Cabral and Saro-Wiwa make.

To be able to subject millions of humans to the barbarism of enslavement, slavery and colonial domination required defining them as non-humans or less than humans, and to do so required their dehumanisation.

That process required a systematic and institutionalised attempt at the destruction of existing cultures, languages, histories and capacities to produce, organise, tell stories, invent, love, make music, sing songs, make poetry, produce art, philosophise, and to formulate in their minds that which they imagine before giving it concrete form, all things that make a people human.

This attempt to destroy the culture of Africans, points out Cabral, turned out to be a signal failure. For while colonialism destroyed the institutions on the continent, the memories of their culture, institutions, art forms, music and all that which is associated with being human remained both on the continent and in the diaspora where the enslaved Africans found themselves. The enslavers, the slave owners, and all those who profited from these horrors, including the emerging capitalist classes of Europe, engaged in a systematic re-casting of human beings as non-humans or lesser beings, a process in which the Christian church and the European intelligentsia were deeply involved

Whatever the material aspects of domination, ‘it can be maintained only by the permanent and organized repression of the cultural life of the people concerned’, wrote Cabral. The use of violence to dominate a people is ‘above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least neutralize and to paralyze their cultural life. For as long as part of that people have a cultural life, foreign domination cannot be assured of its perpetuation’.

Such experiences must surely ring bells for people of Ireland whose own experiences of seeking freedom had so much in common with those of Africans. Famine, dispossession, displacement, attempts to silence song and language, enslavement and exile from their lands, all those things must surely resonate with you.

For Saro-Wiwa: “The advent of British colonialism was to shatter Ogoni society and inflict on us a backwardness from which we are still struggling to escape. It was British colonialism which forced alien administrative structures on us and herded us into the domestic colonialism of Nigeria.…As a result of domestic colonialism, the Ogoni people have virtually lost pride in themselves and their ability, have voted for the multiplicity of parties in elections, have regarded themselves as perpetual clients of other ethnic groups and have come to think that there is nowhere else to go but down… Yes, we merely exist; barely exist.”

Culture, wrote Cabral, is ‘the product of … history just as a flower is the product of a plant. Like history, or because it is history, culture has as its material base the level of the productive forces and the mode of production. Culture plunges its roots into the physical reality of the environmental humus in which it develops, and reflects the organic nature of the society’. (You’d never guess he was an agronomist, would you!)

Culture, insists Cabral, is intimately linked to the struggle for freedom. While culture comprises many aspects, it ‘… grows deeper through the people’s struggle, and not through songs, poems or folklore. … One cannot expect African culture to advance unless one contributes realistically to the creation of the conditions necessary for this culture, i.e. the liberation of the continent’. In other words, culture is not static and unchangeable, and it advances only through engagement in the struggle for freedom.

In this he echoes Frantz Fanon:

“To fight for national culture first of all means fighting for the liberation of the nation, the tangible matrix from which culture can grow. One cannot divorce the combat for culture from the people’s struggle for liberation’. Furthermore:

‘… national culture takes form and shape during the fight, in prison, facing the guillotine and in the capture and destruction of the French military positions. … National culture is no folklore … [it] is the collective thought process of a people to describe, justify, and extol the actions whereby they have joined forces and remain strong.’

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s identity as a member of the Ogoni people, along with his political activism is inseparable from the content of his novels, for example, Sozaboy. Saro-Wiwa is clear about the political role of his work: As a result of this belief, Sozaboy possesses a sense of urgency and reflects from the perspective and language of the dispossessed the conditions and dilemmas faced by the Ogoni (or the Dukana) . “He becomes a ‘martyr’ who transcribes the struggles of the Ogoni people in the creation of the fictional Dukana people.” The television series Basi and Company, for example, targeted not just corrupt individuals but rather Nigeria’s quote culture of cheating as a whole. Humorous, entertaining, the series was political commentary.

“The writer cannot be a mere storyteller,” writes Saro-Wiwa,’ he cannot merely x-ray societies weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future.”

“The most important thing for me is that I’ve used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it. And it sure makes me feel good! I’m mentally prepared for the worst, but hopeful for the best. I think I have the moral victory.”

Saro-Wiwa believed that “literature is a critical situation such as Nigeria’s cannot be divorced from politics. Indeed, literature must serve society by steeping itself in politics, by intervention, and writers must not write merely to amuse… They must play an interventionist role.”

For a member of the community that produced billions of dollars of oil wealth but whose members themselves lack electricity and clean drinking water, however, “you must go into activism because if you’re not into activism, then you are irresponsible” —Silence would, indeed, be treason!

Saro Wiwa, like Cabral before him, believed that the writer “must take part in mass organisations” and “establish direct contact with the people”.

“What they (the authorities) cannot stand is that a writer should additionally give voice to the voiceless and organise them for action. In short, they do not want literature on the streets! And that is where, in Africa, it must be.”

As to language, Saro-Wiwa commented: “Furthermore, I have examined myself very closely to see how writing or reading in English has colonised my mind. I am, I find, as Ogoni as ever. I am enmeshed in Ogoni culture. I devour Ogoni food. I sing Ogoni songs. I danced to Ogoni music. And I find the best in the Ogoni world-view as engaging as anywhere anything else. I’m anxious to see the Ogoni establish themselves in Nigeria and make their contribution to world civilisation. I myself am contributing to Ogoni life as fully, and possibly even more effectively than those of Ogoni who do not speak and write English. The fact that I appreciate Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Hemingway, et al., the fact that I know something of European civilisation, its history and philosophy, the fact that I enjoy Mozart and Beethoven – is this a colonisation of my mind? I cannot exactly complain about it.”

“Historically, the Ogoni people have always been fierce and independent. They have been known  to display an exceptional achievement in their original, abstract masks”. As storytellers and in other forms of art the Ogoni are gifted and hold their own easily. The Ogoni have made contributions of the first order to modern African literature in English.”

The implicit appeal to a universalist and inclusive humanity is clear in these statements. Cabral  had no hesitation in writing for a wider public in Portuguese, but he was insistent that in order to learn from the peasantry, the ability to converse in their languages.

“We must put the interests of our people higher,” wrote Cabral, “in the context of the interests of mankind in general, and then we can put them in the context of the interests of Africa in general.”

‘We must have the courage to state this clearly’, he said, ‘No one should think that the culture of Africa, what is really African and so must be preserved for all time, for us to be Africans, is our weakness in the face of nature.’

“Indeed,” says Saro-Wiwa,”literature must serve society by steeping itself in politics, by intervention, writers must not merely write to amuse or to take a bemused, critical look at society. They must play an interventionist role. My experience has been that African governments can ignore writers, taking comfort in the fact that only few can read and write, and that those who read fine little time for the luxury of literary consumption beyond the need to pass examinations based on set texts. Therefore, the writer must be l’homme engagé: The intellectual man of action.

“He must take part in mass organisations. He must establish direct contact with the people and resort to the strength of African literature – oratory in the tongue. For the world’s power and more powerful is it when expressed in common currency. That is why a writer who takes part in mass organisations will deliver his message more effectively than one who writes waiting for time to work its literary wonders.”

‘A reconversion of minds – of mental set – is thus indispensable to the true integration of people into the liberation movement,’ wrote Cabral. ‘Such reconversion – re-Africanization, in our case – may take place before the struggle, but it is complete only during the course of the struggle, through daily contact with the popular masses in the communion of sacrifice required by the struggle’

I have myself just returned from South Africa where I was a jurist on the Permanent People’s Tribunal on the Transnational Corporations in Southern Africa. We received moving testimony from DRC, Madagascar, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, etc. The stories we heard recounted over and over again the culture of impunity, the destructive extraction of natural resources, the collusion of governments in the reaping of super profits and theft by transnational corporations, and the systematic attempts to destroy culture through land grabbing, dispossession and displacement — for knowledge of and connection with the land is at the heart of a people’s history and culture. What took place with Shell and the Ogoni is not unique to Nigeria. It is being repeated across the continent even today.

As the writings of both Cabral and Saro-Wiwa show, culture is not a mere artefact or expression of aesthetics, custom or tradition. It is a means by which people assert their opposition to domination, a means to proclaim and invent their humanity, a means to assert agency and the capacity to make history. In a word, culture is one of the fundamental tools of the struggle for emancipation.

The efforts of Sister Majella and the Maynooth University Library to bring these writings together and make them available to the world is an inspiring cultural act. It is an act with which Daraja Press is honoured to be associated.

Maynooth University, 15 November 2018

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