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date: 21 September 2019

Summary and Keywords

The dissolution of Portugal’s African empire took place in the mid-1970s, a decade after the dismantling of similar imperial formations across Europe. Contrary to other European metropoles, Portuguese rulers were unwilling to meet the demands for self-determination in their dependencies, and thus mobilized considerable resources for a long, drawn-out conflict in Angola, Guinea, and Mozambique from 1961 to 1974. Several factors can explain Lisbon’s refusal to come to terms with the “winds of change” that had swept Africa since the late 1950s, from the belief of its decision-makers that Portugal lacked the means to conduct a successful “exit strategy” (akin to the “neocolonial” approach followed by the British, the French, or the Belgians), to the dictatorial nature of Salazar’s “New State,” which prevented a free and open debate on the costs of upholding an empire against the anti-colonial consensus that had prevailed in the United Nations since the early 1960s.

Taking advantage of its Cold War alliances (as well as secret pacts with Rhodesia and South Africa), Portugal was long able to accommodate the armed insurgencies that erupted in three of its colonies, thereby containing external pressures to decolonize. Through an approach that combined classic “divide and rule” tactics, schemes for population control, and developmental efforts, Portugal’s African empire was able to soldier on for longer than many observers expected. But this uncompromising stance came with a price: the armed forces’ dissatisfaction with a stalemate that had no end in sight. In April 1974, a military coup d’etat put an end to five decades of authoritarianism in the metropole and cleared the way for transfer of power arrangements in the five lusophone African territories. The outcome, though, would be an extremely disorderly transition, in which the political inexperience of the new elites in Lisbon, the die-hard attitude of groups of white settlers, the divisions among the African nationalists, and the meddling of foreign powers all played critical roles.

Keywords: Portuguese Africa, late colonialism, decolonization, counter-insurgency wars, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, white settlers, independence movements

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