What began as a practice of free speech has turned into an ardent debate about Portugal’s past military operations in its former African colonies. And the remnants that continue to manifest in the treatment of black citizens in the country.
On Feb. 12, Mamadou Ba, one of Portugal’s most vocal and visible anti-racism activists and prominent figure of the advocacy group SOS Racismo, published a post on Twitter where he said he found it “disgusting” that CDS-PP (conservative-right party) was requesting a decree of national mourning over the death of “bloodthirsty” Marcelino da Mata, a lieutenant colonel and the most decorated officer in the Portuguese army. Mata served in Portugal’s Colonial War and is believed to have committed war crimes for which he was never legally accused.
Ba’s post was met with considerable backlash, and CDS-PP called for his removal from a government workgroup aimed at addressing racism. Also, a public petition followed, signed by well over 31,000 people, demanding that Ba be stripped of Portuguese nationality and be expelled from the country. Ba is originally from Senegal: he has a degree in Portuguese language and culture from the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, and was formally trained as a translator by the University of Lisbon.
Ba’s comments touched upon the wide and festering wound that Portugal’s colonial past has left on its society, one that has been poorly tended to. Ba is accused by the right and center-left of making incendiary comments, but this response to censure him can be read as a symptom of a lack of collective reflection and dialogue on the topic, and a reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities of its colonial history.
It should be understood that Mata is a complex and controversial personality. Julião Soares Sousa, a historian who specializes in the political history of Guinea-Bissau, told Diário de Notícias, “the figure of Marcelino da Mata will never have consensus (in Portugal and in Guinea-Bissau). The acts of military bravery that some consider heroic will always be seen differently in these two countries.” Mata, of Guinean origin, fought for the Portuguese army and is responsible for the death of countless liberation fighters in Guinea-Bissau, and is regarded by some as a war criminal. Writer Mário Cláudio posted on Facebook that as a lawyer serving the Justice department branch in Bissau, “I was often in charge of reviewing criminal and disciplinary proceedings motivated by the illicit, and sometimes atrociously criminal, behavior of this soldier [Mata].” He then added that most of the proceedings brought against Mata “ended infallibly being archived, by faceless high-ranking orders.”
Mata has been viewed by some as a traitor for viciously suppressing liberation movements in his country of birth, but historian Sofia Palma Rodrigues, PhD student in Post-Colonialism and Global Citizenship at the Center of Social Studies of the University of Coimbra, told Diário de Notícias that it’s important to understand the historical context of the time: Mata was a Portuguese citizen, and at that time going to “tropa” (military service) was obligatory. Rodrigues also said, “It seems that Marcelino da Mata could not defend Portugal because he was black, and that is a very colonial vision. He was as Portuguese as the other soldiers. To look at him as a black man who betrayed his African brothers is to say that he, being black, could not be Portuguese.”
Mata’s role in the Colonial War will never reach consensus, but the greater question remains why some still believe he is worthy of national reverence. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and high-ranking military officials attended his funeral, and parliament approved a vow of mourning in his honor. What does this say about the country’s perception of its own role in violently suppressing liberation struggles in its former colonies?
Further, the fact that Ba’s critique of Mata has led tens of thousands of people signing a petition to expel him indicates a greater social ailment.
In a recent interview Ba gave to TVI24, when asked about the petition, he said that it was clearly racist, “the last sentence of the petition says it all, ‘so this serves as an example.’ An example for what? So that a person of color can never express themselves in the public sphere again?” To which he added, “Is that the democracy we want?… We are in a democracy, people can disagree with what I say, they can refute what I say, but they can’t keep me from speaking.”
Ba acknowledged that his choice in words undoubtedly made people uncomfortable, but he also said, “I am conscious that there is no change without discomfort.”
Ba was then asked whether the country was ready to discuss its colonial past, to which he replied, “If there was any doubt, the case of Marcelino da Mata reveals, if it’s possible to say it exploded in our faces, that we are not ready to look in the mirror.” He added, “This is not about us taking the blame for the evils of the past now, but it’s about us assuming responsibility for it so that we can build a different future.”
There has been an outpour of support for Ba and a number of public figures, including former presidential candidate Ana Gomes, musician and writer Kalaf Epalanga, visual artist Grada Kilomba, and countless others have expressed their solidarity through contributions to the website Aqui em Carne e Osso Com Mamadou Ba.