Bright flowers, dark shadows

Andrew Donaldson writes on Portugal's Carnation Revolution, and its bleak inheritance in Africa


THIS week marks the 50th anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, which was not, strictly speaking, a revolution but rather a coup that swiftly toppled the authoritarian, corporatist Estado Novo regime and ushered in a transition to democracy and an end to that country’s brutal colonial war in Africa.

Led by the so-called Movement of Captains, disgruntled left-leaning military officers opposed to the intractability of Portugal’s costly imperial project, the revolt was an almost entirely bloodless affair with elements that would not have been out of place in the magical realism of novels by Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

For a start, the young officers chose to kick off their uprising with two pop songs. They had read about the use of pre-arranged music played on civilian radio stations to signal a military operation in a book edited by the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This was somewhat ironic, adopting a strategy used by fascists to oust a democratically elected government in order to now topple a fascist regime. 

In Lisbon, there was much debate on the choice of songs to be broadcast. Protest material, it was felt, risked attracting the attention of the authorities; Portugal’s state censor had banned much of the “interventionist” music which had long been popular with soldiers based in Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa.

The first of these songs, it was then decided, would be utterly banal: Portugal’s 1974 Eurovision entry, E Depois do Adeus (And After the Goodbye). Performed by one Paulo de Carvalho, it has been described as a “swaying, triumphant ballad about love and loss”. Unfortunately, it came joint last in the April 6 contest. (The winner that year was famously Abba’s all-conquering Waterloo, so defeat was not entirely embarrassing.) 

E Depois do Adeus was broadcast at 10.55pm on April 24. The second song, Grândola, Vila Morena (Grândola, Swarthy Town) by folk singer José “Zeca” Afonso, was aired at 12.20am on April 25 and confirmed that the rebellion was underway. 

Within hours, Captain Salgueiro Maia was leading a convoy of armoured vehicles out of a military base at Santarem, about 80 kilometres northeast of the capital. Many of the weapons carried by his troops, it is said, had no ammunition in them.* 

Entering Lisbon, the convoy passed a cleaner carrying red carnations that she was due to hand out at a nearby restaurant. She gave one to a soldier, who slid it into the barrel of his rifle. Other soldiers asked her for flowers as well, and soon the crowds that gathered to watch the convoy spontaneously grabbed carnations from a flower market and handed these to the rebels. By the time they reached the government offices in central Lisbon, the convoy was decked in flowers, and the men armed with carnations. 

Huge crowds of civilians took to the streets in waves of spontaneous support for the rebels. It was now clear that government forces would not resist the uprising; any sense of government loyalty had been eroded by the wars in Africa. Six hours later, prime minister Marcelo Caetano formally surrendered. Europe’s oldest fascist dictatorship, founded by the despotic Antonio Salazar in 1933, had fallen.

The day was not without violent incident — four protesters, shot dead by government security force members, were the day’s only casualties — but, by and large, political commentators hailed the Carnation Revolution as “gentlemanly” and marvelled at its peaceful nature. 

The following few years were largely turbulent for Portugal. The country, now ruled by a military junta, found itself edging towards a communist revolution, with militant radicals demanding that electoral democracy be replaced with direct “popular rule”. The then US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, thought the country would be forever lost to the Soviet bloc, with other European countries following suit. 

But Portugal soon lost its appetite for revolution, thanks to the acrimonious infighting among leftist groups, and the junta’s centrist officers were able to steer a moderate course away from hardline radicalism. The country’s first ever free election, for a new constitution, was held on 25 April 1975. Another election was held exactly one year later, and the first constitutional government, led by the centre-left socialist Mário Soares, took office.

In Africa, though, there was instability and upheaval, plenty of it. The Carnation Revolution may have been largely peaceful, but its aftermath on the continent was bloody and violent, particularly in Angola, which was plunged into a civil war immediately after gaining independence from Portugal in November 1975. The conflict would continue for more than a quarter of a century, claim as many as 800 000 lives and internally displace more than a million people. 

It was here that Portugal’s brutal colonial war began in 1961. Fighting spread to what is now Guinea-Bissau a year later and then Mozambique in 1964. Within a few short years, the war was consuming up to 40 per cent of the Portuguese budget. Following the Carnation Revolution, the junta immediately stopped all military action in Africa, and declared an intention to grant the colonies independence without delay.

The rapid decolonisation was clumsy and chaos ensued as Portuguese settlers, many with deep roots in the former colonies, hastily fled Mozambique and Angola. Hundreds of thousands returned to Portugal, where they were known as the retornados. Others, particularly those from Mozambique, would turn up in South Africa. (One direct consequence, I suppose, of their arrival was the rise in popularity among locals of peri-peri chicken.)

The exodus was one of terror and confusion, as the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński recorded in Another Day of Life (Penguin Modern Classics), his account of the early days of the Angolan civil war. Holed up in Luanda’s Tivoli Hotel in the weeks before independence, he describes the febrile atmosphere that had shrouded the city:

“It smelled bad everywhere, sour, and a sticky, choking sultriness filled the building. People were sweating from heat and from fear. There was an apocalyptic mood, an expectation of destruction. Somebody brought word that they were going to bomb the city in the night. Somebody else had learned that in their quarters the blacks were sharpening knives and wanted to try them on Portuguese throats. The uprising was to explode at any moment. What uprising? I asked, so I could write it up for Warsaw. Nobody knew exactly. Just an uprising, and we’ll find out what kind of uprising when it hits us. 

“Rumour exhausted everyone, plucked at nerves, took away the capacity to think. The city lived in an atmosphere of hysteria and trembled with dread. People didn’t know how to cope with the reality that surrounded them, how to interpret it, get used to it. Men gathered in the hotel corridors to hold councils of war. Uninspired pragmatists favoured barricading the Tivoli at night. Those with wider horizons and the ability to see things in a global perspective contended that a telegram appealing for intervention ought to be sent to the UN. But, as is the Latin custom, everything ended in argument.”

The civil war, when it erupted, was chiefly an extremely violent and messy power struggle between two former anti-colonial guerrilla movements, the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.

Given the significant involvement of foreign military and political involvement, the struggle was widely considered a Cold War proxy conflict. Assisted by Cuban soldiers with Soviet support, the MPLA emerged as victors in the war’s initial phases of conventional fighting to become the de facto Angolan government. The US- and South Africa-backed Unita, meanwhile, retreated to the southern and eastern parts of the country to continue a guerrilla campaign against the Luanda government. 

Over time, the conflict would become closely intertwined with the Second Congo War, or Africa’s World War, which began in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August 1998 and eventually involved no less than nine African countries and some 25 armed groups would be involved in this enduring conflict. 

Before that, of course, was the Angolan civil war’s association with the Border War in northern Namibia. Which is how I, as a 19-year-old SADF conscript, came to be involved in a ten-day operation in southern Angola in August 1979 that seemed to serve no purpose other than, in the military parlance of the day, “to make some kak”. But more of this another time perhaps.

I returned to the region as a journalist in January 2000 after gunmen attacked a group of French tourists, killing three children and seriously wounding their father, in an incident on the remote Trans-Caprivi highway inside the Caprivi Game Park. Their vehicle was one of four attacked that day. Workers with a Danish aid agency were also wounded in the ambush. Their vehicles were stripped of their belongings.

In Rundu, the border town where the survivors were hospitalised, Namibian officials, members of the governing Swapo, blamed Unita rebels for the attack. The locals, meanwhile, blamed members of the MPLA who had moved into the region as part of a pincer movement to trap Unita. A large number of these MPLA troops were encamped in the battle-ravaged Angolan town of Calai, immediately opposite Rundu on the banks of the Kavango River. Their officers would often cross the river to the Namibian side in search of supplies and other creature comforts.

Late at night, Rundu’s bars were like something out of a Graham Greene novel. The regulars here could sense that the war across the river was in its final stages and Unita was facing defeat. This was not an entirely welcome development, as one drunk explained. The MPLA control the Angolan coast, he said, and so they eat fish. Unita control the interior. They have cattle and eat beef. But they need salt to preserve the beef. They get the salt from certain people in Rundu. In return, certain people in Rundu get diamonds from Unita. An apocryphal take, perhaps, but the civil war had been profitable for some. But now no more.

All this, admittedly, was half a world away and decades from the events of 25 April 1974 in Lisbon but to my mind there was a connection, something dark in the long shadow of Portugal’s revolution.


This is according to The Carnation Revolution: The Day Portugal’s Dictatorship Fell (Oneworld), by Alex Fernandes, a new book published to coincide with the April 25thanniversary. The book has been widely acclaimed in the British press, although one reviewer suggests it lacks “wider political and historical reflection”. Writing in The Times, Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese cabinet minister and the author of Geopolitics for the End of Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis, stated that without that context, the events of 1974 can seem “parochial and insignificant, notable only for the picaresque character of this bloodless coup”.

Despite earlier misgivings about the “political unrealism” of the Carnation Revolution, Macaes now regards the rebellion as a “demonstration of political wisdom”. He states: 

“The revolution did not take political ideas too seriously. What Portugal has shown over the past few decades is the ability to keep itself aloof from ideologies. Irony, a child of the Enlightenment, still lives in Portugal. A half century has passed and today, looking at Europe and the world from the Cais das Colunas in Lisbon, it often feels that everyone is drunk and we are alone, that the whole world has gone mad and we alone kept our wits.