Decades after it lost its colonial empire in Africa, Portugal is committing forces to a variety of combat missions across the continent. The new missions come with their own share of controversy. Report by Joseph Hammond.
From 1474 until 1975, Portugal maintained one of the largest colonial empires in Africa. However, following the 1974 Carnation Revolution, Portuguese politics took an abrupt turn to the left and as a result, the country quickly decolonised after over a decade of fighting brutal wars to maintain colonial control in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. Since then Portugal has been cautious about its role in Africa but, that timidity is beginning to change.
Last year a Portuguese soldier was killed and another wounded during an attack on a resort in Mali. The death was the first for a Portuguese soldier in Africa since the collapse of its colonial empire. The two soldiers were part of an EU peacekeeping operation and were enjoying some rest and relaxation at the time of the attack. Portugal has undertaken similar missions elsewhere on the continent and its navy has been involved in anti-piracy operations on the Horn of Africa.
A unit of 40 Portuguese soldiers leads the EU training mission in Central African Republic (CAR). Furthermore, some 160 Portuguese special forces from 1st Paras Battalion are present in CAR as part of Portugal’s response to a call from France. Its Special Forces unit in CAR represents the first Portuguese soldiers to engage in substantial fire fights and conduct. Decades after it lost its colonial empire in Africa, Portugal is committing forces to a variety of combat missions across the continent. The new missions come with their own share of controversy. Report by Joseph Hammond. Portugal takes cautious steps back into Africa Soldiers from the US’s Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Africa (SP-MAGTF-CRAF), devised to protect US personnel in Africa, working with Portuguese Marines during an exercise Africa and the World combat missions on the continent since the end of the colonial era in 1974.
Portugal’s President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, became the first president from the Iberrian nation to visit the CAR when he made a visit to the troops earlier this year. France requested assistance in the CAR under an EU defence agreement in 2015, which it invoked after terrorist attacks in Paris that year. The Portuguese force allows France to free up French troops to undertake other security missions.
The Portuguese force, which began its mission in January, includes close to 160 Special Forces soldiers (including 111 commandos and 11 army officers). Only the smaller force of 40 trainers is part of the EU mission. The bulk of the force in the Central African Republic is part of a United Nations mission to the country known by its initials as MINUSCA.
The international community, backed by the UN, has sent some 13,000 personnel to restore stability after a 2013 rebellion saw the government overturned by Seleka rebels. Despite elections in 2016, the government controls little outside of CAR’s capital of Bangui. At least 14 armed factions, many organised along ethnic lines, operate in the country.
No political caveats
“When dealing with situations in Kosovo or Afghanistan, Portugal has used its special forces as a 2018 strategic reserve,” said Bruno Cardoso Reis, an advisor to the Portuguese National Defence Institute and senior visiting fellow at King’s College, London: “They have thus been used for peace enforcing rather than peacekeeping. This is a visible and valuable way to contribute to such international missions, and unlike other allies, we don’t send them with a lot of political caveats.”
In the CAR, Portuguese forces have engaged in at least two major fire fights with local militias. The security situation has deteriorated in recent months which has put the lives of peacekeepers substantially at risk. The UN forces have been targeted in a series of ambushes in recent months. One ambush in 2017 killed a Moroccan peacekeeper and injured three others.
MINUSCA had counted on American special forces working closely with Ugandan allies to help maintain stability in the southeast of CAR as part of a campaign to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army and its notorious leader, Joseph Kony. However, President Trump soldiers to the CAR – pending congressional approval. That force has yet to arrive but, it won’t be the only Latin American country in the force. Currently, Peru has provided 200 troops to the peacekeeping force.
“Portugal being a Mediterranean, European and Catholic majority country plays an important role as a ‘good broker’ in the region and beyond,” says Amish Laxmidas, president of the Portuguese Atlantic Youth Treaty Association. “There was a perception early on that certain peacekeeping forces in MINUSCA favoured the Muslims.”
Analysts say the CAR mission is part of a larger Portuguese outreach to Africa within a foreign policy that would be little changed if US policy was altered. “Portugal was very active in attempting to solve African issues during its EU presidency and you had the joint EU-Africa summit during this period. Interest in the region goes beyond the former Portuguese colonies,” says Reis.
A contingent of Portuguese forces came under fire on 1 April in the capital, Bangui. The force had been deployed to PK5, a historically Muslim neighbourhood in the Christian majority nation, when it came under fire. That incident sparked further peacekeeping operations to disarm criminal groups in the neighbourhood. In total the operation left as many as 21 civilians dead and injured scores more – as well as peacekeepers.
“What has changed is that these international agreements have called on Portugal to deploy to Africa differently. It’s a different era; before 1974, there were parts of Africa which the Portuguese people considered ours in some way,” says Artur Jorge Girao, a former vice president of the Atlantic Treaty Association. Though the US was a NATO ally of Portugal during this period, many US diplomats and politicians found Portugal’s wars in Africa distasteful. At one point President Kennedy even sent aid to rebels in Mozambique and Angola, who were fighting the fascist government of Portugal’s Antonio Salazar during much of this period.
The US later reversed this position but, substance often matters regarding US policy in Africa. For example, F-86 Sabre fighter jets were already outdated in US service when Portugal deployed them in Guinea-Bissau and they were used in a variety of combat missions. The plane was withdrawn in 1964 after US pressure that the Sabre should only be used within the core NATO area – although older US aircraft, like the F-84, continued to carry out combat missions in Africa.
Multiplying diplomatic liabilities
Portugal’s new military intervention in Africa is not without its critics. “By inserting itself into an alien geopolitical ecosystem, Portugal is multiplying its diplomatic liabilities without acquiring any semblance of benefit in return,” says Miguel Nunes Silva, a Portuguese foreign policy analyst.
“Furthermore, when Portugal faced international challenges in the past, such as was the case with East Timor and the tension with Indonesia, Lisbon found itself alone at the European level. There is no quid pro quo for Portugal to honour,” he adds.
Though in the early 1990s, Portugal was involved in some peacekeeping operations in its former colonies, Portugal’s mission in the CAR, which involves both a training component and a special forces unit, is of a different nature entirely.
The last Portuguese officer to have experience in Africa during the colonial wars have long since retired – taking with them much experience in counter-insurgency operations. “For countries like Angola, Mozambique and its former colonies, Portugal is not on their list as a nation that you can count on to solve or stabilise a burning situation in a country,” says Edmilson Angelo, an Angolan researcher in international relations at the University of London. Still, this is an important contribution to the fight against terrorism, which is really important not just for Africa but globally.”