Carmen Pereira (1936-2016)Phenomenal Liberation War Heroine, Politician, and First Female Head of State in Africa. The Legend Shall Never Die. R.I.P.
Guinea-Bissau is an amazing country of striking contrasts, of natural beauty amidst the ugliness of chaos and decay, of incredible hospitality and insufferable pomposity, of spectacular feats of bravery in the face of evil, of inspirational visionary leadership and exasperating mediocrity obsessed withacademic and professional titles. A land of powerful women who have struggled side-by-side with men against colonial domination and, after political independence, by themselves against arrogant masculinity and poverty. In both struggles, Carmen Pereira became a legend, engaged as mother, soldier, leader, only female member of the Comité Executivo da Lute (Executive Committee of the Struggle) during the prolonged war of independence, speaker (president) of the People’s National Assembly (ANP), and brief head of state (May 1984) – the first female president in Africa!
I had the enormous honor and great privilege to interview ‘Mana’ Carmen (she insisted that I addressedher simply as ‘Mana,’ or ‘Sister’) early this year, on 21 January 2016, at her home in Bissau, for my research project. It was the first time I ever met her and it was a very humbling experience. What an incredible lady! A phenomenal woman!
Born in Bissau in 1936, the year when Portugal’s ‘pacification’ campaigns finally ended the centuries-long resistance of the people of the Bijagós archipelago and established Portuguese ‘effective occupation’ of the colony of Guiné Portuguesa (colonial Guinea-Bissau),Carmen Pereira came from arelatively privileged family, with a father who was one of the very few African lawyers in Portugal’s colonial empire in Africa. She joined the Partido Africano da Independência de Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) in 1962 and, together with her husband, became underground nationalist activist. In 1964, to avoid arrest, and with her husband having already escaped detention by the notorious Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado (PIDE), she left Bissau with her children to engage full-time in the armed liberation struggle being waged by the PAIGC from neighboring Guinea-Conakry,underthe visionary leadership of the legendary Amilcar Cabral. As one of the few women liberation fighters with a high school education, she was sent by the PAIGC to the Soviet Union for political education training.
In 1965, Carmen Pereira returned to the USSR as head of a group of young women that included Francisca Pereira (no relation) and Ernestina ‘Titina’ Sila to be trained as nurses. Back in Conakry a year later, she was sent to the Southern Front to be in charge of health matters. For 18 months she was the Comissária Política (Political Commissar) of the entire Southern Front, which meant working closely with the famous Comandante Militar (military commander) of that battlefront, João Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira.
Carmen Pereira became the only woman in the 24-member Comité Executivo da Luta (High Committee of the Struggle) during the war of independence, and was responsible for reconstructionefforts in one of the liberated areas in 1971. She was the deputy speaker (vice president) of the first ANP that convened on 24 September 1973 to unilaterally declare the independence of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau.
During the post-independence period, Carmen Pereira played important roles in the ruling PAIGC party and government, including Deputy Speaker (1973-84) and Speaker (1984-89) of the ANP, President of the Comissão Ferminina (Women’s Commission) for both Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (1975-81), Minister of Health and Social Affairs (1981-83), Acting President of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau, member of the Conselho de Estado (Council of State) from 1989 to 1994, and Minister of State for Social Affairs (1990-92).
Carmen Pereira remained an active elder member of both the Comité Central (Central Committee) and Bureau Político (Political Bureau) of the PAIGC until her final physical demise on Saturday, 4 June 2016, at a time when the country she risked her life to liberate is undergoing yet another profound crisis with potentially violent ramifications.
Mana Carmen joins the legion of legendary Bissau-Guinean women including heroines like Okinka Pampa, the Bijagos queen who stubbornly resisted Portugal’s wars of conquest, and Ernestina ‘Titina’ Sila,the frontline soldier of the armed liberation struggle killed by the Portuguese on her way to attend the funeral of the assassinated Amilcar Cabral, who was cowardly murdered by dissident ‘camaradas’ in the service of the fascist Estado Novo regime in Portugal.
Like all the other selfless heroines and heroes of Guinea-Bissau, the legend of Carmen Pereira shall never die. And the spirit of Carmen, the spirit of relentless struggle against injustice, should live forever.
My deepest condolences and sincerest sympathies to Mana Carmen’s immediate and extended family. May her soul rest in eternal peace.
By Peter Mendy /fb