How 'A Luta Continua' Became a Rallying Slogan for Nigeria's New Revolution
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because every movement needs a motto to breathe life into it.
By Eromo Egbejule
Eduardo Mondlane’s speech was as succinct as it was poignant. It was 1967, right in the middle of Mozambique’s guerrilla war against colonial Portuguese control, and the founding president of the Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO) was telling his countrymen why they needed to keep fighting after three years of combat. When the war finally ended seven years later, Mondlane was long gone, assassinated by a parcel bomb.
But one phrase lingered from his speech and came to represent the pursuit of freedom for his compatriots just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech did for African Americans. It was the rallying cry: “A luta continua; victoria ascerta,” Portuguese for “The struggle continues; victory is certain,” sometimes shortened to A luta continua. It was popularized by Mondlane’s successor and the independent country’s first president, Samora Machel, who chanted it during his speeches and marches. The phrase was the primary slogan of the fight for independence and is now cemented not just in Mozambican history and pop culture, but in movements across Africa. Today, the hashtag #alutacontinua accompanies posts supporting the Nigerian youth movement to abolish SARS, the country’s widely despised special police force.
In 1972, it was introduced to the rest of the world after the international release of A Luta Continua, a film chronicling the chutzpah of the FRELIMO guerrilla units and their dedication to its nationalist philosophy under Machel’s leadership. Its director was an African American lawyer named Robert Van Lierop, who had roots in the tiny Caribbean country of Suriname and was part of the NAACP in the ’60s.
“Comrade Machel represented an idea … the idea of total liberation, and freedom, the idea of peace and liberty, the idea of pursuit of happiness and justice, the idea of the will of sovereignty of the people,” says Zimbabwean opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, who has used the phrase in his own speeches.
For Mozambicans, taking the language of their colonial oppressor and weaponizing it in their march for independence came naturally. Perhaps because it had been passed down by leaders who understood the significance of engaging the adversary in their own language, the phrase stuck. After the independence ceremony in 1975, South African songstress and human rights activist Miriam Makeba began performing “A Luta Continua,” a song written by her daughter who also composed songs about Patrice Lumumba and Malcolm X.
And then the phrase took on a life of its own. For years after Machel’s death, FRELIMO members still called each other “comrade,” and “A Luta Continua” became a popular mantra. Both expressions have since been adopted as part of the resistance movement by students on African campuses and other activists decrying the injustice meted out by military dictatorships in their respective countries in the ’80s and ’90s.
“It was exotica to lots of students who shouted ‘A luta’ before they knew its meaning,” says Chidi Odinkalu, former chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission. “The idea of struggle of course had ideological and generational appeal.” It would go on to be used by more movements in the coming years, including Nigerian students and labor activists protesting the annulment of the 1993 presidential elections as well as South African students during the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests. In 2011, Kenyan LGBTQ activists wore it to show solidarity after one of their own was bludgeoned to death earlier that year.
Machel died in a 1986 plane crash in nearby South Africa, an incident widely believed to have been an act of sabotage by the country’s apartheid government. But “A luta continua” itself continues to rally activist groups, having long outlived the men who made it famous.
- Eromo Egbejule, OZY Author Contact Eromo Egbejule