Renowned activist warns against the growing far-right in Portugal

Mamadou Ba protesting in Portugal. Image: Edited by Global Voices

Leon Ingelse collaborated on this story.

“It is going to get much worse,” said Mamadou Ba, founder of SOS Racismo, a flagship organization that defends the human rights of migrants and racialized people in Portugal. Ba talked to Global Voices right before Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa stepped down on November 7, opening the way for far-right parties like Chega, widely known for its anti-immigration and racist discourse.

Ba considers that Chega, a party founded in 2019, is institutionalizing racism in Portugal's political structure. “What we [activists] have been saying for the last 35 years [since the inception of SOS Racismo] is that racism never ceased to exist. But before, [racism] didn't have a good interpreter,” Ba says. Things may start to change now.

Ba says:

A classe política e as elites em geral criaram um tabu generalizado sobre a questão racial. Há uma ideia de continuidade histórica sobre o colonialismo nas relações de poder. Criou-se uma ilusão muito grande, baseada no lusotropicalismo, de que Portugal superou [a escravidão] melhor do que qualquer outra nação colonizadora o aspecto da raça.

The political class and elites in general created a widespread taboo on the racial issue. There is a historical continuity regarding colonialism in power relations. An illusion was created, based on luso-tropicalism, that Portugal overcame the aspect of race better than than any other colonizing nations.

Born in Senegal, Mamadou Ba is of Portuguese nationality and has resided in Portugal for over 20 years. Throughout this time, he has been committed to anti-racist activism, playing a pivotal role – through SOS Racismo and other organizations –  in advocating for the rights of racially marginalized people at the national and European level. He has also contributed to numerous academic research projects as a consultant and served on scientific boards. From 2015 to 2019, Ba served as a member of the Portuguese Council of the National Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination.

Confronting colonial narratives

Through its Community Civic Media Observatory (CMO), Global Voices investigated the lingering impact of narratives surrounding Portugal's colonial past, particularly those propagated during Salazar's dictatorship and his “New State,” which lasted from 1933 until 1974.

In the later stages of Salazar's government, narratives focused on “luso-tropicalism” portrayed Portugal's colonial empire as more humane and friendly than other European colonizers. Colonialism was seen as positive by the Portuguese.

The idea of “Portugal was a good colonizer” was a central point in the research and emphasized how luso-tropicalism had masked the harsh realities of racism, slavery, genocide, and exploitation during Portugal's colonial empire. Mamadou Ba was a central voice in the investigation, as he pushed back against racism when defending narratives such as “Portugal is not dealing with its colonial past.”

For Ba, the idea of overcoming racism became a rhetorical exercise for people to avoid doing something tangible about it. “[Racism] has no institutional expression in the form of protecting people [suffering from it],” he says.

He believes that there is a dilemma in the West: for a democracy to be complete, there cannot be racism within it. Therefore, maintaining an ideology in which people continue to be identified as inferior for racial reasons is what he calls a “racial democracy”.

“Coloniality is permanent in Portugal. Portugal will celebrate 50 years of democratization on April 25 [2024]. But at the same time, Portugal decided to give new meaning to the coats of arms of the colonial empire,” Ba emphasizes.

Earlier this year, while renovating the Praça do Imperio (“Imperial Square”), Lisbon backtracked on removing the coats of arms that represented colonial provinces at the request of a group of citizens.

Ba asks: “Are we going to celebrate democratization or colonialism?”

Neo-nazi with criminal record won court case against Ba

In October of 2023, a Lisbon court ordered Mamadou Ba to pay a 2,400 euro fine after finding him guilty of defaming Mario Machado, a well-known Portuguese neo-Nazi leader who has ties with Chega's former leadership. In 2020, Ba accused Machado on X of being involved in the murder of Alcindo Monteiro, a Black man from Cape Verde killed in 1995 by skinheads in a racist attack.

Machado was the leader of the skinhead group that killed Monteiro, and was sentenced to four years in prison for attacking five other Black people that same night. He was later sentenced to seven years in prison for kidnapping, robbery and coercion, along with having a thick record of “continued exercise of xenophobic extremism and use of violence” according to the courts. Mario Machado, who continues to be active in far-right movements, filed the defamation suit against Ba and won.

The case raised concerns about structural racism in Portugal, with SOS Racismo claiming that the justice system is attempting to silence voices advocating for democracy. The court ruled that Ba's statement was false and damaging Machado's honor, as Machado was not sentenced for Monteiro's murder per se.

Machado's lawyer praised the ruling for showing that “the rule of law was free from political pressure“. Ba's lawyer stated plans to appeal the decision, potentially taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights and alleging that the state allowed the extreme right to infiltrate its institutions.

Philosopher Luísa Semedo wrote in Público that she sees a recurring pattern in discussions surrounding Mamadou Ba's trial, where people agree with him while also pointing out perceived flaws in his actions. According to the author, this reflects the incorporation of the oppressor's violence into Portuguese society, making activism by the oppressed appear disruptive.

On social and editorial media, the anti-racist movement and the extreme right were framed as opposites sides of a debate. For Mamadou Ba, this framing contributes to maintaining the colonial memory alive, as it validates the extreme right as a movement and delegimitizes anti-racist activists by depicting them as extremists.

SOS Racismo's public statement reads that they “reject attempts (…) to equate anti-racism with racism, which is nothing more than a ploy to trivialize and normalize racism.”

Mamadou Ba believes that Black people need to be seen as part of Portugal's history and collective vision of society, the “collective imaginary” (imaginário coletivo), instead of being ignored and excluded from the country's narratives.

“We need to dispute memory. Black people like me have to integrate the collective imaginary. But this will take a long time,” he says.

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